President Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, which has mounted a six-year campaign to seize white-owned farms, is beginning to allow some white farmers to return to their land as the country faces starvation and economic collapse.
Since November, 19 white farmers who lost ownership of their land have been granted 99-year government-backed leases on resettled farms. "We wanted to come back, because it's home," one farmer told The Independent on Sunday on his 100-hectare farm outside the capital, Harare, where he is planning to grow maize and tobacco. "Farming has been in my family for generations. We're just happy to be back on the land."
There are only about 600 white farmers left in Zimbabwe, down from 4,500 in 1999. That was the year Mr Mugabe was defeated in a referendum; from 2000 the government decided to "fast-track" land reform in an effort to win over a hostile electorate, resulting in farm seizures by supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party who claimed to be landless veterans of the country's war for independence. Dozens of white farmers and black farm workers were killed in violent land seizures.
In July 2005 Mr Mugabe declared that his land reform policy would only be complete when there was "not a single white on the farms". But a contracting economy, hyperinflation and severe food shortages have forced the authorities to allow some interested whites to return. The Land Minister, Flora Buka, said the government had received more than 200 applications so far from whites to take up farming again.
"It is a radical change of policy at this stage - but the future remains to be seen," said Eric Bloch, a Bulawayo-based economic adviser. "Are there going to be 19 token whites, or will the government continue?"
The need for land reform after independence in 1980 was generally acknowledged, even by the commercial farming sector, as a necessary reversal of British colonial-era injustices, when whites were given the best arable land at the expense of landless blacks. But many expropriated farms were given to political allies, often ending up in the hands of cabinet ministers, while many poor black farmers, in whose name the land reform was carried out, were left to fend for themselves.
Stranded without capital and fertiliser, and hit by persistent drought, many of the new farmers failed to use the land productively, transforming Zimbabwe from the bread-basket of southern Africa into a net food importer, and sending inflation soaring. The government has issued 275 leases so far in a bid to boost food production, but nearly two million Zimbabweans will need food aid in the next six months, according to the UN-backed World Food Programme.
"Farming is dead in the water," said John Robertson, a political analyst. "The banks won't accept the farms as collateral, and farmers can be removed within 90 days if they fail to comply with government requirements."
There is no sign that Mr Mugabe is preparing to ease his grip on power. Zanu-PF is about to postpone the 2008 presidential election until parliamentary elections in 2010, officially as a "cost-saving measure". But a senior loyalist has suggested that he should be made president for life.
Opening the annual Zanu-PF conference on Friday, this year entitled "Consolidating Independence through Land Reform", Mr Mugabe vowed that his country would not collapse in the face of Western pressure and "illegal" sanctions. "I know we are in difficult times... [But] Zimbabwe will never collapse," he told 3,000 cheering delegates.
Inflation, however, has now touched 1,100 per cent, and it may be too late to persuade more than a handful of white farmers to return. "A lot of the whites just gave up and emigrated out of the country," said a man who lost his farm in 2001. "Now you have white Zimbabweans farming in Zambia, South Africa, and even Nigeria. Others went to the UK or Australia - and most will not come back."
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