JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe confessed yesterday that millions of acres of prime land seized from the country’s white farmers are empty and idle.
After spending years trumpeting the “success” of the land grab, Mr. Mugabe, 81, admitted that most of the farms transferred to black owners have never been used.
All but a handful of Zimbabwe’s 4,000 white farmers lost their homes and livelihoods when armed gangs of Mugabe supporters began invading farm property in 2000.
In the first 18 months of the campaign, eight white landowners and 39 of their black workers were killed, court orders were defied and Zimbabwe’s economy plunged into crisis.
Mr. Mugabe said this was the price that Zimbabwe would have to pay to redress the wrongs of the British colonial era, which left much of the best land in white hands. He said the seizures would boost production and benefit millions of blacks.
Yet in his home province yesterday, Mr. Mugabe chided the new landowners for growing crops on less than half of their land.
“President Mugabe expressed disappointment with the land use, saying only 44 percent of the land distributed is being fully utilized,” state television reported. “He warned the farmers that the government will not hesitate to redistribute land that is not being utilized.”
About 10.4 million acres were seized under a plan designed to create a new class of black commercial farmer. By Mr. Mugabe’s figures, 5.8 million acres are lying fallow.
Last year, Mr. Mugabe boasted of a bumper harvest and said Zimbabwe no longer needed help “foisted” on it from the United Nations World Food Program.
His land grab had made Zimbabwe “self-sufficient,” Mr. Mugabe repeatedly said, and the national maize crop was a record 2.4 million tons.
But the Commercial Farmers’ Union said Zimbabwe grew 850,000 tons of maize last year, not enough to meet domestic demand. In 1999, the year before the land grab began, Zimbabwe grew 1.5 million tons. At that time, Zimbabwe also earned about $503 million from tobacco exports. Last year, production had fallen by more than 70 percent and earnings were down to $147 million.
Critics said Mr. Mugabe’s admission exposed the land grab’s failure.
“It has been a phenomenal and absolute failure on every level,” said Tendai Biti, secretary for economic affairs of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. “It has failed both in terms of production of crops and in terms of the occupation of the land.”
The new farmers are unable to raise bank loans because their properties are formally owned by the government and they have no individual title deeds. Without loans, they cannot buy seed, fertilizer or farming equipment, and the regime did not keep a pledge to supply them with tools.
Some farmers have resorted to using horse-drawn plows. Many have given up trying to produce anything.
About at 400 white farmers remain in Zimbabwe, with about one-third of this year’s tobacco crop of 89,000 tons coming from only 250 white landowners.