- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe Long lines of people waiting for cornmeal snake through the streets of a nation that was once the breadbasket of southern Africa. Some wait for days, sleeping in line so they won't lose their place.
Girls 13 and younger are being married off for the bride price to buy expensive black-market food. Many people eat just one meal a day.
And Zimbabwe's hunger crisis is sure to get worse.
Drought, a crashing economy and a land reform program that has destroyed commercial farming have pushed millions of Zimbabweans to the brink of starvation.
Five other southern African countries also are facing severe hunger this year, but Zimbabwe is by far the worst off.
The U.N. World Food Program says nearly half of the nation's 13 million people will need food aid. A country that used to export food to hungry neighbors will need to import 2 million tons of grain just to get through the year.
"This is unprecedented," said Andrew Timpson of Save the Children UK. "We're very worried indeed."
The harvest has just ended, and the country already is running out of corn, the staple food. Zimbabwe is about to use the last of its wheat, and supplies of cooking oil and animal feed are dwindling.
With no hard currency reserves and an economy shredded by political unrest, the government almost certainly will be unable to import enough grain to feed its people, even with hundreds of thousands of tons of donated food, economists and aid workers say.
Meanwhile, much of Zimbabwe's most productive farmland lies fallow as the government continues its efforts to seize nearly all the land owned by the nation's white commercial farmers, by far Zimbabwe's most productive food producers, and redistribute it to landless blacks.
The government says it is rectifying a hated legacy of British colonial rule. But human rights activists accuse it of using the seizures to reward its supporters with land while punishing white farmers and their farmworkers, who number hundreds of thousands and are seen as opposition stalwarts.
The government also is accused of using hunger as a weapon, shipping state-subsidized grain only to strongholds of President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
In some areas, people must show party membership cards to obtain food; in others, food is distributed at ruling-party meetings, said Tawanda Hondora, chairman of Zimbabwe's Human Rights Forum.
On at least one occasion, ruling-party militants temporarily prevented Zimbabwe's Roman Catholic Justice and Peace Commission from feeding hungry children and pregnant women.
"They wanted to do the distributions themselves," said Tarcisius Zimbiti, the commission's acting director.
In a country with 60 percent unemployment and 122 percent annual inflation, Zimbabweans increasingly have to buy corn on the black market for two to three times the price of state-subsidized corn.
"It is too tough to survive," said William Marimo, 39, who lives in the rural slum of Porta Farm, 20 miles west of Harare, the capital.
A three-month drought at a crucial phase of the growing season is mainly to blame. But even Zimbabwean officials acknowledge that the land seizures have made things worse.
"It compounds, it exacerbates, but it is not the primary cause of the problem," said Finance Minister Simba Makoni.
Zimbabwe produced 480,000 metric tons of corn this year, about a fourth of what it grew two years ago.
Commercial farmers brought in 850,000 metric tons of that 2000 harvest on 400,000 acres. This year, they planted about 160,000 acres and harvested 185,400 metric tons.
The winter wheat on what remains of Vernon Nicolle's farm is about knee-high, right where it should be despite the weather, thanks to high-tech irrigation.
On nearby land that his family used to own, there was nothing but weeds, he said.
Until recently, Mr. Nicolle, 58, and his extended family produced a quarter of Zimbabwe's wheat crop on their 12 huge farms.
Nine of those farms are gone, seized by the government, and parts of the remaining three are occupied by armed ruling-party militants and are inaccessible to the farmers.
The Nicolle family was able to farm winter wheat on only one-fifth of the land it used to cultivate. Some of the settlers and militants on the other land planted wheat but didn't irrigate it, Mr. Nicolle said. Those seeds have not even sprouted.
With their experience, expensive irrigation equipment, fertilizers and pesticides, commercial farmers generally coax about five times more food out of an acre than do small-scale farmers, analysts say. During the drought this year, they were 10 times more productive than small-scale farmers.
Analysts predict the winter wheat crop this year at best will total 150,000 metric tons, less than half the normal harvest. But that was before the government ordered nearly all white farmers to stop working their fields by June 24 regardless of whether crops had been planted and prepare to leave their houses.
Government officials did not return messages seeking comment. But they had defended their land policies, saying that after two decades of independence, many Zimbabweans were frustrated that whites, less than 1 percent of the population, controlled the country's wealth, and that about 4,500 white commercial farmers owned one-third of the nation's farmland while 7 million black farmers shared the rest.
After encouraging ruling-party militants to occupy many of the commercial farms two years ago, the Mugabe government targeted 95 percent of white-owned farmland for rapid seizure and redistribution.
Zimbabwe has suffered previous food shortages. In 1992, its worst drought in a century ravaged nearly the entire harvest. But it had a massive food surplus from the previous year, cash to import food and good relations with donor countries.
This time there is no surplus. The three top hard-currency earners have been badly weakened: tobacco farming has suffered because of the land seizures, tourism because of the political instability and gold mining because of an absurdly low fixed currency-exchange rate.
The government also has created a grain monopoly. If it doesn't let private companies import grain, "the situation could go from bad to catastrophic," said Judith Lewis, regional director of the World Food Program.

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