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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Who owns the land?
Zimbabwe squatters
Squatters are occupying white farms
Zimbabwe's white farmers own much of the country's best agricultural land.

According to government figures published before the current crisis, some 4, 400 whites owned 32% of Zimbabwe's agricultural land - around 10m ha - while about one million black peasant families farmed 16m ha or 38%.

Farm worker with injuries
Scores of farm workers have been beaten up
But much of the white-owned land is in more fertile areas with better rainfall, while the black farming areas are often in drought-prone regions. So in terms of prime farming land, whites own a disproportionate share.

Where they do exist side by side, huge, modern, mechanised estates are divided by a mere fence from subsistence farmers living in mud huts.

The situation was created in colonial times when blacks were forced off their ancestral lands.

"The land question" was a major cause of the guerrilla war which led to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980.

Twenty years later, little has changed.

Who pays?

Land reform and redistribution is expensive: farmers asked to give up some of their property demand compensation; and infrastructure, such as roads, bore-holes, schools and clinics, is needed for those who are given the land.

President Robert Mugabe says Britain should pay because it was in charge when the problem was created.

White farmers say they are also Zimbabweans

He also points out that the colonialists did not compensate Africans when they first took the land.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's government responds that 44m has been provided for Zimbabwe's land reform since 1980, and that much of the redistributed land has so far ended up in the hands of cabinet ministers and other government officials.

Other donors agree and have refused to support further land reform unless it is more transparent.

Famine

There is also concern that taking large, sophisticated farms and then sub-dividing them into plots to give to people without the means to manage them properly could spell disaster for Zimbabwe's agricultural economy.

A steep fall in production on white-owned farms is one reason why two years of drought look set to become a famine in which up to six million Zimbabweans could go hungry.

Despite promises that the main targets for seizure would be under-utilised farms, many of those on the so-called "hit-list" have been efficient growers of tobacco - Zimbabwe's major export.

Damaged tobacco crops
Tobacco is a big earner for Zimbabwe

The white farmers themselves do not see why they should have to pay because of what happened in the past.

Many say they bought their farms at market rates since Zimbabwe's independence and reject the whole "colonial sins" argument.

Some farmers have been paid compensation but under a new law, they must leave their farms and wait for their money - not the other way round.

Mr Mugabe's opponents accuse him of exploiting the land issue to win back rural support amid the current economic crisis.

They say he is sacrificing the country's future in order to remain in power.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Duncan Kennedy
"The farmers will find no rest"

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