Zimbabwe's crops burn as farmers boycott sale

"It is the best growing season I have ever had," says Andrew Tozer, who farms tobacco 30 miles north-west of Harare. When he was harvesting his bumper crop, Mr Tozer assumed he would be among the first on the tobacco auction floors when they open tomorrow in Zimbabwe's capital.

The start of the annual auction from the world's third-largest tobacco producer, which attracts buyers from across the globe, promises to be eloquent testimony to the mess Zimbabwe is in. Mr Tozer will be absent, and so will many of his fellow farmers.

The tobacco crop has become a target of the squatter army laying waste to white farms in Zimbabwe as political violence linked to forthcoming elections continues. In the Wedza district east of Harare, 150 people seized a farm overnight on Sunday, burning a 1,000-bale barnload of tobacco.Youths smashed the windows of the house of Farirai Mutengiwa, a black farm worker, and her husband, Ishmael, as they slept on Dean Farm, poured petrol inside and set it alight.

Mr Mutengiwa suffered severe burns to his hands, while his wife's face was badly burnt in the attack. Their assailants warned that they would be killed for supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Tobacco industry insiders say auction registrations from 4,500 white-owned farms, 1,000 of which have been invaded by so-called war veterans demanding land redistribution and backed by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), might be less than one-third of that usually expected at this stage of the tobacco cycle.

For Mr Tozer there is an obvious problem. He is in Harare, with his wife and two children, having fled his farm. His tobacco, the fruit of 18 months' labour, is still in his sheds, not yet graded for the big sale. He is not sure when it will be safe for him to return home. "I'm totally sick," he says, exasperatedly. "We just don't know what is happening."

For him, like most farmers, there are other disincentives to early sale in an auction that lasts until October. Chief is the government's deafness to repeated calls from all sectors of industry for a devaluation of the Zim dollar in response to economic deterioration. Without that, farmers will be forced to sell at enormous loss.

A call for an auction boycott by some members of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association failed because of financial and political concerns. There were fears that President Robert Mugabe, who has already labelled farmers enemies of the state, might accuse the farmers of economic sabotage. Now farmers must make up their own minds.

"It is a bloody disaster," says another one. "Political instability and economic slump mean many of us will have to play a game of wait and see."

That is bad news for the government, which is stalling on elections in the face of the first real opposition challenge in years. As economists warn of imminent financial free-fall in an already crippled country, the government's coffers lie empty. The tobacco crop was worth £220m last year and is the country's biggest foreign currency earner. President Mugabe is refusing to devalue the currency for fear of inflation, which is already at 60 per cent.

Farmers have their own pressures. The tobacco, not highly perishable, can wait, but nervous bankers cannot. "Seventy-five per cent of farmers borrow from the banks for the following year's crop," says Mr Tozer. Some cannot afford to sell at the value of the Zim dollar, but others cannot afford not to. Mr Tozer worries that, in the chaos, tobacco firms might also hold off and try to buy this year's crop later for a song. "It is a vicious situation," he says.

John Robertson, a leading economist and critic of the government, has warned that the next few weeks could see Zimbabwe fall into complete economic and social disarray. Farmers evicted from farms by the gangs led by war veterans say they have not planted winter crops, and bread and maize shortages are already predicted.

Shortages of such basics sparked riots in earlier years. If the economic situation was bad before the latest crisis, the campaign of violence and intimidation backed by Zanu-PF has made it much worse.