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Cablegate: Declining Food Security in Zimbabwe

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

031116Z Nov 05




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: (a) Harare 710

(b) Harare 1448
(c) Harare 1447


1. The Ambassador traveled to Bikita, a district in
hard-hit Masvingo Province, in early October to observe
the food security situation. Although no overt signs
of starvation were apparent, it was clear that
deprivation had increased dramatically. The country's
severe economic contraction and high inflation have put
even basic foods beyond the reach of ordinary
Zimbabweans. Millions of people are already in need of
food assistance and the situation is likely to peak in

2. The GOZ has imported nearly half a million metric
tons (MT) of grain since April, but it remains far from
clear that it can import all of the 1.2 million MT
needed. Moreover food distribution has been hampered
by the country's severe fuel shortage and there are
credible reports that the GOZ is withholding food
assistance in advance of the Senate elections in late
November. International food aid operations are
increasing but the GOZ continues to limit their access,
creating the potential for still greater hunger. End

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Visit to Bikita District Paints Picture of Increasing
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3. During the week of October 2, 2005, the Ambassador
and members of the USAID Mission traveled to Bikita, a
district in Masvingo Province, to talk with rural
communities about their current food situation.
Masvingo Province, along with sections of Manicaland
Province and Matabeleland North Province, has the
poorest cereal availability and highest prices. CARE,
the food partner that has distributed food and monitors
food security in seven districts of Masvingo province,
ranks Bikita fourth in terms of food insecurity this

4. The Ambassador's delegation spoke with residents
of four communities in different wards of Bikita.
Although we observed no overt signs of starvation, it
is clear that deprivation is increasing dramatically.
Residents reported that there had been no maize
available from the local GMB since April 2005, i.e.,
since the last harvest. (Note: A Food For Peace food
monitor found a small quantity for sale from the GMB in
August. End note.) For a few months immediately after
the harvest, local residents bought or worked in
exchange for maize and, more recently, wheat at
irrigation schemes and a few remaining farms located in
a narrow "green belt" that runs through the district.
The supply of cereal from these sources has dropped
significantly during recent weeks.

5. Maize (meal) was for sale in only one of three
shops visited around the district, but the price was
more than four times the official GMB price, putting it
out of reach for most shoppers. Seeds and fertilizer
were also available in a commercial center, but were
too expensive for the majority of local residents. The
little income they occasionally get is spent entirely
on food.

6. Because it is difficult to access maize and other
cereals, they have no stocks at home. "Come see" said
one woman. "It's so bare that the rats have left."
Hence, Bikita residents are eating less cereal. They
eat fewer and smaller meals, warding off hunger by
eating wild fruits and seed pods. When they have
cereal, they prepare porridge more often than the more
substantial sadza (stiff porridge) - because it
requires less meal. At one site, workers at a
community garden that CARE helped develop last year
revealed that many of them eat meals consisting only of
vegetables from the garden (cabbage, onions, tomatoes,
and rape, a green vegetable similar to collard greens).
In other nearby locations, dams have dried up and even
vegetables are difficult to access.

The National Food Crises

7. The situation in Bikita is replicated in most
other parts of the country. In April 2005, Zimbabwean
farmers harvested far less maize (4 - 600,000 MT) than
is needed for the nation's human and animal consumption
- approximately 1.6 to 1.8 million MT (reftel A). In
response, the Government of Zimbabwe (GOZ) vowed to
import 1.2 million MT of maize to assure that, until
the next harvest, maize would be consistently available
for purchase throughout the country at an affordable

8. As the staple food of Zimbabweans, the
availability of maize is critical to food security.
Regular monitoring by WFP, FEWSNET, USAID and C-SAFE
(Consortium for Southern African Food Security
Emergency, a USAID-supported NGO operation) has
confirmed that most rural households have already
exhausted the maize that they harvested. As predicted,
the vast majority now must purchase their cereals.
However, September reports from the WFP Vulnerability
Assessment Mapping Unit's monitoring indicate that,
across the country, maize is not available to buy or is
difficult to access due to distance and/or high price.

9. The annual Vulnerability Assessment (VA) showed
that, even if maize were available at a low price, not
all households would be able to afford to buy what they
need. Consequently, the GOZ agreed that the World Food
Programme (WFP) may import 300,000 MT of food for free
distribution to up to 2.9 million vulnerable people in
rural households. This 2.9 million figure was based on
assumptions that incomes would keep pace with the price
of maize, and that 100% of household income could be
spent to buy maize, two erroneous assumptions.
Considering only the rural area, the number of people
who cannot meet their needs will certainly be much
higher - probably double the estimated 2.9 million.

