Zimbabwe has announced plans to nationalize all privately owned farmland, a move that analysts said could create more food shortages in the southern African nation.
After Minister for Land Reform John Nkomo said in the state-run Herald newspaper that all land would be nationalized, some analysts feared the move could further destabilize the nation's agricultural system .
"Ultimately all land shall be resettled as state property. We want a situation where this very important resource becomes a national asset," Nkomo said in a weekend interview published Tuesday in the Herald. "In the end there shall be no such thing called private land," he said, calling on all landowners to come forward to be approved for 99-year leases.
The announcement comes after the United Nations last week estimated that Zimbabwe would produce only about half its 2-million-ton grain requirement this year. The government insists that it will produce 2.3 million tons.
Zimbabwe's government is highly sensitive to questions about grain production because of accusations that the land reform policy introduced four years ago has led to a catastrophic drop in food production. Under the policy, white-owned farms were seized and given to black Zimbabweans, but critics say the land went to government allies and is often unused or underused, curtailing the agricultural output that once accounted for 40% of the country's foreign earnings.
The government has listed 918 farms for seizure since January, and has acquired 245 others, according to the Herald.
Despite reports of looming food shortages, President Robert Mugabe scoffed at suggestions that his country needed food aid during a recent interview with Sky TV. "Why foist this on us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough," he said, insisting that Zimbabwe would "definitely not" import grain this year.
The authoritative journal Africa Confidential, however, recently reported that Zimbabwe was quietly importing tens of thousands of tons of grain this year. Figures from the South African Grain Information Service confirmed that Zimbabwe had shipped in 22,000 tons of wheat and 149,000 tons of corn via South African ports this year.
Mugabe's government recently asked teams from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program to leave the country midway through their reports on the harvest.
Government critics warned Tuesday that if the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front nationalized land, it could manipulate the distribution of leases, and even deprive political enemies of their land leases.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently accused the Mugabe government of manipulating grain distribution by providing subsidized grain to ZANU-PF strongholds while denying opposition strongholds access to food.
David Coltart, legal spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, described plans to nationalize land as "a new phase in their madness."
"They will use leases as a political weapon, and those who do not comply will be punished and lose their leases. That's how ZANU-PF operates," he said in an interview.
Land Reform Minister Nkomo said ownership would be converted to 99-year leases, which could be used as collateral for loans to develop land. "Title deeds are no longer issues we can waste our time on because the 99-year leases will act as good enough collateral," he said.
But independent Harare-based economic analyst John Robertson said banks were unlikely to make loans on 99-year leases in an environment in which the government could take back leases whenever it wished.
He said the move would have "a devastating effect" on agricultural production because farmers would not be able to get loans to develop land.
Blaming the government's land reform for agricultural decline, he said, "The level of production has gone right back to subsistence levels. We have actually gone back to a feudal system where the king owned everything and divided out properties among his most loyal subjects.
"We have got to get back to a market-driven arrangement, where skilled people get to use resources that are scarce."
Africa Confidential editor Patrick Smith, based in London, said that nationalizing land theoretically could lead to greater transparency and accountability, if properly administered.
"If it's not done properly, it will cause a new layer of chaos," he said.
Smith said that redistributed land in Zimbabwe had often gone to government officials and allies, and that a recent anti-corruption campaign had been used to target enemies of the government.
The May 14 issue of Africa Confidential reported that several U.S. companies, including Sentry Financial Corp., based in Salt Lake City, were involved in shipping tens of thousands of tons of grain to Zimbabwe in tobacco-for-maize swaps.
The journal speculated that the swaps could breach a U.S. ban on trade with Zimbabwe Defense Industries -- because several ZDI officials owned tobacco farms.
A spokeswoman for Sentry Financial refused to comment Tuesday on the company's role, saying that all its business was confidential.
Times staff writer Dixon reported from Johannesburg, South Africa, and special correspondent Thornycroft from Harare.