New loans to Zimbabwe's white farmers end; land seizures advance

HARARE, Zimbabwe - The crisis facing Zimbabwe's embattled white farmers intensified Thursday, when banks cut off their financing and the government began moving landless blacks to plots the farmers used to own.

The developments raised fears of food shortages. White farmers produce nearly half the country's 2.2 million tons of corn, the staple food, and most of its capital-intensive soy and wheat crops.

''This is seriously impacting on all operations,'' said Neil Wright, chief economist at the union that represents much of the country's white farming minority.

Zimbabwe's government has said it plans to seize more than 3,000 white-owned farms and resettle hundreds of thousands of blacks on the land. On Thursday, the farmers' union said some poor blacks were being taken in government vehicles to farms targeted for seizure.

The union said 24 families were shown plots on two private farms they were told they could settle near Gweru, 170 miles southwest of Harare, the capital. The families left the properties, apparently to return later with their belongings.

The relocations continued a six-month siege of white farmers' property in Zimbabwe, where the tiny white minority owns about a third of the productive land.

In February, government-backed squatters started occupying more than 1,600 white farms, trapping some white farmers in their homes and attacking others. President Robert Mugabe called the occupations a legitimate protest against unfair ownership of land, though opposition leaders said he was just trying to boost his support among landless blacks in advance of parliamentary elections.

In the months since, the government has announced its plans to seize many of the white farms without paying compensation. Farm owners have 90 days to pack up and go after receiving official seizure notices.

The names of 800 of the seized farms have been published by the government, with some having already received official seizure orders. The remaining 2,200 have not been identified, leaving many of the country's farmers worried about planting crops they may not be around to harvest.

On Thursday, farm leaders and bankers said farmers' loans had been cut off. Greg Brackenridge, head of the bankers association, said banks could not give loans without guarantees that farmers owned their land and would be able to harvest their crops unhindered.

Without loans for equipment and materials, and with continuing disruptions, corn growers could lose up to 40 percent of their harvests next March. Preparations for planting ahead of seasonal rains in November should now be under way, but in many cases they are not.

Already farm disruptions have cost Zimbabwe 25 percent of its current wheat and tobacco production. Tobacco is the largest earner of desperately needed hard currency.

Wright said large-scale commercial farms owed banks hundreds of millions of dollars. Farmers whose land is confiscated would be unable to repay their loans, threatening the future of the country's economy and its banking sector, the farm union said.


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