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Zimbabwe's land reform still controversial

With little in the way of equipment, farmers manually tend their crops in Zimbabwe  

MASHONALAND CENTRAL, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- One small group of black farmers is benefiting from Zimbabwe's controversial land reform program. Last October 20 families were resettled on a formerly white-owned farm that was acquired by government for resettlement.

Each farmer has been allocated 12-acre plots and almost all the work is carried out manually. Government promises of support and assistance have been slow in materializing, yet the farmers are doing the best they can and the harvest looks promising.

"We had to scratch to find some inputs," said Silver Chinyane, a resettled farmer. "Because backup facilities like tractors were so scarce because they were in demand, in fact. But with the chance, one has got to utilize that chance."

Zimbabwe's government points to examples like this as proof that despite difficulties its land reform program is working. Governor Elliot Manyika heads the committee that oversees the government's ambitious land resettlement scheme in his province.

More than 2,000 white owned farms, comprising 5 million hectares, have been targeted for resettlement countrywide. The government says the program is organized and sustainable.

"We are talking about bringing in 5,000 - 6,000 small-scale commercial farmers who will be viable," said the governor.

But for some white farmers land reform has brought chaos despite government pledges that productive farms would not be targeted for resettlement.

After almost three decades working the land, farmer Ian Miller is facing his bleakest year yet. Last October, without warning or official notification, 150 black demonstrators overran his farm. They said they were seizing the land and warned him not to plant any new crops. A few weeks later his farm manager was severely assaulted.

Today, bananas are the only crops he is allowed to harvest. The occupiers have planted almost 90 percent of his fields. The future of his farm and the more than 300 people he employs hang in the balance.

Government supporters led by veterans of Zimbabwe's War of Liberation have been at the forefront of the occupation of thousands of white-owned farms throughout Zimbabwe that began a year ago. Their campaign has been marked by violent confrontations that have seen several farmers killed and thousands of farm workers assaulted.

But Miller claims that on this farm the occupiers are just being used as a front for powerful people who have been allocated large parcels of land to farm.

"The process of land resettlement on this farm has nothing to do with the poverty-ridden peasants; they are not being given an opportunity," Miller said. "It seems that law and order has broken down and that the people who have moved onto this farm are taking advantage of a lawless situation."

The government denies any involvement in the lawlessness on farms like Miller's. It also claims that its resettlement program and even the farm invasions have had a minimal impact on the agricultural output of the commercial farms, which accounts for almost one-quarter of Zimbabwe's economy.

"Do you know that this year we have the biggest crop of tobacco, we have the biggest crop of cotton, despite all the negative publicity we have received, despite all the innuendoes about the land demonstrations," said Governor Manyika.

But many farmers disagree. Chris Thorne is a founding member of a syndicate that has become one of the largest grain producers in Zimbabwe. He claims to have been completely shut down because of invaders on his farm.

"If we produce 20 percent of the country's wheat in this little number here, you've got to believe the impact it's going to have on the national production," said Thorne. "I mean we're going to run into food shortages no doubt in my mind, for political gain."

Many observers believe the question of land distribution is being used by the government both to win favors and to settle political scores. Many of the farmers being targeted by the unlawful protests are perceived to be supporters of the political opposition.

"The whole point of the invasions has been political," said opposition politician Tedai Biti. "The whole point of the invasions has had little to do with genuine land reform in the country."

Promise Matangira is one of the small numbers of black commercial farmers who bought his farm in 1997. He says he has benefited from government support programs that have allowed him to buy seven tractors and irrigation equipment. He also happens to be a veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation war but is not involved with the land seizures. He believes his own experience is proof that with the right support blacks can become successful commercial farmers.

"Given time and a piece of land everybody will go and work," Matangira said. "And we have made it from advice, which we had and got from other people, then why can't I personally go out to help my own fellow man succeed?"

Zimbabwe's land resettlement program continues to be mired in controversy. While it appears to be succeeding in some areas there is clear evidence of lawlessness in others. Last December Zimbabwe's supreme court ruled that the farm invasions were illegal and the government's seizures of land was unconstitutional. Still the government is pressing ahead, saying the land issue is a political matter and not a legal one.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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