Sep 19, 2008

World - What's the lie of Zimbabwe's land ?

Sorting out the mess of Zimbabwe's agricultural sector will be key to breathing life back into the country's economy and to the success of the power-sharing deal signed this week.

The detailed agreement devotes a whole section to the "Land Question".

It notes that the fast-tracked farm redistribution is "irreversible", something President Robert Mugabe defiantly reiterated at the signing ceremony with the words: "Zimbabwe's land belongs to Zimbabweans."
But farmer Alan Smith (not his real name), who has been kicked off four properties since 2000, says the deal also provides hope for white farmers wanting to get back to the soil.

"We still love the country. If there is a chance to get back to productive farming without political interference and without the continuous threat of violence, I really believe that a lot of people [white farmers] would come back," he said.

His optimism is based on a number of concessions in the new negotiated settlement.

Firstly, there is to be an audit of the land to eliminate "multiple farm ownerships".

This has long been a call by the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which feels that much of the 11m hectares of prime farmland taken from 4,000 mainly white farmers has been given to ruling party loyalists.

"Anyone who has multi farms which they obtained under the land reform programme would have to lose, because it's one person per farm," Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, Zanu-PF negotiator of the power-sharing agreement, confirmed to the BBC.

Security of tenure

The deal also says that all Zimbabweans can be considered for land "irrespective of race, gender, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation".
For the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which claims its member have been unfairly prejudiced in the chaotic redistribution programme, it is a shift in policy.

"That is a tremendous positive from where we've come from," CFU President Trevor Gifford said.

He also points to the security of tenure the agreement guarantees to land holders, as key to rebooting the sector.

Details of the guarantee are yet to be decided, Mr Chinamasa says, but it is likely that land, now considered state property, will be allocated on 99-year leases.

This will allow capital to be raised, which the justice minister says, has stunted new farmers, leaving them unable to pay for equipment and seeds.

"I do have neighbours who have really battled, because we don't have the finance," businessman and new farmer Musa Kwedza, who was allocated a small-scale commercial farm in 2005, told the BBC.

In his opinion, the land audit will weed out those who are not serious about farming and the security of tenure will spur growth.

Mr Smith agrees the leases will be a good compromise to allow farmers to raise cash - and it is money that the agricultural sector desperately needs.

"I'm on the ground and basically everything has been laid to waste - buildings and barns - all the boreholes need to refitted, dams need to be repaired," he says.

'Once bitten, twice shy'

The deal calls on the international community to support land reform, and in particular it asks the UK to pay compensation to white farmers who lost their land.

"It's our right to be compensated for what's been taken away from us. It's not like we took the land from anybody; it was purchased," said Gordon Stokes, who now farms in the UK.

But even if compensation was paid out, he has no intention of uprooting his family again.

"If you've a reasonable job elsewhere, would you go back to no health service, a place where all the teachers have left and there is no security?"

Former farmer Jason Davies, who left Zimbabwe for the UK 10 years ago, agrees.

"Once bitten, twice shy," he says. "The risk is too high and it's not stable enough. When Mugabe dies, there's going to be a power struggle, then what happens?"

Some white farmers still in Zimbabwe, like the 11 fighting their case at the Southern African Development Community tribunal, alleging the land reforms were racist, are more dogged.

And one former farmer in the capital, Harare, told the BBC he "would not hesitate" to go back to the land if he was offered his old farm back, with or without compensation.

However, Mr Chinamasa is quick to point out that they can apply for land, but not request specific plots.

"They're not getting their farms back. Anyone who wants to till the land must queue up like anybody else."

He maintains the Zanu-PF line that it is the UK to blame for snarling up land reform by reneging on promises to pay out compensation under former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the UK foreign office told the BBC the government had fulfilled its obligations under the 1979 Lancaster House agreement and had "never agreed… to accept responsibility for compensation".

"We have always expressed our willingness to work with others to support a fair and transparent process of land reform," a spokesperson said.

"We will be willing to consider supporting such a process as part of the wider recovery package."

'Mugabe not the issue'

The tired dialogue even seems to have wearied Mr Chinamasa: "Let's not hark to the past… as far we are concerned the objectives of the liberation struggle have been confirmed."
But for Mr Smith, it does not matter how the money is labelled, as long as it is forthcoming.

"Whether it's compensation or a grant is immaterial; at the end of the day there has to be a financial injection in order to get the farms running again," he says.

"I don't have any doubt that Zimbabwe will become the bread basket of Africa again and I will be here to be a part of it. It's just a matter of time."

Mr Kwedza is equally optimistic, but says the "wait-and-see attitude" from donors so far has been a disappointment.

"Robert Mugabe is not the issue. The dispensation is new," he says.

"It will be very exciting to see white farmers, black farmers - all of us - working side by side towards the turning around of this economy."

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