Plight of displaced farm workers highlighted

Ex-farm workers make up the bulk of Zimbabwe's estimated 100,000 displaced persons and are in need of assistance, the NGO, Refugees International (RI), has warned.

The organisation added that while former commercial farm workers had been displaced by the government's land reform programme, some of the beneficiaries of the programme have also found themselves homeless.

"Refugees International visited rural areas in Zimbabwe and met with displaced persons. One group of 50 was living in a field without shelter. They were formerly landless people who had been resettled on an expropriated commercial farm three years ago. Thus, they had been beneficiaries of land reform. But three weeks before our visit, they were ordered off their land by government authorities and their houses were burned. They were told they would be given new land, but so far nothing had been done for them," the NGO alleged.

"Another group, encountered alongside a road, also reported that they had been told to leave their lands. In both cases a prominent government official desired their land. Many farmers had not prepared their land for planting in November: no seeds, they said, and no fertiliser and no gasoline for tractors. Survival tactics in the countryside include eating livestock, gold panning, poaching wild game, and - most importantly - receiving remittances from relatives working abroad," RI said.

Ex-farm workers reportedly faced continual harassment. "Many of them have been expelled from communities in which they have attempted to resettle. They are often, according to relief workers, excluded from lists of beneficiaries for food and other international assistance. Others have been re-employed by new owners of commercial farms, but farm wages have fallen," RI noted.

While most would agree that land reform in Zimbabwe was necessary - white farmers owned most of the good agricultural land in the country - "the way it was carried out has had a disastrous impact on agriculture, the backbone of the economy".

"Production has shrunk by more than 50 percent for important crops, such as corn and tobacco, and livestock have been decimated by disease and neglect. Agricultural inputs are in short supply for the upcoming planting season in November, even though forecasters predict that rains for agriculture will be adequate this year. The consequence will be a severe food shortage for 5 million Zimbabweans - nearly half the population - between now and the next harvest season in April 2004," RI noted.

The growing need for food was coinciding with a looming break in the World Food Programme's food aid pipeline in January, due to lack of funds.

Given the current situation, RI recommended that "donors come forward immediately with additional large pledges of food aid to Zimbabwe - to arrive in the country by January 2004 when the food shortage will be most critical".

Donors should also "consider additional programmes providing high-protein food, such as corn and soybeans - expensive and in short supply in Zimbabwe - to [people living with] HIV/AIDS. The HIV infection rate in Zimbabwe is about 30 percent, one of the highest in the world".