By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 6, 2007
JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 5 -- Zimbabwe has granted long-term leases to 19 white farmers in a step toward allowing as many as 1,000 white-owned commercial farms to resume operating legally after years of land seizures, a top government adviser said.
The issuing of the leases is the latest indication that Zimbabwe is pulling back from the harshest elements of a seven-year-old land reform program that has devastated its once-thriving agricultural sector and helped push the annual inflation rate over 1,000 percent, the highest in the world.
The adviser, Sam Moyo of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, the capital, said the government is not abandoning an effort that has given farms to tens of thousands of landless black peasants. But he said it is now clear that Zimbabwe has sufficient fertile land to also allocate modest plots to most of the white farmers who remain.
"There's enough land to accommodate a thousand white farmers," Moyo said from Harare. He outlined the plan in Thursday's editions of Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Many white farmers have rejected the move as a desperate bid to revive the country's economy without restoring their property rights. The new leases are for 99 years but include conditions that would allow government officials to easily revoke them, and the leases can be bought and sold only with the approval of the government.
Farmers say that few banks will lend the capital necessary to restart major commercial operations without legally recognized, transferable deeds.
"They don't seem to be serious," said Trevor Gifford, vice president of Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers Union, speaking from the eastern border city of Mutare. "Those 99-year leases they've issued are not worth the paper they're printed on."
Gifford was once a prominent promoter of the government's on-again, off-again effort to allow some white farmers to legally return to their land. But his public optimism about the government's intentions dimmed in May after his 600-acre farm was taken over. Ten families now inhabit the farm, and commercial cultivation has halted there, he said.
"It's very obvious the government is not interested in production, or even protecting the existing businesses," Gifford said Friday.
Land has long been an emotional, politically explosive issue in Zimbabwe, a southern African country of 12.2 million people that was once the region's breadbasket, producing lucrative surpluses of corn and tobacco.
Before the land invasions began in 2000, an estimated 4,500 white families owned most of the fertile land in a country whose citizens were overwhelmingly landless blacks. The average size of commercial farms in that era, Moyo said, was nearly 5,000 acres.
President Robert Mugabe, in power since the end of white-minority rule in 1980, backed the land invasions, which were spearheaded by self-proclaimed veterans of the guerrilla movement he once led.
Land redistribution, however chaotic and violent, was popular in some areas, but many of the new owners -- including some members of Zimbabwe's business and political elite -- lacked the expertise to run large-scale farms. Agricultural output collapsed, as did a national economy long dependent on farm exports. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, became a chronic recipient of massive international food aid.
Most of the white farmers have fled -- in some cases starting new agricultural ventures in Zambia, Mozambique or Nigeria -- or left the business.
Moyo estimated that 600 white farmers continue to work in Zimbabwe, though many of them on plots one-tenth their previous size, and said that 300 or 400 former farmers would like to return to work. The Commercial Farmers Union gives similar estimates, saying that nearly 1,000 current and former white farmers have applied for long-term leases from the government.
Among the contentious issues remaining is whether white farmers must surrender the deeds to their land to qualify for new leases. Many have locked them away in safes or in bank deposit boxes in other countries, with the intention of waging legal battles to reclaim the property when Mugabe is no longer president.
Moyo said that he did not expect that white farmers would have to relinquish their deeds but that the documents have been made void by a 2005 constitutional change nationalizing all property in Zimbabwe.
Government officials have for the past year made contradictory statements about the nature and extent of their plans to issue long-term leases to white farmers.
Moyo said the debate has often been confused by semantic distinctions, with the government seeing the new leases as an extension of the land reform program rather than a reversal of policy.
"What they are against is having oversized white farms, or too many white farms," he said.