Johannesburg — The Zimbabwe government is threatening to deny food aid to about 20,000 displaced people, apparently to force them into sugar cane farming at a ruling party ethanol project.
In February 2014, the Zimbabwe army relocated 3,000 families from the flooded Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin to a camp on a sugar cane farm and ethanol project jointly owned by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Billy Rautenbach, a businessman and party supporter.
Displaced residents and dam project workers contend that the floods were artificially induced and authorities flooded the area to forcibly evict people without compensation and hire them as low-paid workers on the sugar cane farm.
On May 10, 10 ZANU-PF ministers, including the ministers of local government and finance, visited the camp accompanied by armed police in an unsuccessful attempt to get the displaced families to accept relocation without compensation to one-hectare plots, where they have been told they must grow sugar cane or lose food aid.
"These 3,000 families have been displaced under questionable circumstances and dumped in a place where their only alternative is to be cheap labor for Zimbabwe's ruling party," said Tiseke Kasambala, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"These families have a right to compensation for their property and to voluntary resettlement elsewhere in the country, to earn a living as they see fit."
The families were moved to the Chingwizi transit camp in Mwenezi district, Masvingo province, about 150 kilometers away from where they had lived.
The transit camp is on Nuanetsi Ranch, the sugar cane farm and ethanol project. The displaced people were not consulted about their relocation site, as required under international standards, and are now being forced from the transit camp onto one-hectare plots where they can only grow sugar cane for the ethanol project.
In early April, the minister for local government, Ignatious Chombo, warned the displaced families to accept relocation to the plots at Nuanetsi Ranch or face denial of food assistance.
"We should make it clear that food assistance will only be given to those families who agree to move to their permanent plots, because we need to decongest Chingwizi temporary camp," Chombo said. Before moving from Tokwe-Mukorsi, the displaced people had been promised five-hectare plots per family, where they would be free to grow crops of their choice.
Human Rights Watch found a grave humanitarian situation in the Chingwizi camp in April.
During their relocation to Nuanetsi Ranch, hundreds of families lost household property and livestock. At Chingwizi camp, property left in the open for several months was destroyed.
The camp is severely overcrowded, with each family allocated a one-room tent regardless of the number of family members.
Although international agencies are providing potable water, aid workers told Human Rights Watch that there was not enough water for the entire Chingwizi population, raising serious health concerns.
Health Minister David Parirenyatwa said on April 4, "We are aware that Chingwizi transit camp houses over 20,000 people, which poses a huge health risk." He did not, however, indicate what measures the government would take to ensure full access to health care for the displaced people at the camp.
Without access to a livelihood, the displaced people have been relying on food provided by international aid agencies but distributed by the government.
Several Chingwizi residents told Human Rights Watch that the government food aid is inadequate and distributed irregularly without notice.
Thousands of school-age children at Chingwizi have had their schooling disrupted or no longer have access to education. A makeshift school set up near the camp is not adequately equipped and staffed to meet the children's needs.
There have been widespread allegations that Masvingo police and provincial officials responsible for distributing food, blankets, and clothing have diverted some of the aid to the neighboring towns of Triangle and Chiredzi, where they are sold for profit.
Human Rights Watch visited Chiredzi and Triangle and confirmed that goods meant for the displaced at Chingwizi were being sold in the two towns.
"The Zimbabwean government has an obligation to ensure that displaced people have food, clothing, and shelter,"Kasambala said. "But when food aid is turning up in local markets instead of in the tents of the displaced, then the responsible local officials need to be investigated."
Until appropriate compensation is paid, families are relocated, and conditions for self-sufficiency are restored, the government should ensure the distribution of regular food assistance and other forms of support.
This means providing access to clean, safe, and potable water, and other basic services at the transit camp or the area of relocation.
The authorities should also identify and provide additional assistance to particularly vulnerable people, including the elderly, people living with disabilities, children, and female-headed households.
The government should also put in place mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability for all humanitarian aid so that it reaches the intended beneficiaries.
*See below for personal accounts from displaced residents and dam workers.
