29 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Concern As Land-Grab Chaos 'Swept Under the Carpet'

There is growing concern that the chaos that highlighted ZANU PF's land grab campaign is actively being swept under the carpet, to the detriment of the country's agricultural future.

The most recent attempt to normalise the situation has been the publication of a new book that paints the land grab as a resounding success, insisting that farm production in Zimbabwe is returning to 'normal'. Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land has been written by three scholars and is based on an assessment of three farms in Mashonaland Central during one month last year.

The book pays little attention to the inhumanity of the land grabs, ignoring the human rights abuses that took place and the illegality of the process. Instead the authors spoke to the 'fast-track' owners of the seized farms they visited and looked at their 'successes'. The book details how black Zimbabweans have successfully "taken back their land," and farms are returning to the positive production levels seen in the 1990s.

These details are being criticised as 'misleading' and an attempt to 'sanitize' what happened during the land seizures that began in 2000. Figures from the remaining commercial farming community differ strongly to what the book is suggesting. The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) and MDC-T policy advisor Eddie Cross, both agree that the agricultural sector remains in serious trouble, with the country almost entirely reliant on imported food or aid to survive.

Figures supplied show that the only meaningful production is in the cotton and tobacco sectors, which are still nowhere near the levels they should be. In terms of food, 95% of the country's wheat is imported, along with 60% of maize and 70% of milk and dairy products. The most recent statistics provided by the United Nations on Zimbabwe's food aid needs, state that more than 1.6 million people are facing hunger. But it is thought this could be much higher.

CFU President Charles Taffs told SW Radio Africa on Tuesday that the land grab exercise was a disaster and one that was steeped in "political greed." He explained it had little to do with real empowerment, especially when an estimated two million farm workers and their families lost everything as a result of the seizures. He explained how at least 350,000 Zimbabweans used to be employed on farms up until 2000, but now there are only about 60,000 farm jobs.

"We can't hide behind fictitious facts like the ones in this book. The bottom line is agriculture is in a mess," Taffs said.

He added: "We are seeing a massive social downfall in Zimbabwe. Poverty is at record levels, life expectancy has dropped to very young ages, the health sector is on its knees, and the education sector is struggling. We need to create a meaningful production base in Zimbabwe to turn this around and encourage investment, but to get there we need property rights."

Taffs travelled to London this week to share his views on the real situation regarding Zimbabwe's land, to counter what is being promoted in the book. The books authors are also in London attending discussions on Zimbabwe's land situation, and one of the events will be the site of a demonstration organised to protest the book's contents.

The London based Zimbabwe Vigil will be protesting outside Chatham House in the city on Thursday, where the book's authors will gather for a discussion. In an open letter to Chatham House, the Vigil said: "We believe the illegal and violent seizure of commercial farms is an abuse of human rights. British courts have found this to be the case."

"If, as claimed in the book, agricultural production is returning to former levels, the Vigil warmly welcomes it. But this assertion does not square with the statement by the UN that 1.6 million Zimbabweans are facing starvation - some 12% of the population - and for yet another year Zimbabwe needs international food aid."

The letter adds: "Whether or not the agricultural situation is improving, and it could hardly fail to, the land seizures were illegal under international law and the SADC treaty. This has fatally undermined agriculture sector finance, especially since Zimbabwe has yet to meet its legal obligations to pay compensation."

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