- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Zimbabwe imposed its ban yesterday on production for nearly 3,000 white-owned farms as a leading aid expert said there was "precious little time" left to avoid a devastating regional famine.

The white farmers, who work on the country's most productive acreage, have 45 days before they must surrender their holdings under a land-expropriation bill President Robert Mugabe signed last month.

Once known as southern Africa's breadbasket, Zimbabwe's agricultural output has plummeted 40 percent in the past year, as Mr. Mugabe's government has clashed with the mostly white farmers over his redistribution plans.

The violence and intimidation of farmers, coupled with the worst regional drought in two decades, has put as many as 6 million mostly poor, rural and black Zimbabweans half of the population at risk of starvation by the end of the year, according to the United Nation's World Food Program.

Last night was the deadline for 2,900 white-owned farms to cease production under the land law approved by the government last month. The law, which was condemned by the United States and European governments, gives affected farmers until Aug. 8 to vacate their properties.

The order takes effect at the onset of the southern African winter but comes when many farmers have sugar cane in the ground ready for harvesting next month.

Brendan Gormley is chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee, a group of 14 leading British international-aid agencies.

"There is precious little time" left to avoid a looming famine next year, he said in an e-mail interview yesterday. "We're already seeing pockets of malnutrition."

Mr. Gormley said a serious food crisis can be avoided only if aid money and seeds are distributed soon to prepare for the next harvest, in March 2003.

There were few reports of violence as the deadline for the production ban passed last night. The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union, which represents the bulk of the country's white-owned farms, said its members were continuing production as usual while waiting for the government to act.

Farmers who work their land in defiance of the law face two years in prison or a fine.

Many of the country's 4,000 white farmers decided not to plant this year, either because of disruptions caused by illegal squatters or because of the prospect of imminent land seizure. The World Food Program estimates that 800,000 black workers on the white-owned farms will lose their jobs if the redistribution program proceeds.

Mr. Mugabe has argued that the land program is necessary to redress injustices dating to colonial times and to ensure the country's long-term food-supply needs are met. Two decades after the end of colonial rule, whites control a third of the nation's best farmland, though they constitute less than 1 percent of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people.

But Mr. Mugabe's many foreign and domestic critics say the land-reform program has been badly mismanaged, with gangs of so-called war veterans illegally claiming many of the most lucrative farms, and associates and relatives of the president being given favored sites.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday, "We think the government of Zimbabwe's land policy, including the chaotic and the often violent seizure of privately owned farms, has greatly compounded the country's worsening social, economic and political crisis."

"We continue to support rational, sustainable and equitable land reform in Zimbabwe," Mr. Boucher said. "Very sadly, that's not what's happening."

The European Union has cut off most official aid programs to the Mugabe government after a disputed March presidential election in which Mr. Mugabe turned back the most serious political challenge to his 22-year rule.

But yesterday the European Union's executive commission approved two shipments of emergency food aid to families in the poorest areas of Zimbabwe and to farm workers hurt by resettlement.

But Poul Nielson, head of development and humanitarian aid for the European Commission, said Zimbabwe's looming food crisis can't be solved by outside humanitarian aid.

"The private sector has a leading role to play in bringing food on to the market," Mr. Nielson said in a statement released in Brussels. "The government must remove the constraints which are preventing this from happening."

The United Nations estimated earlier this month that 12.8 million people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe face a severe food crisis between now and next spring.


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