Feeding a famine

Zimbabwe | Politically created and sustained famine "dwarfs" those of Ethiopia and Sudan that captured so many headlines. Church groups are stepping in to relieve suffering and call governments to act. But the problems of Zimbabwe are not likely to end before its dictatorship does

Issue: "Who is Tom Daschle?," Oct. 12, 2002

In the streets of Zimbabwe the question is basic: Will the food last until the end of the month? Mothers and other experts agree: It probably won't.

Zimbabwe and five other nations of southern Africa face "probably the biggest famine of our lifetime," according to Clive Calver, president of World Relief. In September Mr. Calver toured the region, where 13 million people are expected to go hungry in coming months. Mr. Calver said the current famine "dwarfs" highly publicized famines in Ethiopia and Sudan of recent years.

Other experts agree that it could be the worst and most widespread run of severe hunger anywhere in the last 60 years. "We have seen a frightening and rapid deterioration in the condition of many children," said Festo Kavishe, UNICEF representative in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. "We are trying to provide a timely and relevant response to save children from severe damage if not death."

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World Food Program figures show the number of underweight children has risen this year from one of every five Zimbabwean children to almost one of four, while measurable evidence of stunted growth has also piled up: from 33 percent to 43 percent. Evidence is apparent in the streets as well. Longer lines form at the bread shops each week. At the same time the bread supply is ever smaller. Few even bother to wait for grain; the maize supply ran out long ago in many areas.

Prolonged drought across southern Africa is the overarching reason for food shortages. In addition to Zimbabwe, countries affected are Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia. But each affected country has its own secondary factors, too. In Malawi, for instance, the AIDS epidemic is compounding food scarcity. Twenty percent of the population is HIV positive. That means field hands are few and orphaned children are many.

At a nursery school in central Malawi supported by World Relief and churches in Wisconsin, Mr. Calver visited with 50 children. Afterwards a local clergyman warned him that due to the food shortage "in three months these children are going to die." A dozen other clergymen told Mr. Calver they have church members surviving on leaves and roots, and burial plots where famine victims are packed five to a grave.

Political strife is making Zimbabwe the epicenter of the famine crisis. Although 6 million Zimbabweans are at risk of starvation, President Robert Mugabe wages a public-policy campaign that is devastating the country's food supply.

Until early September, the Mugabe government banned imports of genetically modified grain. The move eliminated food donations from the United States and other countries at a time when the country's maize crop had completely failed. Some aid workers say the government is requiring them to distribute ground maize (to avoid planting of genetically modified whole grain), a processing step that slows food distribution and makes food spoil more quickly.

Mugabe opponents also believe the president is directing food aid to his own political strongholds, while denying food to growing numbers of areas where the regime is opposed. The state-run Grain Marketing Board has authority over grain imports. Last month the government seized 30 metric tons of food at the South African border, a shipment bought with funds from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country's leading opposition party. Government officials charged that the agency did not have a permit for the shipment.

"Those supporting the opposition are denied food aid," said Derek Carlsen, a pastor in the eastern city of Mutare. "This is a systematic campaign to do away with the opposition."

Opposition to the president has grown since he began a "fast track" land redistribution program two years ago. The program's stated goal is to take land from rich white commercial farmers and turn it over to landless poor and middle-class black Zimbabweans. In practice, the program amounts to little more than a system of payoffs to Mugabe cronies. Party hacks and militias receive roughly $10 a day to move in as squatters on white-owned farms. Over time the landowners are driven out by violence or intimidation or because squatters interfere with operations. Human Rights Watch charges that Mugabe militias "have carried out serious acts of violence against farm owners, farm workers, and, using occupied farms as bases for attacks, against residents of surrounding areas."

Black farm workers, meanwhile, are excluded from the program. That means that for 5,000 white farmers evicted from their commercial operations, 1.5 million black laborers also lost their jobs. Commercial agriculture, once the bedrock of Zimbabwe's economy, is in collapse. Zimbabwe's dollar has lost nearly half its value. For white farmers not yet targeted for resettlement, land values have plummeted. And most people are hungry.


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