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Uncertainty of Zimbabwe's Food Situation Causes Planning Problems for Aid Agencies - 2003-04-21

Crop forecasters in Zimbabwe are presenting widely different predictions for this year's harvest, making it difficult for aid agencies to plan food aid to the country for the rest of the year.

The group responsible for warning about food shortages says the situation in Zimbabwe will not be as bad this year as it has been for the past two years. The Famine Early Warning System forecasters, known as FEWSNET, say the maize crop now being harvested will be nearly 1.3 million tons. That would be enough to feed two-thirds of the population during the coming year.

But the Union of Commercial Farmers, who have had their farms confiscated under the Land Reform Program, says the harvest will be only about half that amount, and that much of it is being eaten by desperately hungry people in the countryside, while it is still green.

The Union says very few growers will deliver their dried maize to the government's Grain Marketing Board for milling to supply retailers. The Union predicts most of the growers will choose instead to keep much of their crop, or sell it on the open market, even though that is against the law.

Only the Grain Marketing Board is allowed to trade in grain.

It is difficult for aid agencies like the U.N. World Food Program to sort out the predictions and make plans. FEWSNET is relatively new, and is partly U.S. funded, but it has been accurate in recent years. The Commercial Farmers Union has a long history of accurate forecasts, but its members have had their land taken, and are no longer as closely in touch with the situation.

The Land Reform Program has been widely blamed for the current food shortage in Zimbabwe, which has left half the population relying on U.N. handouts to survive.

The Land Reform Program was designed to give the large, productive white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks. But most of the land went to supporters of President Robert Mugabe. They lacked experience and funding to make the farms work, and were also hit by a drought, resulting in very little production in the Land Reform Program's first two years.

The Zimbabwe government says the drought is responsible for the entire shortage, not its policies.

The World Food Program says it will be feeding nearly five million Zimbabweans when it downsizes its distribution program next month to coincide with the annual harvest. The question is how to plan for the rest of the year. The WFP could be buying cheap maize now from South Africa, where there is a large harvest. But spokesman Luis Clemens says that without reliable forecasts, it is difficult for the agency to raise the money needed to make the purchases.

Mr. Clemens says the planning is made more difficult by the Zimbabwe government's refusal to disclose how much grain it has imported during the past year. The government has also been withholding its own crop estimates.

While maize is the staple crop in Zimbabwe, other harvests are also expected to be low this year. The Commercial Farmers Union says very little wheat or soybeans will be harvested, and the beef and dairy herds are now too small to fill the country's needs.