Tobacco farms close as Zimbabwe's land fight continues

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At least 570 large-scale tobacco farms in Zimbabwe have shut down because of violence on white commercial farms, two weeks after the government agreed to end the land invasions and observe the rule of law brokered at a Commonwealth meeting in Nigeria.

Twenty of the 570 farms were invaded and occupied in the last few days, said Jane Williams, a spokeswoman for the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU). The stoppages on the 570 farms would result in the loss of 75 million kilogrammes of tobacco worth £154m, she added.

Production at about 400 other farms has also been slowed by the interference of ruling party militants.

The CFU deputy director, Jerry Grant, said yesterday: "There is no change regarding the situation on the farms, in actual fact, there is increased violence." Mr Grant accused the police of discriminating against commercial farmers in favour of the squatters who had invaded the mainly white-owned farms with the blessing of President Robert Mugabe's ruling party, Zanu-PF. He said the police had often left farmers to be harassed by the invaders.

Analysts said suspicions that the government had only agreed to the Abuja land deal to ease pressure on President Mugabe when he attends the Commonwealth heads of state and government summit in Australia early next month were being reinforced each day, with new reports of violence on the farms.

Witnesses also dismissed allegations that a white farmer from Wezda, John Bibby, and his black workers had killed two farm occupiers, Fanuel Madzvimbo and Alexio Nyamadzawo, as widely reported in the state media. The witnesses said the two men had died after fallingduring a stampede, from one of three lorries carrying war veterans hired to attack farm workers at Mr Bibby's Bita Farm. The Zimbabwe National Army has now been deployed on Bita Estate to curb massive looting.

Analysts said that President Mugabe's failure to make a categorical statement denouncing farm violence – and his government's failure to issue a detailed statement about how it planned to deal with illegal squatters – were important pointers that "Abuja had always been doomed from day one".

"Abuja got it all wrong in the first place by identifying land as being at the core of the crisis in Zimbabwe. In fact, land is at the core of Zanu-PF's re-election strategy," said Lovemore Madhuku, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe.

John Robertson, an economist, said the government had done nothing to keep its commitments at Abuja.

Instead, he said, the government was fabricating claims that farmers were stage-managing the land invasions. "What even makes me more cynical about the government is that they continue to designate [for seizure] more farms even now, after the Abuja deal," said Mr Robertson.

Earlier this week, Zanu-PF's ruling committee had unanimously ratified the Nigerian-brokered deal bringing hope of an end to months of conflict and attacks on white farmers.

In return for Zimbabwe agreeing to respect the rule of law, the British Government has agreed to pay £36m to compensate the white farmers whose land would be redistributed to poor black families.