Poverty driving rural Zimbabweans to desperate measures

The poverty that has accompanied Zimbabwe's economic crisis has driven many desperate rural people to prostitution, robbery and gold panning to survive, the latest Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) report said.

"Cross border trading with neighbours Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana is also on the increase as households try to find any way they can to make ends meet," the report said.

With maize and wheat being sold at eight times the government-set price, and oil, salt and rice prices escalating, income generating opportunities were diminishing for rural households, FEWS NET said.

The demand for casual labour, which provided one of the few sources of cash, had declined in 90 percent of rural villages while 96 percent of villages reported a decrease in the flow of remittances from urban areas, researchers found.

As a result, 80 percent of rural households reported eating wild foods they did not normally consume, which increased the risk of poisoning.

Preliminary results from a recent assessment trip by NGOs found that the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and food aid sources were supplying only about 40 percent of food needs in the rural areas, with the remainder being met through parallel markets, wild foods, gifts and bartering.

Prospects were not much better in urban areas where workers battled inflation and many did not even receive their traditional Christmas bonus.

The government's decision to provide relief by freezing the prices on a long list of commodities saw prices shoot up on the parallel markets due to shortages and demand.

The Zambia Post reported on Tuesday that the Zambian government had lifted an anti-dumping import ban on certain commodities that speculators with foreign currency were buying in Zimbabwe and selling cheaply in Zambia. A set of controls would prevent further "dumping", the newspaper reported.

In addition to current food shortages, comparisons with previous planting patterns and harvests, combined with predicted rainfall patterns and a moderate El Nino, were causing concern over next year's food security situation.

The total area under cultivation for food crops was less than 50 percent of the 1990s average and for cash crops like tobacco, a vital foreign currency earner, it was less than 25 percent of the average, FEWS NET said.

Over the past year, foreign exchange shortages have caused disruptions to fuel supplies and the import of fertilisers and agricultural chemicals.

Agricultural production was also adversely affected by a lack of seed and fertiliser, and a lack of energy among farmers too malnourished to plant effectively.

The land redistribution exercise had also created an environment of uncertainty in the farming sector.

"If things do not improve, food security will once again be of major concern in 2003-2004," FEWS NET said.

It urged the government to review its grain distribution system and said the procurement and distribution of food aid needed to be stepped up urgently to address the unmet needs of rural households.