Monday, December 27, 2004

The Great Equalizer

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP)

Farmers, many of them black Zimbabweans resettled on formerly white-owned properties, have so far plowed and prepared only one fourth of the land available for planting for next year's food harvests, the state media reported Thursday.

Local Government Minister Ignatious Chombo, head of a panel state officials reviewing land preparations, said slightly less than 2.4 million acres out of an estimated 9.6 million acres have been tilled during current seasonal rains.

He blamed the slow pace of preparation on shortages of fertilizer, other inputs, tractors and mechanical equipment and urged farmers to set up tillage cooperatives to utilize more manual labor and animal-drawn plows, the state Herald reported.

The newspaper quoted Shadreck Mlambo, head of research and extension services in the agriculture ministry, saying tillage lagged far behind its targets for the time of year.

"And time is fast running out," he said.

The government has acknowledged that a fleet of state-owned tractors used to help impoverished farmers has been hit by continuous breakdowns and shortages of spare parts.

Of 700 tractors deployed by one government agency, only 304 were still operating.

Farmers have also suffered acute shortages of gasoline.

Zimbabwe, once a regional breadbasket, was plunged into its worst political and economic crisis after President Robert Mugabe's government began seizing more than 5,000 of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to blacks and ruling party officials in 2000.

The often-violent land reform program, combined with erratic rains, have crippled the nation's agriculture-based economy.

Inflation is running at 149 percent, the highest in the world.

The government argues redistribution of land was needed to correct colonial-era injustices in land ownership by the descendants of mostly British settlers.


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