(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

White farmers can stay to harvest their crops

[Zimbabwe] Good rains have helped the maize crop. [Date picture taken: 05/02/2006]
IRIN

More than 100 Zimbabwean white commercial farmers whose eviction notices expired this month can stay on to harvest their crops, but their farms will still be up for grabs. The government is forging ahead with plans to acquire more properties owned by white farmers, according to a senior official.

Lands minister Dydimus Mutasa told IRIN on Tuesday that his ministry, in consultation with other government departments, had agreed to allow the farmers to harvest their crops. But he insisted there was no going back on the acquisition of their properties.

"We have, as a government, agreed to let them [white commercial farmers] stay put and wind up their businesses, at least until harvest time. It is then that they will be moving out and making way for our own people [black farmers], who urgently need land," said Mutasa.

The decision appeared to be a reprieve of sorts after Mutasa announced earlier this week that farmers who failed to heed the expiry of their eviction notices on 3 February faced imprisonment.

"All I can say is that those who resist leaving the farms will be arrested and face the full wrath of the law. It is the duty of the police see to it that those who don't abide by the laws are incarcerated," he said.

"Our people have been deprived of productive land for decades and decades, and now is the time for them to get the full benefits of freedom by getting the land that rightfully belongs to them. There is certainly no compromise on the land redistribution issue."

The Commercial Farmers Union, which represents the interests of white farmers, said it was pleased that its members had been allowed to stay, though temporarily.

Zimbabwe's Land Act, passed last month, gave the country's remaining white farmers up to 90 days to vacate their land. The move followed the nationalisation of all agricultural land in a 2005 constitutional amendment that also prohibits white farmers from challenging the seizure of their land in court.

Before the skewed land reforms began seven years ago, Zimbabwe had an estimated 4,500 productive white commercial farmers who hoisted the nation's flag as the region's breadbasket, but now only 400 - whose future looks bleaker than ever - have remained on their farms. Experts note that the number will tumble drastically as government continues the evictions.

Donald Styer, a commercial farmer in Chiredzi district in southeastern Zimbabwe, is among those who will have to leave their farms around August. He said he was grateful that he would be able to harvest his crops, but ruled out a legal challenge to the acquisition of his property as a futile exercise.

"At least there is some relief for us, but the damage has already been done. The agricultural sector has been thrown in a shambles and nothing will be the same again ... I am, however, happy I will be leaving with my harvest."

Critics note that the more productive land has often been allocated to politicians and influential government officials aligned to President Robert Mugabe. Sharp divisions have emerged within the ruling ZANU-PF party over the land reform process, with Vice-President Joyce Mujuru and Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono critical of politicians who have underutilised the farmland they now hold.

In a hard-hitting televised speech on his monetary policy review last week, Gono, who apparently enjoys Mugabe's support and protection, accused high-ranking government officials of using their acquired farms as weekend barbecue spots, rather than for cultivation.

"Whilst, traditionally, it has become fashionable to blame successive droughts and illegal sanctions against us for the country's hardships, the reality on the ground does, however, reveal startling contradictions and distortions currently prevailing in the economy," he commented. Gono also urged a stop to "the retrogressive ... farm disruptions that set a gloomy fate for our economy and country."

Mugabe has defended the land reforms, saying they were necessary to correct colonial-era imbalances in land ownership, but critics have maintained that many of the new black farmers, who have struggled to produce food, were allocated farms on the basis of political patronage rather than agricultural expertise.

Zimbabwe has experienced a serious deficit in food production, which has dipped by over 50 percent due to disruptions in the agricultural sector.

In its latest report, released two weeks ago, the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) noted that at least 1.4 million Zimbabweans were in urgent need of food aid, with below-average yields expected this year as a result of low rainfall.

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