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Farmers: Zimbabwe food production declines further

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — An organization of mostly displaced white farmers in Zimbabwe said Thursday upcoming harvests of the corn staple are forecast to decline by tens of thousands of tons despite recent good rains and the nation's troubled economy will again rely on costly food imports and donor handouts.

The Commercial Farmers Union on Thursday said production in the former regional breadbasket remains in turmoil. It said blacks resettled on formerly white-owned farms seized since 2000 are "in dire straits" because they don't have necessary finance.

Union head Charles Taffs said collapsing rural infrastructure may be helped by a new, financial recovery plan by ex-farmers who don't expect to regain their seized farms.

Latest annual corn production is estimated at 833,000 tons, down by 60,000 tons from last year, compared to more than 2 million tons harvested in 2000.

The collapse of the rural economy is causing mass migration to already stressed towns and cities, he said.

Farm dam walls have not been maintained, fencing has been uprooted and conservation laws are being openly disregarded with drastic environmental consequences, Taffs told reporters.

Taffs said his organization has drawn up a broad recovery program to restore the value of land against which loans could be obtained by the new farmers and former owners would provide support and advice drawn from long years of experience in farming.

"People are starving in this country. It is time to act. We can't wait any longer," Taffs said.

The farmers' proposals call for foreign funding for an issue of bonds to pay compensation to farmers who lost their land and the creation of a Land Bank where the bonds, redeemable later, and title deeds would be deposited and made available as capital for new farmers to restart derelict properties and "reenergize the land market."

If that happened and farming got back on its feet on a commercial basis, the ex-owners would have a viable investment in bonds with returns comparable to any good investment worldwide, Taffs said.

"It won't cost the government anything. It will be a minimum burden to donors. The benefits will be immediate and immense. If it's in place before the planting season, we could be self-sufficient in food again within a year," he said.

The organization says less than 400 of its 4,500 white farmer members in 2000 are still on the land, half of them are actively farming and just 10 are still farming on the commercial scale they were in 2000.

"Our sector has been really been taken down. The new farmers have access to the land but no access to assistance," he said.

Taffs said the farmers did not envisage getting their land back. Some had died penniless since the often violent land seizures began in what President Robert Mugabe insisted was a program to reform imbalances in colonial-era ownership of prime land by whites, mostly the descendants of British and South African settlers.

"We don't want to turn the clock back. We want to go forward in a pragmatic manner. What is lost has to be monetized and put back into the economy to ensure a bright future for the people through the successful completion of the land reform program," he said.

Experts from 50 nations, many from Africa, and officials of international financial institutions helped draw up the recovery plan unveiled Thursday.

After years of meltdown since the collapse of the agriculture-based economy, Mugabe's party says there's no cash to pay out displaced white farmers. In the past, it acknowledged the need compensate former owners for buildings and improvements on the land. Many of the best former white farms were given to Mugabe loyalists and cronies and now lie idle.

Compensation in new bonds, calculated from criteria still to be ironed out, would be subject to routine fiscal and investment laws to avoid capital flight, according to the farmers' group.

"It's a win-win for everyone. I think there's been a real shift in the government position. We still need broad acceptance of the program but I think we are closer to a solution than we have ever been," Taffs said.

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