Construction of the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam, the largest inland dam in Zimbabwe to provide hydro-electricity and irrigation for surrounding districts, began in 1998 but was stopped several times before an Italian contracting company, Salini Impregilo JVC, took over the project in 2011.
Over the years the government has neglected to provide just and fair compensation to the people living around Tokwe-Mukorsi prior to relocation in accordance with national and international law. Only a tiny percentage of affected families received some compensation before they were relocated.
Nuanetsi Ranch, where the displaced were transferred, was purchased by ZANU-PF in 1989. Past board members of the company with ownership of the farm have included several senior ZANU-PF officials.
In 2008, the company formed Zimbabwe Bio-Energy (ZBE) to establish an ethanol and sugar cane growing project on the ranch in partnership with Billy Rautenbach. Rautenbach was among those on US, UK, and EU targeted sanctions lists alongside President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle between 2002 and 2013.
Ethanol fuel, used in Zimbabwe as motor fuel that is blended with unleaded petrol, is produced from sugar cane. In 2013 the government of Zimbabwe made it mandatory for all unleaded petrol to be blended with a minimum of 5 percent of locally produced ethanol.
Some of those evicted said they should not have been moved because they were far from the flood areas, but believe that they were moved to work on the ZANU-PF sugar farm.
Dam workers said the flooding itself was artificially created, which they believe was done to evict residents without paying them compensation.
Three men who were relocated told Human Rights Watch that armed Zimbabwe air force soldiers forcibly evicted them unnecessarily and without compensation. One said:
Armed soldiers ordered us to pack our belongings and leave the place immediately, telling us that the area within a 50-kilometer radius around the dam will be turned into a game park - hence the eviction order.
They said the government did not have money for compensation but that was not going to stop the evictions. In the rush some of our cattle and goats were left behind and got lost.
For a government with a lot of diamond revenue and with over 15 years during the construction of Tokwe-Mukorsi dam to relocate, it is very surprising that it failed to do it properly.
Another man said:
Instead of creating a temporary camp a reasonable distance from the dam, we were driven some 150 kilometers away to Nuanetsi Ranch in Mwenezi district, where we are now being forced to be contract sugar cane farmers for ZANU-PF and Billy Rautenbach's ethanol project. We have no previous experience in sugar cane farming, neither do we have an interest in it.
The government should simply pay us adequate compensation and provide us land, the five hectares per family it promised, and allow us to farm crops of our choice for us to feed our families and send our children to school. We have said we will not be forced into sugar cane contract farming and we shall not leave Chingwizi camp before we receive our compensation in full.
Many people who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they believed that the Tokwe-Mukorsi floods were artificially induced to forcibly evict them without compensation so they could be taken to Nuanetsi Ranch to be a source of cheap labor in sugar cane plantations. One man said:
The so-called floods at Tokwe-Mukorsi are a myth. There were no floods at all. What happened is that those in charge at the dam closed the sluice gates in the dam to prevent water from flowing downstream thereby causing floods upstream in the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin.
When armed soldiers came to evict us at the end of January 2014, we pleaded with them to open the sluice gates and allow water to flow downstream of the dam but they refused.
The leader of the soldiers who addressed us said, "President Mugabe directed that this dam should be constructed so that it contains water in it, and you ask us to let the water out? No. It is time for you to leave now. You will receive your compensation later, when [the] government gets the money."
Three Salini Impregilo JVC employees, who requested anonymity, confirmed reports that the floods were artificially induced. One told Human Rights Watch:
What the media reported - that the dam wall collapsed leading to floods - is false information. The dam wall did not collapse and was never in danger of collapsing.
With sluice gates and spillways open, it would have taken at least five years for the dam to fill up to capacity, but in this case they were deliberately closed because villagers in Tokwe-Mukorsi had resisted relocation without compensation for several years since construction began in 1998.
"Floods" enabled government to swiftly remove some 20,000 people without compensation under the guise of a national disaster while at the same time attracting international sympathy and aid from the donor community.
Another Salini Impregilo JVC employee said:
There is significant government pressure for this project to be completed given the rising costs of equipment being idle as villagers refused to be relocated without compensation. [This] was causing further delays and headaches to the government, which did not have money for compensation, so the "floods" speeded up things a lot. The media was gullible enough to believe the floods cover story without seeking out the real story. It was a controlled flood that only occurred upstream of the dam.
