Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rural Zim faces hunger

The food situation in rural areas of the county is so dire that people are clamouring for something to eat and schools are appealing for help for hungry children, according to leading aid agencies.

The warnings of mass hunger come as members of the governing elite who’ve taken over commercial farms are reprimanded for using their land as “weekend picnic venues”.

Southern Africa's food security warning organisation, FSEWS, said Zimbabwe will bring in from the fields only 600,000 tonnes of maize, ordinary people's staple food, during the impending harvest season against the average annual consumption of 1.8 million tonnes.

Steady, soaking rains have robbed Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe of drought as his standard excuse for nose-diving agricultural production - this being the sixth successive year of crop failure. Until six years ago, agricultural exports to the rest of the region and to the European Community were the country's leading foreign exchange earners.

FSEWS, the Food Security Early Warning System of the Southern African Development Community, said Zimbabwe will have to import 1.4 million tonnes of maize, 200,000 tonnes of wheat, 40,000 tonnes of sorghum and 6,000 tonnes of rice in coming months in order to avert widespread starvation-related deaths.

The minimum cost of such imports for a country that is fundamentally broke - suffering from an official inflation of 800 per cent and only limited foreign exchange reserves - will be at least 350 million US dollars for the maize alone.

In February, the Zimbabwe government struggled to raise 9 million US dollars to pay the International Monetary Fund and thus avoid becoming the first country since Czechoslovakia 52 years ago to be expelled from the world's most important lending institution. The country must find another 120 million US dollars to service IMF payment arrears in the next few months.

Zimbabwe now has the dubious distinction of having what the United Nations has called the fastest-shrinking economy, the highest inflation and the weakest currency in the world - coupled with systematic human rights abuses and the collapse of the rule of law.

"The food situation is grave," said Barbara Shenstone, CARE International's country director in Zimbabwe. "There just isn't food in the rural areas. People are clamouring for food everywhere. Schools are asking for help for hungry children. Most of the vulnerable are eating less than one meal a day."

Zvikomborero, a 33-year-old firewood vendor whose home in the Harare suburb of Mbare was destroyed last year in Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth), presented as an urban renewal scheme, said, "My children are now eating out of a garbage dump. We are washing potato skins and eating them. We are starving. You can say we are dead."
Mugabe's ZANU PF government's notorious Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which when it began in 2000 involved the mass invasion of commercial farms by so-called veterans of the 1970s liberation war and landless peasants, marked also the beginning of the agricultural industry's collapse.

After more than 4,000 commercial farmers were driven from their properties, the initial invaders were themselves pushed from the farms, which were redistributed to members of President Mugabe's family, government ministers, top ZANU PF party officials, senior army, air force and police officials, and compliant judges and journalists.

Few of the "new farmers" are producing crops. In a rare admission of government failure, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sylvester Nguni said they lacked the skills to produce on what he called a "commercial or even subsistence level"....

International food aid is seemingly abused on a widespread basis. Government distribution agents, through whom international agencies are compelled to distribute supplies, tightly control to whom it is given. Local government officials, youth militias, village chiefs and other affiliates of ZANU PF tightly control donor-feeding schemes: they make sure that food goes to communities who proclaim loyalty to ZANU PF, and consequently millions of needy people go hungry. Many donor agencies have withdrawn or been pushed out as a result of these pressures.

Government officials deny the seriousness of the food situation. Both Mugabe and Mutasa constantly assert that the country has adequate food reserves. Denying that Zimbabweans needed international help, Mugabe said, "We are not hungry. Why foist this food on us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."

Corruption by high-ranking senior government officials and politicians has worsened the food crisis. Politicians who enjoy political protection from prosecution have looted scarce supplies from the Grain Marketing Board, the sole official grain procurement and distribution agency, to sell on the black market and smuggle to neighbouring countries.

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