Land and property rights took center stage at the opening of a two-day investment conference in Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe passionately defended Zimbabwe's land reform program and blamed the British for not compensating the farmers for the loss of their land.

President Robert Mugabe made the defense of Zimbabwe's land reform program launched in 2000 to answer a question on compensation by Trevor Gifford, president of the mostly white Commercial Farmers' Union.

The farmers lost their farms in the chaotic and often violent initiative. Mr. Mugabe told the conference that the responsibility for compensation lies squarely on the shoulders of former colonial power Britain. He said this was agreed to at the conference that brought about Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. He added that this has now been incorporated into the constitution.

"If you read the constitution it says the responsibility to pay compensation is that of the British government," Mugabe said. "We pay compensation for improvements, developments and whatever you can evaluate as improvements. That's our obligation and we have honored that."
Mr. Mugabe's colleagues in the government of national unity also contributed to the land debate. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai noted that while there may be disagreement on the way the land reform was carried out, there was agreement on the need for it. He said a lot is being done to rectify what went wrong.

"We need to rectify the problems surrounding the land reform program for the last ten years and that that program starts with the land audit followed by the land commission which will deal with all matters arising out of that audit and I am sure there are many, including issues of compensation, issues of title issues of disputes on land," he said. " I also say that perhaps we need now to move to a phase where the land issue in Zimbabwe has to be depoliticized, deracialized so that we deal with the phase of agricultural productivity."

Before agricultural production plummeted following the land reform program, agriculture - particularly tobacco - earned Zimbabwe most of its foreign currency. Mr. Mugabe's critics says the land reform program and his other economic policies reduced Zimbabwe from being the bread-basket of the region into a country where about five million or nearly half the population depend on food handouts each year.

Agriculture is seen as key to getting Zimbabwe's economy working again.  The unity government hopes the investment conference will persuade potential investors to put their money into agriculture as well as into other sectors such as mining, manufacturing and tourism.

Investment and government officials also addressed investment procedures and the benefits for those who choose to invest here.  The conference continues Friday.