2 April 2004

Zimbabwe: Sugar Estates Reduced to Wasteland

THE Chiredzi district, once the centre of a thriving cane growing industry producing close on 600 000 tonnes of sugar cane annually, is today a mere shadow of its former glory.

Prior to 2000 when the devastating land invasions began, this district was home to approximately 56 cane growers who employed about 3 500 workers and generated an income in excess of US$10 million per annum.

The families of the workers enjoyed the benefit of several well-run clinics and schools, and the export earnings in sugar and tropical fruits brought in vast sums of valuable foreign currency.

This year only 345 000 tonnes has been produced, or 58%, of the normal harvest. Huge quantities of sugar cane have been left to rot in the fields and scores of workers laid off, while the original farmers and resettled A2 farmers continue a protracted legal battle over entitlement to the proceeds of the crop that was harvested. The dispute has already led to angry and sometimes violent confrontations between the illegal A2 occupants and the commercial farmers they have, in large measure, displaced.

That the commercial farmers have the law on their side is clear. Last year the High Court overturned the Section 8 orders served on them which had previously forced them to leave their properties. On March 13 last year the commercial farmers' ownership of the land and the crops was reconfirmed by the High Court. Copies of these rulings were served on the Zimbabwe Republic Police in Chiredzi.

Furthermore the commercial farmers held the only valid cane purchase agreements and milling agreements with Hippo Valley Estates sugar mills.

And as if that was not enough, through the Utete Commission the authorities had promised to uphold a Sadc protocol and safeguard Mauritian and South African nationals and their property in terms of their country-to-country accords - a significant number of the commercial farmers originating from these countries.

However, as is so often the case in Zimbabwe today, having the law on one's side counts for little when it comes to contending with illegal settlers, negotiating with multinationals that are anxious to retain the regime's favour, or even obtaining the assistance of the police to enforce one's rights.

Hippo Valley Estates sugar mills are only permitted to enter purchase and milling agreements with persons having legal tenure of the land. As early as April 2003 legal practitioners acting for the commercial farmers informed the Hippo Valley and Triangle Mills in writing of the High Court rulings confirming their clients' legal tenure. This did not stop Hippo Valley Estates however from subsequently issuing cane purchase agreements to the A2 settlers illegally in occupation of the land - thus producing a bizarre situation in which two agreements were in existence for the same crop.

Hence the legal wrangle ensuing over title to the crop delivered to the mills. Hippo Valley Estates had knowingly accepted the crop illegally harvested by the A2 settlers and even assisted them with their own haulage equipment in transporting the cane to their mill, thereby raising false expectations that the settlers would be paid for the crop.

The police failed to act on the orders of the High Court to reinstate the commercial farmers to their lands, to protect them from assault and intimidation and to evict the A2 settlers who had illegally taken possession of their properties.

Last April a letter was sent to the police giving details of criminal and potentially life-threatening situations occurring on some of the farms, to which the police had not responded.

The incidents included the assault of farm workers ordered off the land by Border Gezi youths, breaking and entering homesteads still illegally occupied by settlers, looting of properties and intimidation of the legal owners and their families. This letter and several others which followed failed to bring about any satisfactory response on the part of the police. No arrests were made even following an attempted abduction of one farmer and serious assault of another by known assailants whose names were supplied to the police.

When on October 28 the police did finally act, convening a meeting of A2 settlers and commercial farmers, dire threats of violence were made by the settlers against the farmers unless the latter withdrew their legal claim to the crop delivered to the mills, thus allowing the settlers to be paid for it.

Although these threats (criminal acts themselves) were made in the presence of the police, the police failed to take any action on them.

Immediately after this meeting one farmer wrote to Chief Superintendent P Ncube of the Chiredzi Police, complaining of the ZRP's failure to uphold the law and to protect citizens threatened with violence. Fearing physical harm or even death he asked for 24-hour armed protection for himself and his family.

So far as the Sadc protocol is concerned, in early February the regime issued a statement to the effect that there is no binding agreement that protects South African or other nationals from land designation.

Hippo Valley Estates themselves were notified in February that their vast holdings must be divided into plots for settlement. Their mill closed down on January 25, leaving 500 hectares of cane in the fields that should have been cut and milled last year - their failure to do so being due largely to the diversion of their haulage equipment to assist the A2 settlers transporting their (stolen) cane to the mill. Given that the average yield is 120 tonnes of sugar cane per hectare, Hippo Valley Estates' loss on this account alone amounts to 60 000 tonnes.

At the onset of the unlawful farm invasions and until mid 2001 the commercial cane growers perhaps naively believed this regime would protect the sugar cane industry because of its vital strategic importance to the economy. They were proved wrong in this assumption.

Until a very short time ago the two multinationals, Hippo Valley Milling Company (owned by the Anglo American Corporation) and Triangle Mills (owned by Hewletts), may have believed that they enjoyed immunity from illegal settlement. Perhaps their bubble is also about to burst as they make the painful discovery that nothing and no-one is sacrosanct to a regime that will sacrifice anyone else's interest to their own quest to stay in power.

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