Human Rights Watch says 20 000 people were displaced to make way for a new game reserve.
The government has rejected a call by Human Rights Watch (HRW) for an investigation into allegations by dam workers and displaced people that Zimbabwe authorities induced flooding in the Tokwe-Murkosi basin to forcibly evict about 20 000 people who were refusing to make way for a new game reserve.
On Thursday HRW released a statement saying that the government was threatening to deny food aid to the displaced, apparently to force them into growing sugarcane for ethanol production on a project that will be “jointly owned by the ruling Zanu-PF and Billy Rautenbach, a businessman and party supporter”.
In February, 3 000 families were moved from the Tokwe-Murkosi dam basin owing to flooding fears and settled at Chingwizi camp on Nuanetsi Ranch, in Mwenezi district. The camp is about 150km from where they had lived.
Nuanetsi ranch is partly owned by Rautenbach, who has a joint-venture ethanol project with the state in Chisumbanje.
He intends to build another ethanol plant in Nuanetsi.
The families are to be moved to one-hectare plots in Nuanetsi, but they allege the government had previously promised them five hectares each.
More serious is the new allegation that the floods could have been induced. HRW says in its own investigations it was told by evictees that the soldiers who moved them told them the government had no money for compensation and intended to create a game park within a 50km radius of the dam, hence they had to be moved.
They charged that the company involved in the building of the dam, Salini Impregilo JVC, closed the dam gates, causing floods upstream.
HRW claims that the allegations of the gates being closed to induce flooding were independently confirmed by three employees of the company.
The Mail & Guardian was unable to verify the investigation or contact Salini Impregilo JVC.
“Displaced residents and dam project workers contend that the floods were artificially induced, that authorities flooded the area to forcibly evict people without compensation and hire them as low-paid workers on the sugarcane farm,” said HRW.
The NGO urged the government to investigate the circumstances leading to the floods at the Tokwe-Murkosi dam and to hold to account those responsible if it was found that the floods were deliberately induced.
Masvingo provincial affairs minister Kudakwashe Bhasikiti dismissed the allegations: “To allege that the floods were induced is absolutely ridiculous and nonsensical. We had heavy rains and, after all, the flooding was not only at Tokwe-Murkosi but in other parts of the country as well.
“Even in places like [the] United Kingdom they received record rains and flooding was witnessed in countries such as Australia, South Africa and other countries, so to pretend or allege we induced the floods is ridiculous,” said Bhasikiti.
“And in any case, the flooding was not downstream of the dam where you can then say we deliberately opened the flood gates. The flooding was upstream because the rivers were full of water causing the flooding.”
HRW said the displaced were not consulted as required under the United Nations’ guiding principles on internal displacement.
“These families have a right to compensation for their property and to voluntary resettlement elsewhere in the country, to earn a living as they see fit,” Southern Africa director at HRW Tiseke Kasambala said.
Bhasikiti said compensation is on the cards: “The government will compensate the flood victims soon, as their matter was being treated with urgency. His Excellency [President Robert Mugabe] has instructed that money to compensate the flood victims be found as a matter of urgency and the minister of finance is acting on that,” said Bhasikiti.
He said the amount of compensation would not be uniform as the amount of money each family will receive will depend on the structures the family had before being moved.
Last Saturday 10 Zanu-PF ministers, among them Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo and Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, visited the camp accompanied by armed police and tried to convince the displaced families to relocate to the one-hectare plots but they were heckled by the displaced, who demanded compensation and bigger plots.
“These 3 000 families have been displaced under questionable circumstances and dumped in a place where their only alternative is to be cheap labour for Zimbabwe’s ruling party,” said Kasambala.
Bhasikiti denied the government was planning to force the flood victims to grow sugarcane that would benefit Rautenbach and Zanu-PF officials.
He said Rautenbach had applied to use the land in question for sugarcane growing but the government had turned the application down as it planned to resettle the villagers there.
“It must also be noted that it is a lie that the people have been told they can only grow sugarcane.”
“We have told them [evictees] that agricultural specialists would assist them and advise them on which crops to grow so that they get high returns.
“The decision on which crop to grow rests with the farmers,” said Bhasikiti.
The international human rights watchdog said last month Chombo warned the displaced families to accept relocation to the plots at Nuanetsi Ranch or face denial of food assistance. “We should make it clear that food assistance will only be given to those families who agree to move to their permanent plots, because we need to decongest Chingwizi temporary camp,’’ the organisation quoted Chombo as having said.
The humanitarian situation at Chingwizi camp has been roundly condemned by human rights organisations and civil society.
The flood victims were moved to the camp during the rainy season. Most families lost their property and livestock as a result of the relocation. The camp is severely overcrowded, with each family allocated a one-room tent regardless of the number of family members.
Although international agencies are providing potable water, aid workers told HRW that there was not enough water for the entire Chingwizi population, raising serious health concerns.
Thousands of school-age children at Chingwizi have had their schooling disrupted or no longer have access to education. A makeshift school set up near the camp is not adequately equipped or staffed to meet the children’s needs.
Aid sold for profit
HRW also said it had investigated allegations that Masvingo police and provincial officials responsible for distributing food, blankets and clothing had diverted some of the aid to the neighbouring towns of Triangle and Chiredzi, where they were sold for profit - and found the allegations to be true.
“When food aid is turning up in local markets instead of in the tents of the displaced, then the responsible local officials need to be investigated,” Kasambala said.
But Bhasikiti denied that provincial officers and police officers were diverting aid meant for the flood victims and selling them. He said the government had records of all goods received and was making Chingwizi camp residents sign before receiving anything. He suggested that some of the flood victims could have sold some of the wares they received rather than government officials. The records were available and could be easily reconciled, he said.
The organisation said government should ensure there is food assistance and other forms of support to the flood victims until the families are compensated and become self-sufficient.
“This means providing access to clean, safe and potable water and other basic services at the transit camp or the area of relocation. The authorities should also identify and provide additional assistance to particularly vulnerable people, including the elderly, people living with disabilities, children and female-headed households,” said Human Rights Watch.