Conditions at Chingwizi Camp
An elderly man told Human Rights Watch:
This ZANU-PF government has dumped us here at Chingwizi, in the middle of a ranch where we cannot earn a living. The land is not suitable for cultivation of our staple crops. There are no cattle pastures.
We have not been paid compensation to enable us to build new homes if government honors its promise to relocate us on five-hectare plots per family. Several of my cattle remained in Tokwe-Mukorsi. I am now unable to travel the more than 150 kilometers back to go and look for them.
A mother of five children, whose youngest child was born at the camp in March 2014, said:
Government officials and the police running this camp are treating us like non-citizens. They are withholding food to anyone who refuses to accept their rotten deal to farm sugar cane only on one hectare of land per family, and to relocate before compensation is paid.
The police here are corrupt, distributing food unfairly, and often diverting donated food to [the towns of Chiredzi and Triangle] where it is sold for profit. International donor agencies and other well-wishers are not allowed to distribute food, clothes, blankets, or other donated items directly.
They are required to hand over all donations to the office of the provincial government of Masvingo. From there, much of the donations simply vanish.
Another woman told Human Rights Watch that none of her six children had been able to attend school since she moved to the camp in February 2014:
My children are no longer going to school. They stopped in February because there are no schools here. I understand the proposed relocation site in Masangula has no schools either. The nearest school there is some 20 kilometers away. I spend sleepless nights in this plastic tent thinking that without education, my children's future is utterly ruined. But no one seems to care.
A 23-year-old woman described how her 2-year-old son had been repeatedly sick with diarrhea since she moved to the camp in February:
I think lack of access to clean water and food, and the overcrowded conditions in this camp, are causing my son to constantly fall sick. Donors have a small clinic here but it does not help. People are dying here. Already there is a cemetery just outside the camp where seven people who died here are buried. I would not be surprised if a major outbreak of a disease like typhoid occurred here.
A 78-year-old woman said Chingwizi transit camp officials were not sensitive to the plight of the elderly at the camp. She said that at one point in late March, government officials announced that they would give preferential treatment in food distribution to those over 70 years old.
When she went forward to receive food aid, the officials insisted that she produce an identity document to prove she was 78, which she did not have. She was denied the preferential treatment.
International Legal Standards
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide an authoritative restatement of existing international law as it relates to the protection of internally displaced persons, including those affected by natural or human-made disasters.
The Guiding Principles address all phases of displacement: providing protection against arbitrary displacement; ensuring protection and assistance during displacement; and the right to liberty of movement, including the right to move freely in and out of camps or other settlements.
Displaced people have the right to an adequate standard of living. The authorities, regardless of the circumstances and without discrimination, shall provide the displaced safe access to essential food and potable water, basic housing, clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation.
Those living in camps have the right to seek freely opportunities for employment and to participate in economic activities. Displaced children shall have the right to education.
All humanitarian assistance shall be provided without discrimination and should not be diverted for political reasons. The Guiding Principles emphasize that the authorities must provide displaced people with objective, accurate information and include them in the decision-making processes that lead to their voluntary return or resettlement, or to remaining in the place where they sought refuge.
Forced displacement without compensation, termed as forced evictions, is prohibited by international law. It includes forced relocations for participation in development projects.
The UN Committee on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights defined forced evictions as "the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.
The committee urged governments to ensure that, prior to any evictions, particularly those involving large groups, all feasible alternatives are explored in consultation with affected people, with a view to avoiding, or at least minimizing, the use of force. Governments should also ensure that those evicted have a right to adequate compensation for any property affected.
Human Rights Watch urges the Zimbabwe government toinvestigate the circumstances leading to the floods at the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam and, if they are found to have been deliberately induced, to hold those responsible to account.
The government should ensure that the basic rights of all displaced people at Chingwizi are respected, including providing them with prompt and adequate compensation.
The government's previous pledge of five hectares of land per family to grow crops of their choice should be respected. Any pressure on the displaced to become sugar cane contract farmers should cease.