Mugabe's government says no Zimbabwean will starve

By Hendricks Chizhanje

HARARE - Zimbabwe Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo on Thursday said no one will starve in the southern African country despite a United Nations report earlier this week that said more than one-third of the 12 million Zimbabweans would face serious food shortages by early next year.

Gumbo insisted cash-strapped Harare, which has made a contractual agreement with neighbouring Malawi for the importation of about 400 000 tonnes of maize, has adequately prepared to cover the food deficit.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a report released on Wednesday that crop failure exacerbated Zimbabwe's economic crisis would leave more than four million Zimbabweans in need of food aid.

"Why should the people of Zimbabwe starve? We have a (food) deficit but we have a way of covering that deficit," Gumbo said.

The Agriculture Minister however did not rule out appealing for help from the international community saying the Harare administration would decide on whether to make a formal appeal for aid after studying the crop and food supply assessment report by the UN agencies Mission

"As soon as we sit down as government to see the implications of their report we will make our position (to appeal or not) known," he said.

Delays in making a formal appeal for relief support by President Robert Mugabe's government would also hamper efforts by relief agencies to mobilise food aid and deliver it to hungry Zimbabweans.

An FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission was invited by the government to visit

Zimbabwe from April 25 to May 18 to estimate the 2007 production of the main cereals and pulse crops, assess the food security situation in the country and determine the food import requirement, including food assistance needs.

The mission estimates that Zimbabwe would need 352 000 tonnes of cereals and 90 000 tonnes of other food assistance will be required to avert starvation.

Critics blame Zimbabwe 's food crisis directly on Mugabe's haphazard fast-track land reform exercise that displaced established white commercial farmers and replaced them with either incompetent or inadequately funded black farmers.

Food production plunged by about 60 percent as a result while chaos in the agriculture sector because of farm seizures also hit hard Zimbabwe's once impressive manufacturing sector that had depended on a robust farming sector for orders and inputs.

Most of Zimbabwe's firms have since the beginning of farm seizures in 2000 either closed completely or scaled down operations to below 30 percent of capacity, in a country where unemployment is more than 80 percent.