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Zimbabwe's Mugabe Has Built Secret Farming Empire

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Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has said his fast-track land reform program, launched in 2000, was to give Zimbabwean land back to landless blacks and that each individual should acquire and own only one farm. However VOA has discovered that he has taken five formerly white-owned farms, while his wife Grace Mugabe has taken six. VOA spoke with several workers from several of the farms, some of whom have been working on the farms for decades.

President Mugabe's estate is in Darwendale district about thirty miles northwest of Harare, close to his tribal home. It lies adjacent to the large state-owned Lake Robertson, often called Darwendale Dam, which gives him access to unlimited water for irrigation.

The 4,000 hectare estate is made up of six farms, one of which is Highfield that Mr. Mugabe purchased in a normal commercial transaction nine years ago. Workers on the farms, the former farm owners, and current neighboring farms told VOA a group of veterans of the liberation war originally forced off most of the white owners of the remaining five farms between 2000 and 2002.

Then, the workers say, operations at the farm were taken over by the then government's Agricultural Rural Development Authority or ARDA. They add that in 2006, the properties were taken over by Mr. Mugabe, through one of his companies, known as Gushungo, his clan name.

Records seen by VOA show Mr. Mugabe has three holding companies registered at the deed's office in Harare, Gushungo Investments, Gushungo Security, and Gushungo Construction.

The war veterans involved in the original takeover told VOA they were happy to move off the land to make way for Mr. Mugabe because he is their hero for liberating them from white rule. They now live on adjoining farms which they say they struggle to farm because they have received little seed and other inputs from the government in recent years.

The so-called fast-track land reform program launched by Mr. Mugabe in 2000, has been a chaotic operation often accompanied by violent invasions of the properties by armed supporters of Mr. Mugabe. Some owners were killed, and many were severely injured along with some of their employees. Most of the workers fled the farms after the initial invasions, accused of loyalty to the departed white farmer, or connections with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Under the program, all previously owned, white-owned rural land, including wildlife conservancies, was nationalized. No current land register exists. Individuals and groups who now occupy and work land from which title deed holders were evicted, acquired their right to occupation by means of a so-called Offer Letter signed by Didymus Mutasa, former Lands Minister in the Previous ZANU-PF government. Efforts to ascertain whether Mr. and Mrs. Mugabe have Offer Letters for their properties have thus far not been successful.

Former owners of the land now occupied by the Mugabes, now mostly living in Australia and New Zealand, say they have not received any compensation for substantial improvements to their farms or for their farming equipment - recompense to which they are entitled by Zimbabwe's land laws. Mr. Mugabe says that Britain, the former colonial power, must pay farmers for the land taken since 2000.

More than 4,000 white farmers have been evicted under the program since 2000, and Mr. Mugabe has stated its purpose was to provide small farms for landless peasants. In 2003 he said large farms for black Zimbabweans who wanted to farm commercially should be restricted to 400 hectares and that no individual should occupy more than a single farm.

Many leaders in Mr. Mugabe's party ZANU-PF, ignored this, and accumulated more than one farm. It has only now become clear that he has done so too. Mr. Mugabe's estate, unlike much of the land seized from whites is productive and has new farm equipment.

The workers said they preferred working for the previous white owners because they were paid bonuses after good harvests, could borrow money, and had more communication with their former employers than they had with Mr. Mugabe, who they say visits his estate about once every three months.

The jewel in the crown of Mrs. Mugabe's seized farms is Gushungo Dairy Estate, formerly Foyle Farm, in Mazowe about 30 kilometers north of Harare. At the time it was seized from the owner, it was Zimbabwe's top dairy enterprise, producing more than 6.5 million liters a year.

The state controlled Herald newspaper reported that costly new equipment has been installed on the farm, workers at the dairy and some of Mrs. Mugabe customers say it now produces about a million liters a year.

Until this week, most of the milk was sold to Nestle Zimbabwe. Nestle now says it has halted purchases from Gushungo Dairy Estate. There was international outrage over the company's dealings with Mrs. Mugabe, with some groups threatening boycotts of Nestle products.

Brian Raftopoulos of Zimbabwe's Solidarity Peace Trust told VOA he was surprised to learn about Mr. Mugabe's estate. He said it explains why Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been unable to get officials to produce an audit of all land in Zimbabwe - as required by the so-called Global Political Agreement which brought the current unity government into being.

"I think its clearly hindering the land audit, and because obviously it is a great deal of, a proper land audit will bring out a great deal of information about land holding and land ownership patterns in the country," said Brian Raftopoulos.

Raftopolous notes that Mugabe's acquisitions are further evidence of the rapid accumulation of land by the elite who surround Mr. Mugabe. He says it appears to be an emerging military agricultural complex of the military and political elite who now control key sectors of the state and economy.

"But of course it also means that this new, this group who have now accumulated such vast amounts of wealth, also concerned about the prospects of losing that land, or at least having it exposed to a broader public, and are worried about the democratic processes which will open up the debate around such issues," he said.

Raftopoulos notes that the Mugabe land holdings are a very real impediment to fully implementing the political agreement.

Neither Mr. Mugabe nor his wife, nor the agricultural minister Joseph Made replied to questions about whether public money was used to equip and run the first couple's farming operations.

The land upheavals triggered an unprecedented economic decline in Zimbabwe as commercial farmers used to produce forty percent of Zimbabwe's exports.