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Zimbabwe Farmers Suspend Sale of Tobacco - 2003-08-08

Angry Zimbabwean tobacco farmers have suspended the sale of their produce twice in the past week to try to force the government to give them a better exchange rate. The farmers say they face bankruptcy if they are forced to continue selling tobacco at the official rate.

Tobacco is Zimbabwe's number one foreign currency earner. But farmers say that may change if the government does not address their complaints.

The tobacco is priced in U.S. dollars, and the farmers get their payment in Zimbabwe dollars at a rate of 800-1 U.S. dollar.

The farmers say that is far from sufficient because it costs as much as 6,000 Zimbabwe dollars to buy a U.S. dollar on the parallel market, the only place they are available.

As a result, the farmers have to pay extremely high prices for imported products such as fertilizers and other chemicals for their farms. In addition, the cost of transporting their crops is high because of the high price of imported fuel.

The tobacco farmers are demanding that government revise the official exchange rate upwards to at least 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars.

One angry tobacco farmer told the state controlled Herald newspaper the farmers are suffering huge losses.

The spokesman for the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, Oliver Gawe, says at the start of the tobacco selling season in April, the government promised to review the exchange rate every quarter. But he says this has not been done.

Mr. Gawe says Zimbabwe has experienced a drop of 66 percent in its tobacco output since the start of President Robert Mugabe's sometimes violent land reform program in 2000. The program was meant to take land from white commercial farmers and give it to landless blacks.

The president himself has admitted that things did not go according to plan, as senior officials of his ruling party grabbed some of the land for themselves. A lack of money and expertise has led to an all-around reduction of agricultural production.

And Mr. Gawe of the Tobacco Association says another drop in tobacco production is imminent if the situation is not addressed soon. Representatives of the tobacco industry are talking to the government to try to find a solution to the problem.