10. No attempts have been made to quantify the urban
population's needs, but on the heels of Operation
Murambatsvina, which destroyed the livelihoods of the
majority of informal traders, and left some 700,000
people homeless, a significant portion of the urban
population is, no doubt, also food insecure.
Furthermore, in urban areas, the more affordable (price-
controlled) roller meal has disappeared from grocers'
shelves, forcing customers to buy the more expensive
(uncontrolled) super-refined meal. In the past week,
even super-refined meal has become scarce in Harare

GOZ Efforts Fall Short of Needs

11. Reports of exports from the South African grain
sales floor indicate that since April 30, 2005, a large
quantity of maize (total 473,000 MT by September 30,
2005) has been purchased for delivery to Zimbabwe. If
true, this would mean that the GOZ is on track to meet
its goal of 1.2 MTs by next April. However, the GOZ
regards grain import statistics as a state secret and
there is no way to verify that all of this grain was
actually delivered. There is also considerable
skepticism within the international donor community
that the GOZ can sustain the current pace of 100,000
MTs a month given the country's accelerating economic
problems, especially the shortage of foreign exchange.
In addition, grain deliveries to the depots through out
the country have been erratic. As the Ambassador saw
in Bikita, supplies are often unavailable at the GMB's
subsidized price and when available sell out quickly.

12. Zimbabwe's fuel crisis is certainly a major
explanation for why the imported grain is not making it
to rural areas. However there are probably other
factors as well. There are credible reports that the
GOZ is withholding food in order to use it politically
in the late November Senate elections. Corruption is
another likely explanation. Recently, for example, Leo
Mugabe, businessman and Robert Mugabe's nephew, was
arrested for allegedly illegally exporting food
purchased at the subsidized price to Mozambique and
Zambia at a substantial mark-up. There is also
evidence that part of the purchased maize has not even
reached Zimbabwe, including some held in ships anchored
off the port of Beira, Mozambique for later resale.

Comparisons to past drought years

13. Compared to last year, one man in Bikita summed it
up: "We've gone from the frying pan to the fire."
Household Livelihood Surveys conducted by CARE in
Bikita in each of the past three years estimated that
this year and in 2003, on average, farmers produced
enough cereal to meet only one month of their
households' cereal needs, while in 2004, they produced
enough to last about six months.

14. Bikita residents said that their current food
situation is even worse than during Zimbabwe's worst
drought of 1992-1993. Their explanation was not that
the harvest was poorer, but instead they blamed
economic factors, largely attributable to poor GOZ
policy (reftel). In 1992-3 the GMB worked efficiently,
and, thus, prices were affordable, and access to maize
was good. To support food purchases, they worked at
commercial farms, or sold livestock at favorable
prices. Currently, the GMB's performance is poor and
riddled with corruption. Zimbabwe's economy is
contracting, and high inflation has made food and other
essential necessities unaffordable. Casual farm work
opportunities are scarcer because of the break up of
many commercial farms. Livestock sales yield very
little return. Operation Murambatsvina drove many
people from the urban areas back to the rural areas,
resulting in a significant drop in remittances and more
competition for work and food.

15. In 1992, Zimbabwe had reserve stocks and the GOZ
imported an additional 2.4 MT of maize before May 1993.
Even so, Zimbabwe faced a humanitarian crisis and the
USG provided Zimbabwe 590,939 MT of maize, which
represented 27% of Zimbabwe's total maize consumption
over the period of January 1992 through May 1993.


16. Zimbabwe's food crisis is getting worse. Food is
either unavailable or unaffordable for much of the
country and hunger is rising. That said, given the
level of imports and international assistance our best
guess, as we have said before, is that Zimbabwe may get
through this year without widespread starvation
provided it can be distributed to where needed. This
outcome will doubtless be trumpeted by the GOZ but in
fact its refusal to acknowledge the need for assistance
and to agree to a WFP appeal has put people lives at

17. Moreover, next year promises to be even worse as
the GOZ has been slow to distribute inputs and planting
is well behind schedule (reftel C). Even good rains
will not lead to a good harvest at this point. In
addition, barring an epiphany, government policies will
leave the country with even fewer resources next year
to import food. Finally, because of the GOZ's
arbitrary limit on the number of people who can receive
food assistance, poor Zimbabweans will continue to
deplete their coping mechanisms and will move deeper
into poverty, foregoing meals, medical care, school
fees and other essentials and leaving them more
vulnerable in the future.

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