An endangered species

Tale of two farms in Zimbabwe

By CNN's Jeff Koinange

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- They're an endangered species in today's Zimbabwe -- commercial white farmers. There used to be close to 5,000 spread across the country. That number is now down to fewer than 500.

Mike Campbell and his son-in-law Ben Freeth are determined to make their last stand here at Mount Carmel Farm. No amount of intimidation, they say, will drive them off their 1,200-hectare farm on the outskirts of the capital Harare.

"It's quite frightening when you look at the number of people, because of the colour of their skin, that have actually been chased off their farms," says Freeth.

"What we are actually seeing is an ethnic cleansing of the rural areas here based on the colour of our skin."

Their farm used to be much larger -- more than 2,500 hectares -- but under a government land redistribution policy now in its fifth year, they've been forced to give up half their land.

"It's not just your land that they're taking," Freeth says. "It's your home, it's everything that you've ever worked for in your lives, tractors, your implements, any fuel on the farm, any fertilizer on the farm, chemicals, the whole lot. And that's within the laws of our country."

Freeth and Campbell find it difficult to hide their anger at what they call the government's deliberate policy of targeting them because of their race.

"I'm as much an African as they are even though my skin is white," says Campbell. "I'm as much an African as they are."

Since 2000, government-backed militia known as war veterans killed up to a dozen white farmers and scores of their black employees in a campaign of terror that saw hundreds injured and many more fleeing the country.

Thousands of black laborers lost their jobs as the white-owned farms were handed to party loyalists closely aligned to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

The president insists he did the right thing.

"The land is ours. It's not European and we have taken it, we have given it to the rightful people," says Mugabe." Those of white extraction who happen to be in the country and are farming are welcome to do so, but they must do so on the basis of equality."

But the result was disastrous for the economy. Most of the new landowners knew nothing about farming.

The nation that was known as the breadbasket of Africa quickly became a basket case, according to economists. A country that used to export food now has to rely on food aid.

The president refuses to blame his policies.

"There is no food crisis even as we speak," Mugabe says. "What worries us is the fact that our crop has failed us because of the rain, of the drought, and we are not the only ones that are hit."

That's little consolation for farmers like Campbell and Freeth. Even though they realize they're still considered by Mugabe as the enemies of the state, they insist they're not going to go down easily.

"If they want to kill me they can kill me," says Campbell." I think there are 12 farmers that have already been killed. If my fate's got to be like that then so be it."

Adds Freeth: "Yeah, if we get killed or whatever because of it, at least we're standing up for what is right, and that is the most important thing."

And the intimidation continues. A former game lodge owned by Campbell and frequented by visiting tourists has been looted. The destruction is everywhere. And they say it was the war veterans who did it.

"It's a slow strangulation very similar to the way an animal dies in a snare, that's the way this place has gone and the way the whole country is going," says Freeth. "It's a slow strangulation like a snare."

Each loss, they say, only gives them more incentive to continue.

"If we gave up every time something went wrong where would we be? We've got to carry on," says Campbell.

A short drive from Campbell's farm is Selous Farm, where tobacco -- the country's main export -- is grown.

Selous Farm used to belong to one of the country's most successful commercial white farmers until a couple of years ago.

Now it's been occupied by about 150 black families, among them about 100 former war veterans -- or settlers, as they are now known.

Two years ago, Moses Nyahuma was working as a messenger of the court in Harare. He applied for and was given six hectares of this 1,500-hectare farm.

“Last season we got about 4,500 kilograms of tobacco, and this season we're expecting 15,000 kilograms of tobacco," Nyahuma says. "So the profit is there, but when you get more profit you think something bigger."

Nyahuma is the exception to the rule in 21st-century Zimbabwe -- a former city dweller who seems to be doing well on the farm.

He has employed 15 workers to help him on his farm. Some of them are former employees of the previous white owner.

Its tobacco-curing season, and the workers fuel the flames in a drying kiln to ready their crop for the markets.

Nyahuma says pound for pound, he's just as good as the next man, black or white.

"I'm now as good just the same as the former white farmer because even the farm workers they say this type of tobacco is just the same as white farmers were producing," he says.

Nyahuma's home is simple -- a thatch-roofed mud hut where he lives with his wife and daughter. Other extended family members also make up the household.

There's no electricity or running water. A borehole nearby serves the family needs and provides water for the plants. A few chickens make up his only livestock.

Nyahuma says he may not be rich, but he has big plans for the future.

"I'm now a successful farmer, because like this season I've utilized all the land that I was given and I'm looking for another bigger land to increase my production," he says.

Back at Mount Carmel, the owners are busy inspecting their new maize crop. Despite a dry season where they say the rains came late, they feel they can still make a good harvest.

"We are quite happy with what we've got here, we should probably get three or four tons a hectare," says Campbell.

As Campbell and Freeth drive off into the African sunset, the sign on the back of their vehicle's window seems to sum up the feelings of this fast-disappearing species -- "No farmers, no future'" -- a simple message that cuts across race, color and creed.