Zimbabwe on the brink of new crisis as food runs out
CHEGUTU – As President Mugabe and opposition MDC leaders wrangle over cabinet appointments, millions face starvation in a catastrophe created by economic chaos and the dramatic collapse of commercial farms.
Children in Zimbabwe will rely on foreign aid to survive. Photograph: Robin Hammond
Six months after the elections, Zimbabwe still lacks a functioning government and is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Following the worst wheat harvest since the independence war, bread has run out and sugar supplies are set to follow. USAid, the American government humanitarian agency, is warning that the country could run out of the maize, the staple food, by next month. Farming officials say the government’s stated aim of producing maize on 500,000 hectares this season is unattainable.
‘We are in serious trouble,’ said Jabulani Gwaringa, of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union (ZFU), which represents small-scale operators. ‘There is no seed, fertiliser and crop chemicals on the market. Banks are not offering farmers any credit. In July we had produced about 25,000 metric tons of seed maize. We are down to 9,000 because farmers opted to eat their hybrid seed or sell it to millers.’
One European diplomat said: ‘We are already hearing isolated reports of child deaths from hunger.’ In the poorest provinces, such as Matabeleland North, subsistence farmers have begun bartering their livestock for maize: one cow buys six buckets of maize, while four live chickens or a goat buy one bucket.
President Robert Mugabe is still locked in negotiations with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to try to break the deadlock over cabinet posts which is threatening a crucial power-sharing deal. However, the state of the agricultural sector is forming an increasingly alarming backdrop to the talks, which have gone on almost since the disputed elections were held on 29 March.
Since Mugabe let his so-called war veterans loose on the mainly white-owned commercial farms in 2000, the government claims to have resettled six million poor blacks on the land. The figure is impossible to verify, but the most obvious outcome has been the collapse of the agriculture sector. In 1998 production of tobacco, flowers, maize and other vegetables yielded 18 per cent of GDP and 45 per cent of foreign currency earnings. Since Mugabe launched his land acquisition offensive, the number of commercial farmers has dwindled from 4,500 to less than 800.
While evicted commercial farmers are looking to the future power-sharing government to allow them back onto their properties, the issue is still in the balance. In a little-noticed concession to Zanu-PF, the 15 September agreement underlines the ‘irreversibility’ of ‘the compulsory acquisition and redistribution of land … since 2000’ and agrees that Britain will pay compensation.
The MDC has claimed that it accepted the ‘irreversibility’ clause by insisting on a land audit which will define what belongs to whom. The problem still has not been resolved, raising questions as to whether commercial farmers will return and reinvest in Zimbabwe.
Trevor Gifford, the Commercial Farmers’ Union president, told The Observer that even an international effort over the next six weeks would not be enough to save the coming season. ‘It might be possible to raise enough maize seed for 360,000 hectares – which is a third of the maize area that was planted in 2000 – but we will never get enough fertiliser because there is a world shortage and the price has tripled. It is already clear that Zimbabwe will need food aid for the next 18 months at least.’
The World Food Programme has been feeding Zimbabweans since 2002 and expects to have to help up to 5.4 million people – out of an estimated total population of 8-9 million – between now and the next harvest in April 2009. USAid’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network has said Zimbabwe needs to import more that 700,000 tons of cereals by then.
As farmworkers, Joyce, her husband Innocent, and their eight children used to belong to a class of people who knew that, despite earning low wages, they would never starve in southern Africa’s breadbasket. They are overlooked for foreign food aid because they live on farms, rather than in villages. But their situation is dire.
‘We do not have corn every day – only from time to time. For us, even when there are vegetables, if we do not have maize meal it’s like we didn’t eat at all,’ said Innocent. ‘We cannot grow anything because the electric motor was stolen in the "jambanja" (attack) so we cannot irrigate.’
The ‘jambanja’ happened on 6 May after District Administrator Mike Mariga arrived with a group of armed men to take over their employers’ farm. ‘They began by beating us,’ said Innocent, ‘to force us to go and get our employer’s gun. When we refused, they threatened to harm our 12-year-old son.’ Their white employers – who sustained serious injuries – moved to Harare after the attack. ‘They bring us wages and, usually, 50kg of maize meal. But last month they came without maize because they could not find any,’ said Innocent, 56.
The Tembos’ employers are among 77 farmers who have been targeted for attack since they joined an international court action against the government’s land acquisition programme. Later this month the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) tribunal in Windhoek, Namibia, is expected to find in the farmers’ favour, potentially opening the door to sanctions against Zimbabwe from neighbouring countries.
In daily propaganda broadcasts, the government blames international sanctions for all Zimbabwe’s woes and trumpets its efforts to help communal farmers by giving them implements, tractors, scotch-carts (trailers), fuel, seed and fertiliser ahead of the rainy season, due to begin next month.
‘We do not know what we will eat when we have finished the corn you see here. Even if we had seed to plant, what is the point? There would be nothing to eat until February or March next year,’ said Innocent.