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Desperate Zimbabwean Farmers Pan for Gold As Alternative Income - 2003-02-26

Zimbabwe's controversial land reform program was supposed to give rise to a nation of black farmers. But two years of drought have combined with a lack of equipment, seeds and training to make life very tough for the new farmers, and the whole country. In central Zimbabwe, some of the resettled farmers are risking arrest and injury to pan for gold, because their new crops have failed.

In a bizarre landscape of deep pits and piles of mud, a 29-year-old woman stands holding a bright orange plastic tub full of water and mud. She swishes it around, staring intently at the swirling water.

The woman will give her name only as Letwindi, because she is afraid the police will track her down if she gives her full name. What she is doing, panning for gold, is illegal.

Letwindi says she sometimes finds traces of gold, but she can go for weeks without finding anything.

A man standing nearby unfolds a bank note and shows a visitor what Letwindi is looking for. In the folds of a Zimbabwean $10 bill are several tiny flecks of bright yellow gold, each one paper-thin and no bigger around than a pencil eraser.

The gold is measured in units called points, each one tenth of a gram. One point sells for a little less than one U.S. dollar. In a good week, Letwindi says she might find four points of gold.

The area where Letwindi is working looks like a bizarre construction site, or the home of some very active gophers. There are large piles of mud, which the panners have excavated from pits as deep as three or four meters.

Most of the panners are men who lower themselves into the pits with ropes and makeshift pulleys. The deeper they go, the more likely they believe they are to strike gold. But it is grueling and dangerous work. The pits can collapse, the ropes can break, or the police can come while they are down there. Most of the 20 or so panners at this site have been arrested at least once, and fined for gold mining without a license.

Letwindi has the less dangerous but much less lucrative task known as re-panning. She takes the mud already panned by the men and goes through it a second time. It is still not easy, and it requires spending all day in the blazing sun. But she has to find some way to feed her husband and three children.

Letwindi and the other panners say before the drought, you would not see many people out here panning for gold. But nowadays, they say, thousands of people are doing it. And the activity has spread, they say it used to be only on the banks of the river Tokwe, but now people are searching for gold everywhere.

That is because crops all over Zimbabwe have failed after two years of drought. In this province, Masvingo, most people who planted crops will not see much of a harvest this year.

The gold panners near the Tokwe River also complain that even when they have money there is no food to buy in the stores. It is a common complaint in Zimbabwe, which is in the grips its worst food shortage in recent memory. The U.N. World Food Program is feeding roughly 75 percent of the rural population in Masvingo province.

But the gold panners here say they are not getting food aid.

One person says he is in a new resettlement area, and the World Food Program does not cover those areas.

Another one says he lives on one of the newly resettled farms, and the World Food Program does not go there.

And that points to the second factor economists blame for Zimbabwe's food shortage, upheaval in the agricultural sector. Formerly white owned commercial farms have been divided up and distributed to black would-be farmers.

The head of the World Food Program office in Masvingo Province, Haile Gebreselassie, says the resettled farmers are hungry largely because of the drought. Mr. Gebreselassie is not related to the world famous long distance runner of the same name.

"The government was supposed to provide seeds and fertilizers, in advance, and this was one of the critical factors," he said. "When the rain didn't come, when the onset of the rain was delayed, the seed was eaten. Even the fertilizer that was given to people, some of it was not even being used, it was sold just to buy some food."

Some critics say the government did not manage to provide seed and fertilizer to most of the new farmers, let alone tractors and plows. The critics say few of the new farmers have agricultural training or experience, and the government did not really prepare them to make a living from the soil.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, says the drought is only partly to blame for the new farmers' crop failure.

"But even if rain had come, those people who were given the land were not given seed, they were not given title deeds," he said. "There is no infrastructure, they have no plowing implements. So the worst thing of all is the food, the people are suffering terribly, not getting food. People living five days without food. Occasionally some people dying from lack of food."

World Food Program officials admit they are not currently distributing food in former commercial farming areas, where the farms have now been given to blacks.

Privately, some aid workers say donor nations, including Britain and the United States, are refusing to allow their food donations to go to resettled farmers. They say the donors are opposed to Zimbabwe's land reform program and do not want to support people who have benefited from it.

Officially, though, the World Food Program says it simply does not have enough resources right now to reach everyone in Zimbabwe who needs help. WFP officials say they are currently trying to assess the need among newly resettled farmers, and may expand their aid distributions to those areas in the future.