Fri, Jun 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Zimbabwe says foreigners will be paid for seized land

AGENCIES , HARARE

Zimbabwe will pay compensation in foreign currency for land seized from foreigners, but the land owners could still challenge the seizures in court, a Cabinet minister said on Wednesday in what appeared to be a bid to calm outside investors.

Launched six years ago, President Robert Mugabe's controversial land reform program has taken over more than 4,000 white-owned farms, some of them reportedly protected by bilateral agreements, after backing often violent invasions led by veterans of the country's 1970s struggle against white rule.

The government last August passed laws that nationalized all such farms, barring farmers from challenging the seizure of their land in courts. Many economists and critics say the program has ruined a once-thriving agricultural sector.

Some of the confiscated land belonged to foreign countries despite being protected under bilateral agreements.

On Wednesday, Security Minister Didymus Mutasa, who heads land reform and resettlement, said those with farms covered by such deals would receive full compensation and have the right to contest the seizures in court.

"Mutasa assured diplomats in Harare that the farms are not acquired in accordance with the recent Amendment 17 of 2005 as the farmers will be allowed to contest the acquisition in court unlike other farmers in the country," state television reported.

"Because of the national demand for land, in those unavoidable cases where land [protected by bilateral agreements] has to be acquired, compensation has to be paid in full and in the currency of the owner's choice for both land and improvements [to the land]," Mutasa told the diplomats.

Mugabe's government has vowed not to pay white farmers compensation for the land but only for improvements, arguing that former colonial power Britain should pay for the land.

According to state television, the issue of farms covered by bilateral agreements has been a contentious one, forcing the government to set up a committee to look into foreign land holdings.

The committee is chaired by the foreign affairs minister and comprises the finance minister, Mutasa and officials from the central bank. It will determine whether "to compensate and acquire, give back the farm to the former owner or move the settled people," state TV reported.

Mugabe defends the the land reforms as necessary to redress colonial policies that put 70 percent of the most fertile land in the hands of a few white farmers and accuses the West of sabotaging the economy to punish him for the land seizures.

Farming groups say that only a few hundred white Zimbabwean farmers have accepted the compensation offered by Mugabe's government in the local currency, which is rapidly losing value.

Although authorities have promised to pay all white farmers for buildings and infrastructure on their seized farms, many complain that the sums offered are only a fraction of the real value.

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