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EU Hosts Environment Conference in Zimbabwe

This week in Harare the European Union hosted an environmental conference in Zimbabwe which organizers hope would start a multi-party conversation about land ownership and use. The issue continues to be at the center of the country's political conflict.

EU ambassador Xavier Marchel, who has been the lead in the West's uneasy relationship with Zimbabwe's shaky government of national unity, was instrumental in organizing the conference.

The plan was to get Zimbabwe government officials to engage with western diplomats and each other about the sustainable use of land and natural resources.

Marchel even managed to persuade President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF to take part in discussions on how to rescue Zimbabwe's devastated natural resources.

And while the language of government officials is usually muted, at the conference they uniformly made it plain that in the past few decades, Zimbabwe's natural resources have been devastated.

Education Minister David Coltart did not mince his words, saying these resources have, in effect, been raped.

"Massive deforestation, unrestrained poaching that has seen the decimation of much of our wildlife; unrestrained gold panning which has all but destroyed many of our river systems; the regular and deliberate veld fires that have set every winter and every spring," said Coltart.

Coltart told the conference the impact of all of this was recently graphically demonstrated to him on a visit to the Matopos, one of the country's top national parks.

"I took my family and guests for a drive through the Matopos National Park and we spent the entire day driving through the game reserve and the rest of the national park, and the entire national park had been burnt," said Coltart.

Zimbabwe's liberation war, which ended in 1980, was mainly about land ownership and the franchise for black Zimbabweans. After President Robert Mugabe came to power, his many critics argued that he was using land ownership reform as a means of patronage.

This criticism greatly intensified when he launched his chaotic land reform program following the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2000. The program saw more than 4,000 commercial farmers removed from their farms, and food production plummet.

Mandivamba Rukuni, a well known agricultural economist and advisor to the World Bank, told conference attendees that 15 years ago he tried to advise Mr. Mugabe about progressive land reform when he was chairman of Mr. Mugabe's Land Reform Commission. He said his advice was ignored.

Rukuni added that securing property rights so that the majority of the people were the custodians of the environment was what he called "deceptively simple." Property rights should be secured by the constitution.

Minister of State Gordon Moyo represented Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai at the conference and said the inclusive government knows that Zimbabwe's current lack of agricultural production affected the whole economy including the communal areas, and that he knew the inclusive government was moving slowly to resolve the land conflict.

"The pace is slow, I know people are frustrated," he said. "The people themselves out there in the rural areas are also frustrated by the slow, snail pace, of us attending to issues of productivity in the farms, both in the ex-commercial farms, commercial farms, in the communal land."

Moyo, from the MDC, noted the current unity government is transitional, and consequently it is more complicated to get things done. Apparently alluding to officials in Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, he said hazards and obstacles are often put in the way of progress. But he said, he and his party are determined to make it work.

"We shall not be frustrated out of the inclusive government," said Moyo. "We are really determined to be part of it, to change it, to make it right, to make things work so that we can attend to poverty in the communal areas, re-capitalization of our industries, recovery of our economy, recovery of our agricultural sector and to make sure our country is back on its feet again."

Moyo said that Zimbabwe's agricultural production, its environment and natural areas are central to his country's recovery. But he said Zimbabwe cannot begin the task of rehabilitation without the assistance and financial support from western governments.

"The new philosophy, the new world view of the inclusive government is to engage the world," said Moyo. "We can talk about good ideas, but if you don't get resources, if you don't get support, it will be just good ideas that will be shelved somewhere and they will develop cobwebs without being implemented."

Following the formation of the inclusive government 100 days ago, harassment of the few remaining white farmers escalated dramatically. Few will grow wheat this winter and by year's end it is likely that millions of Zimbabweans will again need food aid. Communal farmers, who grow most of the staple food maize, say they are unable to farm nowadays as they do not get seeds and other inputs they need.