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Land Reform Program Main Cause of Zimbabwe's Food Crisis, Say Experts - 2002-12-20

Zimbabweans from all walks of life say they are facing the worst conditions in living memory. The chaotic land reform program has caused shortages of many key commodities affecting all sectors of society.

There is no gasoline and nearly no diesel fuel anywhere in Zimbabwe, from the southern border with South Africa, to the northernmost boundary with Zambia. There is also little bread, flour, sugar, cooking oil, maize meal, milk, beef or chicken.

Experts attribute the problems to a poorly planned and often-violent land reform program, and cronyism by President Robert Mugabe's ruling party.

Presidential elections in March, fraught with violence and alleged cheating by the ruling party, set the stage for a widespread crackdown on the government's opponents, and for increased evictions of white commercial farmers.

President Mugabe said he would not rest until more than 90 percent of white farmers were off their land. Hundreds of farmers were subsequently arrested, and a majority fled for safety to the towns.

When land reform began nearly three years ago, many large, productive commercial farms were given to landless blacks.

Now, the white commercial farmers union says the best farms are being given to the political and social elite, allies of President Mugabe. Most of those people, and other blacks who got land through the reform program, had little or no farming experience.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of who worked on the farms were left destitute, many of them both jobless and homeless.

Even those new small-scale farmers who tried to plant their crops faced daunting problems. There were shortages of seed, fertilizer and machinery for plowing the fields.

In addition, long-established tribal farmers were hit by up to 200 percent inflation on agricultural inputs.

The result has been a damaging disruption in Zimbabwe's agricultural production. Commercial agriculture underpins the economy, and always produced up to 40 percent of annual foreign exchange earnings. Now, the country can not even feed itself.

In early December, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made admitted he does not know what was planted this season, and therefore he can not predict the size of the upcoming harvest.

Rough estimates from within the agricultural sector say no more than five percent of what used to be planted by commercial farmers has been planted this season. The rain has been fairly good, but it has mostly fallen on fallow fields.

Harare economist John Robertson said recently the single largest cause of food shortages and the collapsing economy was the destruction of commercial agriculture.

During the previous agricultural season, with land reform only partly implemented, a drought hurt output. So this is expected to be the second consecutive bad harvest for Zimbabwe.

The World Food Program said recently the worst of the hunger crisis, affecting more than half the population of about 12 million, is still to come. The group acknowledges it will not be able to stop feeding people, as planned, after harvests next April.

Most economists predict 2003 will not be any better. They say it will likely be tragically and inestimably worse.

Part of VOA's yearend series