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Zimbabwe farmers demand restitution

Thousands of white farmers who were forced off of their land in Zimbabwe in 2000 are still waiting for compensation

White Zimbabwean farmers say the government has yet to compensate them for lost land.
White Zimbabwean farmers say the government has yet to compensate them for lost land.

HARARE // The cash-strapped Zimbabwe government is failing to compensate white commercial farmers whose land it took by force and redistributed to formerly landless blacks since 2000, say farmer advocacy groups. Justice for Agriculture (JAG), a support organisation for dispossessed farmers estimates that 250 still own their properties, while over 4,250 were forcibly evicted over the past 10 years.

Only 300 of the ejected farmers have been given compensation - and even then, only a small fraction of what the land was worth, said John Worsley-Worswick, JAG's spokesman, who lost his farm in Darwendale, north of the capital. "Most of these [300 farmers] were desperate to the point of destitution, so they accepted whatever little was offered," said Mr Worsley-Worswick. "But the bulk, more than 4,000, who owned 7,000 properties, have not been paid."

The constitution of Zimbabwe and the Land Acquisition Act require the government to compensate farmers for improvements they made to their properties, but places the responsibility of indemnifying them for the land itself on Britain, the former colonial ruler. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, has said that during the 1979 talks, which paved the way for Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, Britain agreed to pay for the land.

However, London has said it would pay for land only if the reform programme was more transparent than it is now. The land seizure campaign disrupted farm production and sparked the flight of international investors from the country, who feared for the security of their own assets. Inflation started rising then, until it reached 230 million per cent in July 2008, according to official figures. The manufacturing sector, which drew 60 per cent of its raw materials from agriculture, declined, resulting in widespread company closures and an unemployment rate of more than 85 per cent, according to independent estimates.

Because of the economic crisis, from which the country is only now emerging, the government does not have enough money to compensate white farmers. It is unclear how much in compensation the government has to pay in total, but the Commercial Farmers' Union said recently that 400 farmers need US$5 billion (Dh18.3bn). Herbert Murerwa, the minister of lands and land reform, said that the government knows its obligation to pay restitution for improvements on acquired land but accused Britain of "going back on its colonial obligation, which they agreed to at the Lancaster House talks [the 1979 independence talks held at Lancaster House in London], to pay for land constitutionally acquired for resettlement."

He said a lack of money has stalled payments to the white farmers. "Land was never bought from us when the settlers invaded Zimbabwe here in 1890," Mr Murerwa said. "It was taken from our forefathers by military conquest. "But, as a government, we have made some assessments and determined what has to be paid to some farmers. Compensation is a high priority for the government but we do not have resources. This is a matter that the inclusive government is seized with."

Trevor Gifford, the former president of the farmers' union, told the news website Zimonline that by evicting farmers and failing to pay them, the government is in violation of the constitution. "The compensation is equal to the country's present debt, about US$5 billion," Mr Gifford said. "We want it paid and paid now according to the constitution. A large number of my constituency are saying they no longer want to farm and want compensation," he added.

Mr Worsley-Worswick said that according to his own assessment, he hopes to receive US$5m as indemnity - $2m for improvements he made on the farm, another $2m for loss of income in the eight years since his ejection and $1million for relocation, legal and other costs. "The government must know that as time goes on before they compensate us, the amount of compensation continues to increase exponentially because loss of income is factored into any final claims," he said.

A report released this month by the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Mancaster urged the government to pay the dispossessed farmers soon and end the festering land issue so the country can begin to focus on its many serious challenges. "An important way to help that process [economic recovery] is to compensate many of the farmers who lost their land," said the lead researcher, Admos Chimhowu, a Zimbabwean.

"It may be possible for the inclusive government to consider a pool of funds, probably partly supported by donors but mostly funded from local resources, to compensate the farmers for the land." foreign.desk@thenational.ae