New diaspora: Zimbabwe's farmhands

Land invasions are forcing workers off commercial farms, as agricultural woes grow.

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In Zimbabwe's ongoing anarchic, frequently violent redistribution of land, the winners are often people with no farming experience. Meanwhile, up to 2 million farmhands and their dependents - 15 percent of the population - may soon be left homeless and jobless.

Experts and United Nations staff are worried the land-reform program will unleash a flood of internal refugees that will only worsen the country's political and economic turmoil.

The displacement comes amid an increasingly critical situation in agriculture. Although harvests have been abundant, there is little fuel to transport grain to mills. Intimidated by armed land invasions, many of Zimbabwe's commercial growers are not planting for the next season, raising fears of food shortages next year.

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Land redistribution in Zimbabwe is aimed at diminishing white farmers' dominance of the most fertile tracts. The farmhands live and labor on these large commercial farms.

Farmworkers might reasonably be expected to benefit first from redistribution of commercial farmland. Instead, "The figures we're getting ... indicate that a lot of farmworkers are now being displaced," says Godfrey Magaramomba, director of Farm Community Trust, a farmworkers' rights organization. "These people have nowhere to go but the streets."

"It's not fair that people from outside the farm property are getting the land and we are being forced out," says Maybe Joe, a mother of three who lives in a farmworkers' settlement on Brink Burn Farm near Bindura, northeast of the capital, Harare.

"I've got nowhere to go," says Rosemary Tapureta, another Brink Burn farm resident. "I don't even have money for transport anywhere."

Trust officials worry that the only alternative work for the women is to prostitute themselves to men working at a nearby nickel mine.

Recently speeded up by President Robert Mugabe, the land-reallocation program is short on detail, and decisions on land allocation are being made arbitrarily by those leading farm invasions, often in opposition to directives from higher-ups. "The criteria for selecting land beneficiaries are not clear," says Solomon Taruvinga of the Farm Community Trust.

Land invaders are using intimidation and violence to force droves of farmworkers off the properties where many of the laborers were born, according to the Trust and a UN report now being prepared on the issue.

Mr. Magaramomba says he doubts many displaced farmworkers will end up with their own farm plots, distribution of which is being determined on the ground mainly by war veterans and members of Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. Some provincial governors and district-level officials have directed the war vets to include farm workers in land allocations. But the Trust says that directive is largely being ignored.

According to the Trust and others interviewed, including land invaders, it appears the people most benefiting from the current land campaign are urbanites, war veterans, peasants who already have land in Zimbabwe's large 'communal' areas, politicians, police officers, soldiers and business people.

Farmworkers are being left out of the current land reform for a number of reasons, according to the Trust and the UN. They are considered outsiders by Zimbabweans who live and farm on communal land, much of which has been degraded thanks to overcropping, overgrazing, and population growth. "Many farmworker families migrated recently or perhaps two or three generations ago to Zimbabwe from Zambia, Malawi, or Mozambique," says Atwell Manyemba of the Farm Community Trust.

Considered 'foreigners' undeserving of Zimbabwean land, the farmhands often lack identity documents, and their low social and political position makes them fearful of asserting themselves. Living in small groups isolated from the rural mainstream in general and ZANU-PF activities in particular, they have been accused of siding with the white farmers and the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which came close to winning half the seats in the June parliamentary elections. Ironically, says Magaramomba, "indications are that farmworkers tended to vote ZANU-PF" in that election.

The farmworkers also are caught in a Catch-22 between their employers and the land invaders. "The ZANU-PF invaders invited us to register to be considered for settlement on this farm," says Mrs. Joe. "But we didn't register, because if you appear on the list and the farm is not acquired by government [for the resettlement program], the farmer will then chase you away."

War vets now living in bushes at Brink Burn Farm have warned the farmworkers to vacate their crumbling mud huts and single-room brick houses no later than Nov. 20. Some militants invading farms tell the workers "to go back to their own countries," says Mr. Manyemba.

Mrs. Tapureta moved to Zimbabwe from war-torn Mozambique in 1983."It is possible I could go back," she says, "but all my relatives were killed in the war, and I wouldn't know where to start."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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