Zimbabwe farmers worry about tobacco sales
HARARE: More than 500 mourners gathered Tuesday at a memorial service for a
white farmer killed by militant black squatters who were occupying his land.
David Stevens, who was a strong supporter of the opposition Movement for
Democratic Change, was beaten and shot in the head April 15 after being
abducted from his farm 120 km east of Harare.
Five other white farmers were abducted and beaten in the incident, which
prompted about 80 families in the area to evacuate. Another white farmer
with links to the MDC was killed in a separate incident, and two black MDC
supporters were killed in a firebombing.
Farmers are worried that the violence will delay Wednesday's scheduled
opening of tobacco auctions and deter foreign buyers, dealing another blow
to the country's suffering economy.
Zimbabwe is the world's second biggest tobacco exporter after Brazil, and
the product is the nation's No. 1 source of hard currency. But this year,
the amount of tobacco delivered to the auction floors is down sharply. Work
grading and packing tobacco has been disrupted by the violent occupations of
white-owned farms, said officials of the Commercial Farmers Union, which
represents many of Zimbabwe's white farmers. On Monday, tobacco worth an
estimated $240,000 was destroyed when mobs torched a tobacco barn in eastern
Zimbabwe, neighbors said.
Pat Devenish, head of the tobacco auction floors, said just 6,000 bales of
tobacco had been delivered by growers to the floors. In normal years, at
least 20,000 bales would have been delivered on the weekend ahead of the
start of the auctions. Though the auctions continue for several months, it
is crucial that they start on time so farmers can get money to pay off loans
they took out to buy seeds and fertilizers. The country, suffering from the
worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, is also in desperate need
of the foreign currency the auctions bring to th country.
Elsewhere Monday, squatters illegally occupying white-owned farms assaulted
and threatened black farm workers, farmers' union officials said. An
unspecified number of workers were hospitalized, but the extent of their
injuries was unknown. It was the latest violence in the illegal occupation
of land on more than 1,000 white-owned farms. President Robert Mugabe has
insisted that the occupations, which began in February, are a justified
protest by land-hungry blacks against a few thousand whites who own about a
third of the nation's productive land.
Opponents of the government accuse Mugabe of using the violent occupations
to shore up his flagging popularity ahead of nation elections expected to be
called in May. Opponents also argue Mugabe wants to punish farmers for
supporting the opposition. Police presence in recent days has calmed the
situation on the farms, said Tim Henwood, head of the Commercial Farmers
Union. Police earlier had been ordered by the government not to intervene.
"They are taking an active role. There has been a definite change in the
last 48 hours," Henwood said Monday. (AP)
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