Zimbabwe white farmers vow to stay put

HARARE - Zimbabwe's remaining white commercial farmers yesterday vowed to remain in the crisis-hit country despite numerous attempts by other African countries to entice them to relocate and help increase farm output there.

President Robert Mugabe's government has since 2000 expropriated thousands of white-owned farms after often violent invasions by government-backed veterans of the country's 1970s struggle against white rule.

The government is proposing a constitutional amendment that will stop individuals whose land is seized for re-distribution from making court challenges, except for the amount of compensation for improvements made on the land. No compensation will be paid for the land itself.

"Despite these negatives, the farmers have not given up on their country and are doing what they can to get back into real unfettered production," vice-president of the largely white Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) Stoff Hawgood told an annual congress in Harare.

Hawgood said there was a demand for skilled Zimbabwean white farmers on the continent after they successfully launched a farming project in Nigeria where a group of displaced farmers have been given large tracts of land by the Abuja authorities.

DIDYMUS Mutasa . . . said government will not invite back evicted white farmers

"Other African countries are enquiring everyday how they too can benefit from this opportunity to re-start their commercial agriculture," he said.

The CFU said government agriculture policy continued to be fragmented which had accelerated the decimation of commercial farming.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono has said while some new black farmers were doing well, he was disappointed with the performance of others, adding that the government should allow some of the skilled former white commercial farmers to resume operations in strategic areas such as horticulture.

But Security Minister Didymus Mutasa said at the weekend the government would not invite back white farmers whose land was seized despite calls by the central bank chief to allow them to help the struggling agriculture sector.

Agriculture, once the mainstay of the economy which used to contribute 40 percent to national exports, makes up 18 percent of gross domestic product, and employs 30 percent of the formal labour force and 70 percent of the population.

Official statistics show that the sector saw output falling by 3.3 percent in 2004 having dropped by nearly 20 percent between 2001 and 2003, worsening food shortages which the World Food Programme says could threaten up to 4 million people.

The CFU says that nearly 4,000 white farmers have been dispossessed, leaving between 600 and 800 still on their land.

But Mugabe has defended the land seizures as necessary to redress colonial ownership imbalances created by Britain in the 1890s although his many critics say the seizures caused food shortages because the new owners lack expertise and financial resources to maintain production.