November 17, 2006

Government issues 99-year leases to boost food production / White farmers asked to claim compensation

In a bid to boost food production, the Zimbabwean government will give 99-year leases to the first batch of resettled black commercial farmers. Ngoni Masoka, permanent secretary in the ministry of lands, said in a statement that the leases would demonstrate the government's commitment to empowering black farmers who had benefited from the government's controversial fast-track land reform programme.

The leases will provide resettled commercial farmers with security of tenure, which could serve as collateral for loans to procure inputs. They have cited their inability to raise money and uncertainty about their future as reasons for the drop in production. The leases will be issued to farmers who have been on their plots for at least three years, and have been vetted by the National Land Board for competence and commitment to farming, at a ceremony attended by President Robert Mugabe.

However, the group of beneficiaries could be small. "Given that there is a need to survey the farms, the numbers of farmers might not be large, since the capacity to survey the land seems limited. I doubt if the figure will go beyond 1,000," noted Moyo. He also emphasised that there was also concern that influential people could take advantage of their positions to get the leases ahead of the intended beneficiaries. Since the land would remain state property, there was a need for the government to clarify whether farmers could use their farms as collateral, said Moyo. "It is not yet clear how the government will deal with cases whereby a farmer goes to borrow from a bank and defaults: will the bank be able to repossess the farm and sell it? Because for as long as the plots remain state land, the government would still be involved."

In the meantime, the government has asked more than 800 white farmers to claim compensation for properties seized under the state's land redistribution programme. However, the main farmers' support group described the proposed compensation as "daylight robbery”. The group Justice for Agriculture, representing hundreds of displaced white farmers, said that a four-page notice in state media was a sham intended to convince outsiders that the farmers were being fairly treated. In five previous notices, the government had said compensation would not be paid for land, but only for buildings and improvements made on about 5 000 properties seized from white farmers since 2000.

The Commercial Farmers Union said some of its white members had been forced to accept minimal compensation because of their indebtedness and "personal circumstances". "We are advising farmers to follow up and find out what the situation is so they simply don't lose their co-issue 99-year leases to black farmers allocated land seized mostly from white farmers”, it noted. President Robert Mugabe described the first 128 leases as a landmark in his redistribution programme that would improve farm production by giving new farmers security of tenure for more than a generation. The land remains state-owned, but loans for production can be secured against buildings, dams and other facilities on it. A handful of displaced white farmers are expected to get leases, but not on their former properties, and white farmers' support groups have expressed skepticism over the lease programme. An estimated 400 white farmers are still working on their original farms, but seizures have continued, with at least 30 receiving eviction notices from the government in recent weeks. (News24, South Africa / The Mail & Guardian, South Africa)

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