From The TimesJune 27, 2007
Weeds and wasted lives on the farm run by UN’s rural kingpin
The Environment Minister and world authority on sustainable development has let his once-thriving land go to rack and ruin
Jan Raath in Karoi
It looks as if no one has lived here for years. Tall, dense elephant grass grows everywhere. There is a rutted track that passes a nearly empty dam where a truck has broken down and been left to its own fate.
Sheds and barns for curing tobacco are deserted. Gates hang open and there is scant fencing. A fallen tree lies across the track. The only sign of activity is a flock of sheep owned by a neighbouring white farmer who leases the unused grazing.
This is the farm of Francis Nhema, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment, who became chairman of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development last month. He occupied Nyamanda farm, just south of the small town of Karoi in northern Zimbabwe in 2003, a year after its owner, Chris Shepherd, and his family were driven out by lawless ruling party militias.
On its 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres), Mr Shepherd had planted 80 hectares of high-grade tobacco and 200 hectares of maize. Cattle grazed on 300 hectares.
Paying for the man they hate
Last year Mr Nhema managed three hectares of tobacco and ten hectares of maize.
“This year there is nothing,” said a former farm security guard, who asked to remain anonymous. “There is a small patch of soya beans. The rest is weeds. The whole 1,000 hectares are weeds.”
Mr Nhema, who is now the world’s leading international authority on global policies for the prudent management of rural and industrial resources, has never been on the farm for more than a few hours and comes once every few months, said the guard. A relative lived in the house for a while “but he knew nothing about farming”, and it is now empty, he said.
The 4,300 farms seized illegally by President Mugabe since 2000 have followed the same pattern overwhelmingly, and turned one of the most robust and enterprising agricultural industries into a model of neglect.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum says this week in a report – the first detailed study on the human rights violations against white farmers and their black workers during the land grab – that there is “a plausible case for crimes against humanity” having been committed in the past seven years by Mr Mugabe’s regime.
“There is a compelling need for these to be investigated and the perpetrators to be charged and tried,” it says.
More than a million people living on commercial farms suffered incidents of assault, torture, being held hostage, illegal detention and death threats, it estimates. More than 10,000 farm workers are believed to have died after their removal and the consequent loss of employment, housing, nutrition and access to health-care on the farms.
Mr Nhema’s farm is a case in point. Nyamanda had 200 people living and working under Mr Shepherd. Since then the number has dwindled to 32.
“About 60 have died,” the guard said. “When Mr Shepherd left, they started dying. Many children died. We used to get meat and vegetables and upfu [maizemeal, the national staple]. In April Nhema was paying us Z$32,000 (£64) a month. You can’t buy salt with that.” The figure is equivalent to the official minimum wage for farm workers.
The human rights report says that Mr Mugabe’s “ill-ad-vised land reform process” had “devastated the economy and created an enormous humanitarian crisis”.
Its findings “point to an organised seizure of land planned by officials, not a spontaneous seizure by landless blacks, as the Government claims”. It estimated that farmers’ and workers’ losses amounted to $8.5 billion (£4.3 billion). Compensation of anything near that figure would bankrupt the Government, it said.
The minister has professed ignorance about the state of the farm. “I don’t know about that,” he said, and blamed the neglect on others he said were also occupying the farm.
“That is not true,” said the guard. “He is the only one. This is an empty place. If you shout ‘hullo’, your voice comes back to you.”
— Zimbabwe's maize production fell 74% between 1999 and 2004
— The national cattle herd shrank by 90% and production of flue-cured tobacco fell from 237m kg (233,200 tons) to 70m kg
— Real GDP per capita dropped 46.2% between 1998 and 2005
— Average wage $760 annually, the same in purchasing power terms as the Southern Rhodesian in 1953
— The UN says that 4.1 million people in the southern provinces face serious food shortages at the start of 2008
Sources: Centre for Global Development; UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; CIA World Factbook; Times archives
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