Sunday Times

Farm­ers driven nuts by fruit raiders

In just a sin­gle night armies of loot­ers can strip sev­eral or­chards

- By GRAEME HOSKEN Agriculture · Fruits · Industries · Healthy Food · Healthy Living · KwaZulu-Natal · Cape Town · University of South Africa · Johannesburg · Pretoria · Vanuatu · China · United States of America · Europe · European Union

● Or­gan­ised crime syn­di­cates are plun­der­ing the coun­try’s fruit, grain and veg­etable farms, threat­en­ing na­tional food se­cu­rity.

Seem­ingly a so­phis­ti­cated oper­a­tion, one syn­di­cate even ran a de­pot in the moun­tains around Lim­popo where stolen av­o­ca­dos were ripened. Des­per­ate farm­ers have re­sorted to dig­ging trenches to keep thieves out, as so­phis­ti­cated mea­sures are of­ten by­passed.

In 2017 alone, thieves stole nearly R600m worth of fresh food in raids car­ried out on thou­sands of farms across SA.

KwaZulu-Na­tal, Lim­popo, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape — where most of the fresh pro­duce for ex­port is grown — are worst hit.

Top of the syn­di­cates’ hit lists are av­o­ca­dos, ba­nanas, grapes, macadamia nuts, ap­ples, pears, man­goes, or­anges, apri­cots, peaches and grains.

A study re­leased on Thurs­day by Unisa’s Bureau of Mar­ket Re­search and AgriSA re­vealed agri­cul­tural-re­lated crimes cost the econ­omy about R18bn.

The Na­tional Agri­cul­tural Sec­tor Crime Sur­vey, which sur­veyed the coun­try’s 38,000 com­mer­cial farm­ers, showed that the fi­nan­cial losses from the theft of field crops such as maize amounted to R230m, and the theft of hor­ti­cul­tural crops such as fruit cost R155m.

For Lim­popo av­o­cado farmer Zan­der Ernst, who farms in Tza­neen, the thefts are dev­as­tat­ing.

“These guys de­scend into an area with armies of peo­ple who strip or­chards on sev­eral farms in a sin­gle night. For the past five years we have been raided at least five times a year. But we are not even the worst off.”

He said that ear­lier this year thieves were caught with a minibus taxi full of stolen avos.

“On av­er­age when these guys raid they will steal about R20,000 worth of avos in a night. Dur­ing the 30-week har­vest pe­riod, the syn­di­cates can steal at least R5m worth of avos from farms just in Tza­neen.”

They are well or­gan­ised, with their own ripen­ing cen­tres and pack-houses. Ernst said farm­ers re­cently dis­cov­ered a pack­ing shed in the nearby moun­tains, by trac­ing back batches of un­ripe avos that had ar­rived at Jo­han­nes­burg and Pre­to­ria fresh pro­duce mar­kets.

He said one night’s worth of theft from his farm was equiv­a­lent in value to a month's pay for five work­ers.

Christo van der Rheede, AgriSA deputy ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said the syn­di­cates op­er­ated na­tion­ally, tar­get­ing farms with high­value foods such as av­o­ca­dos, nuts, grapes, cit­rus and de­cid­u­ous fruits, and grains. Syn­di­cates knew how the pro­duce value chain worked, and op­er­ated with mar­kets where they could sell their loot.

Van der Rheede said given the strin­gent reg­u­la­tions which gov­erned ex­ports, the prod­ucts would usu­ally be sold lo­cally. “We do be­lieve, though, that thieves op­er­ate with black mar­kets in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries which could send pro­duce abroad.”

Van der Rheede said farm­ers were re­port­ing a def­i­nite in­crease in such thefts over the past three years. “It’s vi­tal this is ad­dressed to pro­tect our food se­cu­rity and econ­omy. If we don’t, both es­tab­lished and emerg­ing farm­ers will be wiped out.”

Agri Western Cape CEO Carl Op­per­man said there was not an area in the prov­ince that was not af­fected. “Or­chards, fields and vine­yards are be­ing wiped out.”

The raiders were of­ten chil­dren, who if caught were re­leased by the po­lice into their par­ents’ cus­tody.

“An­other prob­lem is if the thieves are caught with the fruit, it can’t be proved the pro­duce is from a par­tic­u­lar farmer. They have to be caught red-handed.”

Pi­eter Vorster, of Agri Letaba in Lim­popo, said the syn­di­cates op­er­ated on or­ders for spe­cific pro­duce and supplied a mas­sive mar­ket lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Barry Christie, op­er­a­tions man­ager of the South­ern African Macadamia Grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, said the direct losses from theft of nuts from farm­ers and pack-houses was more than R200m. Syn­di­cates sold the ma­jor­ity of their loot lo­cally but also smug­gled it to China, the US and Europe.

Ac­cord­ing to the Unisa sur­vey, farm­ers spent R1.9bn in the past year on se­cu­rity.

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 ??  ?? Farmer Zan­der Ernst: ‘We are raided five times a year.’
Farmer Zan­der Ernst: ‘We are raided five times a year.’

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