/ 4 June 2008

Mugabe defends land seizures

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, whose 28-year rule has brought widespread hunger to his country, on Tuesday defended the seizure of land from white farmers, saying he is undoing a legacy of Zimbabwe’s former colonial masters.

Mugabe spoke to world leaders at a United Nations summit on the global food crisis against a backdrop of sharp criticism over his participation.

Some delegations, including those of the United States, Britain and The Netherlands, said they wouldn’t talk to Mugabe at the three-day summit at the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Once hailed as a hero of African liberation, Mugabe has come to be widely reviled for presiding over the collapse of a onetime African bread basket into a nation where millions go hungry.

His government is accused of cracking down on political opposition ahead of a presidential run-off later this month.

But on Tuesday, Mugabe struck a defiant tone — accusing Western powers of maneouvering to bring about ”regime change” in Zimbabwe.

”Over the past decade, Zimbabwe has democratised the land ownership patterns in the country, with over 300 000 previously landless families now proud landowners,” Mugabe said.

He contended that while land reform was ”warmly welcomed” by most of his people, ”it has … elicited wrath from our former colonial masters”.

”In retaliation … the United Kingdom has mobilised her friends and allies in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand to impose illegal economic sanctions against Zimbabwe,” he said.

Although Mugabe pinned much of his nation’s plight on the sanctions, the measures are actually narrowly targeted at him and his allies.

Mugabe and about 130 of his allies suffer travel bans and have had their overseas bank accounts frozen under sanctions aimed at not hurting the people of Zimbabwe.

A European Union travel sanction against Mugabe didn’t apply to the summit in Italy because it is a UN forum.

Humanitarian aid, with the Europeans the biggest donor, continues to flow, but channelled only through aid groups instead of the government.

”I find it very cynical that someone who has driven people in his country into hunger and the country into ruin dares to show up at such a conference,” German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who is representing her country at the meeting, said on ZDF television on Tuesday.

Mugabe was staying at a posh hotel near the top of Rome’s Via Veneto, an elegant street lined with chic cafés.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the summit on Tuesday with a call to nations to minimise export restrictions and import tariffs to help the poor cope with dramatically escalating food prices. He said world food production must rise by 50% by 2030 to meet increasing demand.

High fuel costs, speculation, increased demand for meat and dairy products in emerging nations like India and China, and the conversion of crops into bio-fuel have been blamed for skyrocketing food prices.

The soaring prices have widened hunger and sparked riots and protests in several countries in Africa and Asia.

”Some countries have taken action by limiting exports or by imposing price controls,” Ban said. ”They only distort markets and force prices even higher.”

UN officials said on Monday that they also intend to request that the United States and other nations phase out subsidies for food-based biofuels, including ethanol. But in his speech on Tuesday, Ban only called for ”a greater degree of international consensus on biofuels”.

That, however, could be difficult: Participants do not even agree on how much a role biofuels play in driving up prices.

”It offends me to see fingers pointed against clean energy from biofuels, fingers soiled with oil and coal,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose country’s sugar cane has long been used to produce ethanol. He insisted that biofuels ”are not the villain menacing food security in poor countries”.

Silva was alluding to wealthy nation’s own farm subsidiaries as a key culprit for food insecurity.

United States Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told reporters he was ”surprised” by Silva’s comments.

Schafer recently criticised the US Congress for approving a five-year farm Bill generously subsidising US farmers at a time when much of the world is suffering from the high food prices.

A previous summit pledge to halve world hunger by 2015 has proven elusive. FAO director general Jacques Diouf told the delegates that at the current rate the target ”would not be reached in 2015 but in 2150”.

The summit saw Iran’s President Mahmud Ahamadinejad lash out at the West for allegedly profiteering from the hikes.

Jewish youths climbed up the lower tier of the Colosseum about a kilometre from the summit site and sent anti-Ahmadinejad leaflets floating down to protest the president’s anti-Israel vitriol. – Sapa-AP