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Zimbabwe Land Seizures Reportedly Intensify

Zimbabwe Land Seizures Reportedly Intensify
Zimbabwe Land Seizures Reportedly Intensify
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Zimbabwe's few remaining commercial white farmers report they are under increasing pressure, some of it violent, to leave their land. It is the latest surge in farm seizures since the Zimbabwean government embarked on a land-reform program nearly 10 years ago. The program was aimed at righting one of the wrongs of the colonial era, but it has been controversial and is blamed by many for the country's economic decline.

Evening is falling over the rolling fields of Spring Farm in Karoi, about 200 kilometers north of Harare. Owner Temba Mliswa is bringing his herds in for the night.

Mliswa farms tobacco, maize and beans and raises cattle, goats and sheep on 800 hectares he received seven years ago under Zimbabwe's land redistribution program. The program nationalized about 4,500 commercial farms owned by whites and gave them to thousands of black Zimbabweans.

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Mliswa acknowledges he has benefited from the program.

"The whole land reform is noble and I think there will always be a debate, when was it supposed to happen, when was it not suppose to happen," said Temba Mliswa. "I am a product of the land reform. I have done well. I have done more than the white farmers used to do."

One of the farm's 100 employees, Dadirai Mbeva, works in the fields. She says Mliswa pays them about $40 per month and provides food rations, health care and schooling for the children.

I have four children, she says. Our boss treats us nicely. If a person falls sick he helps with money for hospital bills until you are healed.

Mliswa took over the farm after the previous owner (Alan Parsons) and his family were beaten and driven away by a gang allegedly led by Mliswa. The previous owner received no compensation and now lives in Australia.

John Worsick founded the Justice for Agriculture Trust after being driven off his farm in 2003. He says at the time the re-distribution began white-owned farmland had already declined by one-half, from 37 percent at independence to 18 percent in 2002.

He says President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF Party targeted farmers and farm workers because their areas voted largely against them in elections beginning in 2000.

"Mugabe knows that he has lost the support he had," said John Worsick. "The support was traditionally from rural areas. But he believes emphatically that he cannot win that back, but he can turn it back to him through a terror campaign, intimidation and terror out there, coupled to food, controlling food out there."

Minister of State in the Presidency and senior ZANU-PF official Didymus Mutasa was minister of lands during the first farm seizures.

"The land reform process is the best thing that has ever happened in Zimbabwe and it is the only process that our people will regain their humanity and their human rights," said Didymus Mutasa.

He says the land was taken illegally from black Zimbabweans. The white farmers say they purchased their land under a title system set up by colonial Britain 100 years ago.

Critics say the land seizures are largely responsible for the collapse of agriculture in the past decade. This has made Zimbabwe, once a food exporter, dependent on food imports and humanitarian distributions.

And they say the eviction of black farm workers has been a major factor in the country's 90 percent unemployment rate and declining standards-of-living.

Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF leaders, whose families own some of the largest seized farms, blame the economic decline on Western sanctions imposed because of human-rights violations.

The farm seizures intensified this year after Mr. Mugabe entered into a power sharing government with former opposition leader and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who opposes the seizures.

In Chegutu, north of Harare, the farms of Ben and Laura Freeth and her parents were burned recently under mysterious circumstances. Surveying the burned-out shells that once housed her family and her workers, Laura Freeth explains the attacks began months before by men known in the community.

"They broke into my parents' house in April," said Laura Freeth. "On three occasions there was a braking and entry charge. They were not arrested. Our workers were assaulted. One guy's head was fractured. Another other guy, they broke his feet. No arrests made. And all the crops stolen. All the equipment stolen."

Virginia Sibanda supervised a sewing cooperative on the farm whose 38 members made linens and table cloths. They lost everything in the blaze.

Right now we are clearing the ashes, she says, because we no longer have work to do. All the materials and finished items were burned in the fire.

Many people were disturbed by the violence that accompanied the seizures. But farm-owner Mliswa says this occurred because the former owners resisted.

"I have never known a revolution that has no blood," said Mliswa. "And this is something that of course was a revolution and it had blood on both sides."

University of Zimbabwe Professor Eldred Masunungure says popular support for land reform is widespread in Zimbabwe because a small minority was seen as controlling most of the good land.

"It is a recipe for social and political disaster and upheaval," said Eldred Masunungure. "So in terms of the principle of land reform, that is accepted across the board. But the method, the methodology of doing so is where there is contestation."

Analysts say very few of the seized farms are commercially productive.

They note that farmers were given 99-year leases rather than (freehold) ownership of the land. As a result banks are not willing to lend them money to buy fertilizer, equipment and seed.

In addition, land re-distribution stripped Zimbabwean agriculture of many of its most experienced farmers.

Analysts say black farmers should be helped to acquire the skills needed to operate successful commercial farms, but without the help of the displaced farmers that will take time.