4 April 2003

Mugabe wants land audit, government plans to restore white farmers

Frantic moves to provide a semblance of order to government's land resettlement programme are under way as the prospect of a new audit looms. Ministers and senior Zanu PF officials are understood to be "regularising" their land holdings after revelations of multiple-farm ownership in the interim report by Minister of State for Land Reform in the Vice-President's Office, Flora Buka.

President Robert Mugabe announced at Heroes Acre on March 21 that government was setting up a new land audit team, remarks he repeated to Zanu PF youths the next day. The United Nations Development Programme has asked for a land audit before donors can be brought on board. And as the agricultural crisis mounts government appears prepared to comply but wants to get in first with its own reckoning. The international community has refused to fund land reform saying it was chaotic and non-transparent. Zanu PF bigwigs are understood to be scrambling to put their houses in order ahead of Mugabe's probe. This will in many cases involve putting their farms in the names of family members and friends. "There is unconcealed panic in some quarters," a politburo member told the Zimbabwe Independent this week.

The Buka report revealed that some governors, ministers and other well-connected beneficiaries owned up to five farms. There has been an indignant response from those named, claiming the report is inaccurate or driven by hostile agendas. Buka told the Independent this week that her full report would still appear despite plans for another audit. "When my report is ready it will be published and it will be availed to you," she said. She refused to comment on the proposed new audit saying it was premature to do so. "I cannot comment on something that has not been set up as yet," she said. "I have not yet been approached by the president and I cannot say whether I will be part of the committee," she added.

A source in the President's Office said the executive regards the Buka document as only a "surveillance report", hence the need to constitute a team to do a more thorough job. The source said the committee would be co-ordinated from the President's Office. Government sources said the audit team would be supervised by a cabinet committee, which would in turn report to the president. Observers said the setting up of another audit team was an attempt by government to show it was transparent in its land reform exercise. But there was scepticism as to its findings. "This report is going to be filed away like others produced by previous commissions set up by the president," said a diplomat. The UNDP has proposed the setting up of an independent audit of the resettlement programme to identify areas where international donors can assist. Diplomatic sources said the government was keen to pre-empt that initiative by coming up with its own probe. And that there could be public reprimands and even confiscations to impress the international community. However, most donors are likely to remain unimpressed by this "window dressing".

In a desperate effort to improve agricultural productivity, particularly of wheat this season, government plans to return to their original owners at least 10 commercial farms per province, the Zimbabwe Independent heard this week. Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) officials said in their series of meetings, land committees throughout the country had expressed grave concerns about newly resettled farmers' ability to ensure food security in the country.

The new farmers failed to grow enough wheat last year and the few who planted winter wheat could not harvest it in time because of lack of machinery. This year's countrywide crop failure could have been minimised if the farmers were able to restore irrigation facilities to the same level as displaced commercial farmers. Farming sources this week said the government wanted commercial farmers in wheat producing areas of Mashonaland East, West and Central to return. The start of the wheat production season is less than six months away and government is keen to improve production to cut down on imports.

CFU officials said information at their disposal indicated that some of the 290 commercial farmers called to the Department of Lands and Rural Resettlement to discuss the position of their farms could be considered for restoration of their properties. "We are aware that some farmers have been called to discuss compensation issues," an official said. "Government wants to use that chance to get agriculture back on its feet," he said.

Government last week invited farmers throughout the country to come and discuss the status of their properties. Eighty-seven farmers from Mashonaland West are on the list, representing 33% of the 290 farmers invited. Justice for Agriculture chairman Dave Connoly said a total of 290 farms had been visited by Agriculture and Rural Extension Services (Arex) officials for valuations. "Government has no money to compensate all these farmers," Connoly said. "Properties on the list range from highly mechanised farms to those with limited activity," he said.

CFU chief executive Gerry Davidson said there had been no official communication about returning farms to their original owners. "We do, however, understand that government wants to revive agriculture in the shortest time possible and the easiest way would be through bringing back some of the displaced farmers who are skilled and have machinery," he said. Davidson said the CFU would leave individual farmers to make their own decisions on the matter because of the risks now involved in the agricultural sector. "Government should guarantee the safety of the farmers if they are to return to their farms. I am convinced that a good number of farmers are prepared to come because farming is their only source of income," he said.

The CFU said the down-turn in agricultural production over the past three years was directly linked to the displacement of their expertise and machinery under the land reform programme. The CFU said maize production by commercial farmers had fallen from 810 000 tonnes in 2000 to an estimated 80 000 in 2003. The fall in production this season has seriously affected maize seed production which would limit production next year. "Wheat production has fallen from 280 000 tonnes in 2001 to 115 000 tonnes in 2002. Production in 2003 will be limited by water shortage in dams and river systems and lack of infrastructure - irrigation equipment. Marketing of wheat, which is controlled, will also not encourage the few farmers who have irrigation facilities to grow wheat," the CFU said. (Zimbabwe Independent)

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