Harvesting a disaster

July 01, 2002

IN THE 1930s, Josef Stalin created a terrible famine throughout the Soviet Union by collectivizing thriving private farms. Today, something akin to this is happening in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's government is in the process of confiscating 4,874 of the country's most productive commercial farms.

Since June 23, their owners (most of whom are white) have been legally prohibited from taking care of the crops or farm animals. They must vacate their homes by Aug. 10, when the government takes over the farms.

With many areas of southern Africa in the throes of famine, this wholesale land grab could lead to disaster. Already over the past two years, as political and economic uncertainty have increased, Zimbabwe's corn and cereal production has plummeted more than 60 percent.

Indeed, there is an urgent need to change the unequal and race-based patterns of land occupation; however, Mr. Mugabe's actions circumvent Zimbabwe's laws and ignore well-developed earlier plans for reform.

Nothing underscores this more than the fact that few of the black farm workers -- who have gained familiarity with agribusiness -- are among the beneficiaries. The choice farms tend to go to die-hard Mugabe supporters -- from high-ranking army and police officers to civil servants -- who are unlikely to keep them running successfully. Or land is given to urban dwellers, particularly to war veterans, who are equally ill-equipped to deal with the vagaries of a drought-prone climate.

Over the past several years, many foreign governments -- including Britain and the United States -- have tried to encourage the Mugabe government to address land reform in a fairer and more orderly manner. But as Mr. Mugabe has grown older and more autocratic, he has become increasingly hostile to such advice.

This has put outside donors in a bind. Like many other foreign countries, the U.S. government has ended cooperation with the Mugabe regime and it now channels $27.5 million in humanitarian aid through an array of nongovernmental organizations. Unhappy with this, Zimbabwean authorities last month prevented 10,000 tons of badly needed U.S. corn from entering the country.

When eight leading industrial countries met in Canada last week, they formulated a program for aiding Africa. But they avoided mentioning Mr. Mugabe or Zimbabwe -- because that might have triggered squabbling with African leaders.

Silence cannot hide Mr. Mugabe's responsibility. More than 5 million people are going hungry in Zimbabwe. The situation is expected to get far worse -- because of the dogmatic myopia of an aging president who is either out of touch or out of his mind.

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