Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hunger Forces Mugabe to Backpedal on "Farm Reform"

In an about face, Zimbabwe’s increasingly dictatorial government has reversed itself and is now offering to return farmland to the white farmers whose farms were confiscated. Well, sort of.

Zimbabwe has confirmed that it is offering land to white farmers who had their property seized under President Robert Mugabe's land reform programme.

Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told the BBC any Zimbabwean can apply for land and that farms would be allocated on long leases.

But he said that farmers would not necessarily get back land they lost.

Mugabe’s government has been expropriating white owned farmland for the past five years to the point where nearly all of the country’s white farmers have been driven off their lands. So why the sudden reversal? Well, it might have something to do with this

Zimbabwe has only two weeks of wheat supply left, while citizens are faced with soaring bread prices, Zimbabwe's main milling organisation has said.

The cost of bread has risen by 30%, pushing Zimbabwe's inflation rate to more than 600%.

Zimbabwe has been in economic decline since President Robert Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms in 2000.

The government is reported to have put its security forces on alert in case the discontent leads to protests.

David Govere, deputy chairman of the Millers Association, told AFP news agency the scarcity of wheat has meant a reduction in supplies to bakeries.

A loaf of bread in Zimbabwe currently costs $66,000 Zimbabwean (66 US cents), having risen 30% in just one week.

Proving that he may be mindless, but not without sheer gall, Mugabe’s henchmen are claiming that the white farmers are the ones finally "coming to their senses" – as opposed to hungry Zimbabweans demanding an end to Mugabe’s ruinous policy that has put the country on the verge of famine.

The Zimbabwe government is portraying white farmers as having finally come to their senses, accepting that they cannot resist Mr Mugabe's land reform programme.

"They are begging us for land," Mr Matonga told the BBC.

But BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut hard facts have driven this policy U-turn.

By confiscating the white-owned commercial farms, the government transformed a country that was once the breadbasket of Southern Africa into a net food importer.

And despite good rains there is every prospect of another deficit over the coming season, our correspondent says.

Mr Mugabe has admitted that there was corruption in the distribution of the farms seized from the whites.

Poor blacks farmers, in whose name the land reform was carried out, were often left to fend for themselves.

Without capital, implements or seed, many failed to use the land productively and agricultural output has collapsed.

Tobacco used to be Zimbabwe's major export earner but production has fallen from 237m kg in 2000 to 73m kg last year.

Destroying Zimbabwe’s once-thriving agricultural sector isn’t Mugabe’s only accomplishment. What he has done for agriculture, he’s done for the rest of the economy as well. The latest inflation data was apparently so bad that the government has decided simply not to publish it at all.

Publication of Zimbabwe's inflation data has been postponed "indefinitely", as analysts and economists predicted the figure for April would top 1,000%.

Officials at the Central Statistics Office (CSO) cancelled the release of the data to the media after their boss was called to an urgent meeting.

Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate climbed from 782% in February to 913.6% in March, the highest in the world.

Robert Mugabe's government is facing a severe and deepening economic crisis.

The economy has been hit by shortages of food, fuel, foreign currency, a crumbling urban infrastructure and water and electricity cuts.

Naturally, Mugabe blames his "enemies" (anyone who criticizes his failures) for the situation. Meanwhile he signs various trade agreements with China, another paragon of human rights and democracy, which seem to only enrich himself and his supporters. Still, Mugabe has his admirers. Hugo Chavez thinks he’s just dandy. Pity the Zimbabweans who have to pay the real price for Mugabe’s policies.

Russia's Dwindling Future

Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his Russian audience and international analysts by failing to concentrate on foreign policy in his address to the nation this year. Instead, Putin warned Russians of the greatest threat to the nation’s long-term, strength, security and very viability: it’s falling birthrate.

"Let's talk about the most acute problem facing Russia - demography," he said. "The number of our citizens shrinks by an average of 700,000 people each year."

Russia’s demographic decline is being propelled from both ends of the issue. Not only are Russians not having enough children to replace themselves, they are also , dying much younger than the citizens of other developed nations.

Statistically, a baby boy born in Russia today is unlikely to see his 60th birthday.

Moreover, he is likely to die from lifestyle-related diseases considered preventable in the West.

Though many leftists would ascribe the decline in average Russian health and life-expectancy to the fall of communism and the years of corruption and decay that followed, the truth is that Russia’s life-expectancy began slipping behind the West’s in the 1960s.

These headline grabbing facts appear to reflect complicated, longer-term trends.

Many Russian politicians say the country's political and social upheavals are to blame.

It is certainly true that millions of Russians were thrown into poverty by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But many western demographers say there is no specifically Russian phenomenon, just a continuation of trends that began in the country in the 1960s.

An increasing gap between the West and the then-USSR in terms of life expectancies had been noted 40 years ago.

Putin offered a variety of solutions to Russia’s demographic decline that would sound familiar to any historian.

President Putin promised financial incentives for those who want to have bigger families.

From next year, the state will give families 1,500 roubles ($55) a month if they have one baby and twice that for a second child. Average wages are below $100 a week.

The initial response to the new proposals has been mixed. President Putin received loud applause from his audience in the Marble Hall of the Kremlin.

Others watching the speech questioned whether the sum would really make much of a difference, especially in Moscow.

"He doesn't go in the shops, so he doesn't know the prices," suggested one unimpressed analyst. President Putin conceded that the problem was more than simply financial.

"The problem of low birth rates cannot be resolved without a general change in the attitude of our society towards the issue of family and family values," the Russian president warned.

Attempting to use financial incentives to encourage larger families (or legal penalties against childlessness) dates back at least to Augustus Caesar and has historically failed to remedy the problem. Russia suffers from the near fatal cultural damage of seven decades of communism, but its baby bust is a problem it shares with its far wealthier, economically prosperous Western counterparts. In fact, birth rates are plunging across the developed world, from Asia to Europe to Australia. Even in the US, the birthrate remains barely above replacement, and only because immigration from third world nations keeps the birthrate artificially high.

Russia’s population decline has been on the minds of Russian leaders for some time. Last year, radical nationalist (and frequent nutcase) Vladimir Zhirinovsky, went on a tirade about Russian women marrying Western men and leaving the country. Zhirinovsky proffered legislation to punish such women and prevent them from escaping the country with foreign husbands. Of course, Zhirinovsky failed to propose any policies that would induce Russian women to remain in Russia, which is a large part of the problem.

For Russians, falling birthrates are a deadly serious matter. Russian history is an unending tale of bloody foreign invasions from every direction. Russians never forget this. Currently, Russia is bordered by NATO (US might) on the west, a rising China on the east and fanatical Islam to the south. Russians have little reason to feel secure, even with their nuclear stockpile (a huge financial burden to the destitute state). There is security in having numbers strong enough to man a powerful army – one capable of defending the state. As Russia's population declines, its ability to defend itself will decline with it. That will make Russia seem increasingly weak to its potentially aggressive neighbors. Moscow can only be nervous when it glances to the east and south, and bitter and envious when it looks westward.