Zimbabwe farm revival hinges on new government

JOHANNESBURG, (Reuters) – Zimbabwe's farming sector faces collapse and chances of reviving it hinge on an elusive deal to forge a unity government that could trigger investment in the sector, a farm union official said on Thursday.

The southern African country’s once-thriving farms have spiralled downward since 2000 when a dozen white farmers were shot dead and many others were beaten when war veterans violently seized white-owned commercial farms as part of President Robert Mugabe’s policy of land redistribution.

Critics say this policy ruined farming because many of the landless blacks had little or no experience in agriculture, and the World Food Programme said on Thursday more than half of the country’s population faces starvation unless they get food aid.

A cholera epidemic has also worsened matters in the country.

"We need a government in place so we can stabilise the sector and get back on our feet or the people of Zimbabwe continue to suffer," Deon Theron, Vice President of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which represents Zimbabwe’s few remaining white commercial farmers told Reuters in an interview.

"I honestly believe there is hope that these talks will bear some fruit," he said referring to prolonged talks seeking to forge a government of national unity in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe denies that the land seizures ruined the country’s economy and says they were meant to reverse colonial land imbalances.

A power-sharing agreement reached in September between Zimbabwe’s political rivals, seen as a chance to save the faltering economy, has yet to be implemented.

But hopes are high that an agreement on a unity government could be reached that could help to jumpstart agricultural output in southern Africa’s former breadbasket.

A meeting of regional leaders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) decided on Tuesday that a unity government should be formed next month. [nLR690667]

DESPERATE

"It’s quite a desperate and precarious situation really," Theron said.

"If we don’t get agriculture to recover, SADC or the rest of the international community will have to keep supplying Zimbabwe with food and that’s just not sustainable," Theron said.

South African farmers have said they would be willing to help lure investors to Zimbabwean agriculture if a new government can resuscitate the stagnant sector.

The WFP said on Thursday seven million people in Zimbabwe would need food handouts in February and March, up from an earlier projection of about 5.5 million. [nLT660924]

The World Health Organisation says a cholera epidemic has killed nearly 3,100 people and infected at least 58,000 others, worsening the country’s already critical humanitarian situation.

Thousands of white farmers have fled Zimbabwe since the land seizures began, and the CFU says it still receives reports of disturbances on farms, where some white farmers are still being forced off land or being prosecuted for refusing to leave.

"Sometimes I get the impression that the government feels that all whites want to come back and they want to take over the land. That’s not true," Theron said.

"There are some that want to farm but there are many out there that all they want is to be compensated for their properties and to move on with their lives."