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'The beginning of the end'

Mail & Guardian | June 21, 2005

Zimbabwe police have extended a demolition campaign targeting the homes and livelihoods of the urban poor to the vegetable gardens they rely on for food, saying the crops planted on vacant lots are damaging the environment.

President Robert Mugabe was quoted on Tuesday as saying concern about the campaign was misplaced and agreeing to allow in a United Nations observer.

The crackdown on urban farming -- at a time of food shortages in Zimbabwe -- is the latest escalation in the government's month-long Operation Murambatsvina (or Drive Out Trash), which has seen police torch the shacks of poor city dwellers, arrest street vendors and demolish their kiosks.

Mugabe defends the campaign as a clean-up drive. But the political opposition, which has its base among the urban poor, says the campaign is meant to punish its supporters.

The UN estimates the campaign has left at least 1,5-million people homeless in the winter cold. Police say more than 30 000 have also been arrested, most of them street vendors the government accuses of sabotaging the failing economy by selling black market goods.

Senior assistant police commissioner Edmore Veterai said Zimbabwean authorities were now targeting urban farming, saying the practice was causing "massive environmental damage," state radio reported on Tuesday.

The destruction of city plots is a painful reminder of one of the most hated policies of the white government that ruled before independence in 1980 -- the random slashing of crops on roadsides and railroad embankments.

The current crackdown comes when this southern African country needs to import 1,2-million tonnes of food to avoid famine.

Years of drought, combined with the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans, have slashed agricultural production.

Many poor families depend on their vegetable patches for food and a tiny income at a time of 144% inflation and 80% unemployment.

Many of the capital's two million residents till any vacant ground they can find for an annual production of 50 000 tonnes of corn -- over a fifth of their total food requirements -- according to farming expert Richard Winkfield.

The Reverend Oskar Wermter, former secretary to the Zimbabwe Roman Catholic Bishop's conference and a parish priest in one of the poorest downtown areas, called the crackdown against these plots "insane and evil."

"They are sleeping in the open air -- tiny children and people dying of Aids -- and people you thought still had some decency are defending this crime against humanity," said Wermter. "It is a watershed, it is the beginning of the end, but the end will be terrible."

Charlie Hewat, executive director of Environment Africa, said controlled urban agriculture was essential for the poor throughout the developing world's cities. There were, however, no legal allotments in Harare.

The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change has accused the 81-year-old Mugabe of imitating Cambodia's former Pol Pot regime by driving pro-MDC urban voters back to rural areas for "re-education."

It alleges food access is being used as a weapon of political reprisal following the March 31 parliamentary elections won by Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

Mugabe expressed surprise at the "misplaced hue and cry over Operation Murambatsvina" in a recent telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, presidential spokesperson George Charamba told The Herald newspaper.

Mugabe agreed in the phone call to let Anna Tibaijuka, Tanzanian head of the United Nations Habitat agency, come as Annan's envoy to asses the impact of "Operation Murambatsvina," Charamba confirmed.

On Sunday, police spokesperson Whisper Bondayi said the demolition campaign was also being extended to wealthier suburbs. He said some residents had illegally converted their homes into offices and workshops.

No demolitions have been reported in such neighbourhoods. Wealthy home owners have recourse to judges and lawyers -- unlike the poor who rush to salvage what possessions they can before their homes are burned or bulldozed.

However, police have arrested 335 prostitutes and 161 illegal aliens -- mostly "fugitives from justice in their own countries" -- in raids on lodges and apartments near downtown Harare, Bondayi told Tuesday's edition of The Herald. -Sapa-AP

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