Thursday, April 06, 2006

International Development: Military has taken control of food production by small-scale farmers in parts of southern Zimbabwe

The military has taken control of food production by small-scale farmers in parts of southern Zimbabwe, a rights NGO headed by church leaders claimed on Wednesday.

The Solidarity Peace Trust alleged that under the guise of Operation Taguta/Sisuthi or 'Operation Eat Well', launched last year to help revive the agriculture sector, army units have "hijacked plots and maize harvests in the southern province of Matabeleland, leaving the smallholder-farmers with no income or food.

"The fact that they have taken away the farmers' food, which is rightfully theirs - produced by their hard labour - is a hugely immoral issue," commented Bishop Rubin Phillip, the Anglican Bishop of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Phillip chairs the trust, along with Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.Phillip and Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg in South Africa, who visited Matabeleland last week to investigate the impact of the deployment of the army on rural communities, released a report on their findings at a press conference in Johannesburg. The trust also released a videorecording of interviews with some of the affected farmers.

The church leaders described the operation as "Command Agriculture" and claimed that soldiers had seized early maize harvests on some farms and threatened to take custody of the produce due in the next few weeks. This was a violation of the Grain Marketing Board Act, which allows producers to keep output needed for household consumption. The trust has asked the government to respect the rights of small-scale farmers.

"Plot-holders perceive that they are being treated as indentured labour, with no rights and no claim over the produce they have laboured all summer to produce," the report commented.

The soldiers, insisting that only maize could be grown on the plots, have destroyed vegetable gardens and fruits trees that supplemented the incomes and diet of small-scale farmers during the lean season, alleged Dowling.

"This destruction has turned plot-holders into paupers overnight."

Soldiers with limited knowledge of agriculture had spent more than a month tilling the land for the farmers, which delayed maize planting, the church leaders alleged. In some cases, the farmers were unable to make use of the good rains this year - "the best in 20 years" - and had failed to plant at all, Dowling said.

One of the farmers in the videorecording claimed the soldiers had threatened to beat him if he refused to obey them. Phillip said they had also received complaints of solders sexually abusing schoolgirls in some of the villages. "The presence of soldiers ... has disrupted the social fabric and left people angry and afraid," the report noted.

The church leaders claimed that the deployment of the army to the rural areas had been made with the Rural District Elections, due in September, in mind: the plan was to take the produce from the rural areas to ensure that the urban population was fed to prevent any unrest over food shortages.

Didymus Mutasa, Minister of National Security, who chairs the National Taskforce on Food Security, dismissed the allegations as "lies".

He confirmed that the army had been deployed under Operation Taguta/Sisuthi to revive the agriculture sector. "They are going to help small-scale farmers till their land to grow maize - they will also grow maize on other state-owned land in the country to boost our maize production. As you know, we do not have enough maize and we have to buy from South Africa, which is very expensive."

The maize produced would be sold by the army, which would deduct a share of the profit for its services and the remainder would be given to the farmer, he explained.

News reports suggested that the government launched Operation Taguta/Sisuthi last year, but had been unable to raise the full US $151 million required. Quoting a Zimbabwean parliamentary report, the privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent said the initiative aimed to produce 2.3 million mt of maize.

However, despite a good rainy season, the national maize output is expected to reach only 900,000 mt, or around two-thirds of the country's requirement, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Zimbabwe has experienced food shortages for the past four years, mainly due to erratic weather conditions, the impact of the chaotic fast-track land reform programme on the agricultural sector and a lack of foreign currency to import inputs, such as fuel and fertiliser.

Reproduced with the kind permission of IRIN
Copyright IRIN 2006

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