Food Crisis in Zimbabwe Threatens Millions of Lives

By Marceline Ndoro

BUHERA, Zimbabwe, June 1, 2005 (ENS) - Signs of despair and looming starvation are evident almost everywhere in Zimbabwe’s countryside, which is suffering from the government’s destruction of commercial agriculture and a third successive year of drought.

Normally at this time, as the short southern winter begins, people would be completing the harvest of maize, the staple food, and be preparing to deliver their produce to the sole legal grain buyer, the government’s Grain Marketing Board.

However, driving down the dusty roads of Buhera, Chivhu and Chihota - some 100 miles south of the capital Harare - the grim sight is of formerly rich commercial farms overgrown by weeds, dotted by occasional peasant plots of maize that have wilted for lack of rain, fertilizer, machinery and fuel to till the soil properly.

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Undernourished child stands in the midst of a ruined grain field that will yield no food. (Photo courtesy FAO)
Millions of people will be lucky to harvest more than a few cobs.

Normally, at times of past shortages, people turned to international food aid for survival.

Mbuya [Grandma] Matizamusha of Buhera district says her only hope lies with food aid, and she hopes distribution will start soon.

Dressed in what could easily be mistaken for rags, leaning against an unused cart for support and looking at the withered maize on her tiny plot, Matizamusha opened her dry lips, but at first nothing came out. She paused, looked up and shook her head in resignation.

Tears swelled in her eyes as she pointed her bony fingers at something else that in the past would have been her salvation.

She was pointing at seven graves. Her children had all died of AIDS-related illnesses.

“Who do I turn to now?” she asked. “All my children are lying there in their graves. “Those are the only people who would have helped me. At my age, where do I go? I think I am going to die from hunger. Please tell President [Robert] Mugabe to help us. We don’t have anything to eat. We are suffering.”

But before the March parliamentary election, Mugabe said - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that the country possessed abundant food reserves and did not need international help. Zimbabweans would “choke” on any food that was “foisted” upon them, he claimed.

Mugabe’s ZANU PF government had promised a record grain harvest of 2.4 million metric tons. The result is expected to be scarcely 600,000 tons, a shortfall of some 1.2 million tons from what is needed to provide minimal food requirements for the next 12 months.

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Map of Africa with Zimbabwe shown in gold. (Map courtesy USAID)
With the general economy in freefall, there are no foreign exchange reserves to buy food. Mugabe recently had to pay debts to the South African electricity giant Eskom in gold bars to prevent the cutting of power supplies.

At least US$800 million would be needed to buy 1.2 million tons of grain. Apart from not having the money to buy the grain, Zimbabwe does not have the logistical capacity to transport it.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that half of the remaining population of 11 million people - another 3.5 million have fled the country or emigrated - face starvation unless Mugabe permits massive aid by the same international food agencies he banned before the parliamentary election.

Matizamusha said she hoped any distribution of food aid would not be selective. She said that in the past the amount you received depended on how well you got along with traditional chiefs and headmen paid by the ZANU PF government. Her situation is made worse by the fact that she has to care for several grandchildren orphaned by AIDS with the help of her daughter-in-law, Tsungi.

More than 3,300 Zimbabweans are killed by AIDS-related illnesses each week, leaving countless thousands of elderly people looking after their orphaned grandchildren.

Tendai Biti, secretary for economic affairs for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said, “The situation is really bad. There is no food. The fact that government said it needed to import 1.2 million tons, which is around three-fifths of the annual requirements, says a lot about the situation on the ground. It is a serious acknowledgement of failure."

“However, I believe that the government is understating the total imports required," Biti said. "All in all, I don’t believe that we will produce more than 200,000 tons of maize. This means that we need to import at least 1.8 million tons. One doesn’t have to be rocket scientist to see what is in the fields. If you drive around you will not find a single decent crop.”

Staple cereals are increasingly unavailable in rural areas, and what little maize does appear soars in price, limiting the ability of households to buy enough to satisfy their needs.

The cost of living in urban areas has also increased sharply since the March 31 election, and the majority of households struggle to meet their basic expenditure requirements.

Government officials maintain that only around 1.5 million people are in need of food assistance, a figure they claim is based on a government crop assessment undertaken between December and January.

A second crop assessment is still to be concluded and the delay is compounding an already critical situation. The government says the second assessment will determine whether the country will appeal for international food assistance.

Biti described the lack of money to buy essential food as a true measure of the destruction Mugabe has wrought on the country. “We are now using the gold reserves to pay off our recurrent expenditure,” he said. “When you start exposing your gold reserves, it’s like a starving mother selling her kitchen. It is a crisis that we are in.”

Zimbabweans

In 2002, hungry Zimbabweans lined up for a World Food Programme distribution. Conditions have worsened since then, and the WFP is not distributing food in Zimbabwe at this time. (Photo by Brenda Barton courtesy WFP)
UNICEF has been urging the government to accept food aid before the situation gets out of hand.

Many believe Mugabe is preparing to swallow his pride and appeal to friendly countries and the United Nations for food assistance to avert widespread starvation. Some reports say the government has already compiled a consolidated appeal that will be presented to the United Nations Development Programme.

But the government has said it will not accept any aid that comes with conditions attached to it. The most likely precondition would be that the UN World Food Programme and designated international aid organizations would be free to give food to everyone in need, regardless of political affiliation.

Mugabe’s request for aid may come dangerously late.

The longer the government takes to give correct figures and make an appeal for aid, the longer it will take for the international donors to respond. The appeal has to come soon because it will take several months before donors process the necessary funds. If Mugabe were to make his appeal now, it might take up to three months before food aid starts flowing into the country.

The World Food Programme has already planned its food distribution in southern Africa for 2005, after being assured by the president that Zimbabwe would not need help.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Marceline Ndoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR reporter in Buhera.}