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Fire Destroys Larges Areas of Zimbabwe Farmland - 2001-08-30

Large areas of commercial farmland in Zimbabwe have reportedly been destroyed by fire. There are allegations that the fires have been started deliberately by land invaders to force white farm owners to leave.

Commercial farmers say about 10 percent of their useable land has been burned out, further increasing the possibility of a food crisis in the country.

Analysts say Zimbabwe will have to import at least 400,000 tons of grain this year.

According to the mainly-white Commercial Farmers Union, most of the fires are deliberate attempts by land invaders and squatters to intimidate farm owners and force them to leave their properties.

In the last 19 months, more than 2,000 farms have been affected and the government and police have ignored court orders that the invasions are illegal.

Opposition parties and the Commercial Farmers Union accuse the government of President Robert Mugabe of encouraging the invasions.

One of the farming areas worst hit by the fires is Hwedza, 80 kilometers southeast of Harare, the capital. An estimated one-third of the useable land in Hwedza is said to have been burned out. The area has been wracked by violence for the past three weeks, with 15 farm owners and 3,000 workers forced to flee by pro-government militants.

Farmers in the area say the militants have deliberately started the fires to stop all operations.

Agronomists say the problem throughout Zimbabwe has been worsened by the fact that some farm invaders are following a traditional custom in Africa of clearing fields by burning before the planting season, and that the fires have gotten out of control.

The smoke produced by the fires has become so serious that the Zimbabwe Automobile Association is warning motorists on main roads to take extra care because visibility is down to a few meters in some places. A bus crash on Wednesday, in which three people were killed and 15 hurt, is thought to have been partly due to the driver being blinded by smoke.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe government has admitted that an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease a week ago could have been due to cattle control fences being cut down by farm invaders.

The government veterinary department says the most likely source of the infection is in southeastern Zimbabwe, where fences have been destroyed, allowing wild animals, which carry the virus, to mix with cattle.

When the disease first struck, Zimbabwe Agriculture Minister Joseph Made denied there was any link with the farm invasions.