Mugabe, Relief Agencies Agree to Grain Swap, Freeing Up Tons in Food Aid
RICK WEISS / Washington Post 10aug02
Ending a dispute over genealtered corn, the Zimbabwean government and international aid agencies have reached an accord for the quick release of thousands of tons of food aid for the hunger-stricken nation, according to sources in Africa and the United States.
The agreement -- in the form of a memorandum of understanding involving the government, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.N. World Food Program and Zimbabwe's Grain Marketing Board -- provides for the U.N. agency to deliver U.S. corn to the Zimbabwean government, which in turn would give the agency an equal amount of domestic corn from its own reserves to be distributed to hungry Zimbabweans, sources said. The deal is expected to be finalized next week.
More than 17,000 metric tons of whole corn has been sitting in the holds of a ship docked in the South African port of Durban since late July because of a standoff between President Robert Mugabe's government and the aid agencies. At issue was whether Zimbabwe, which strictly limits importation of genetically modified seeds, would accept the load of American corn -- a mixture of conventional corn and patented, high-tech kernels that bear extra genes for hardiness.
About half of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people are on the brink of famine, according to the World Food Program, because of drought and the disruption of agricultural production caused by the government's eviction of white farmers from some of Zimbabwe's most productive land as part of a land reform program. International aid groups have warned that food aid must be dispatched quickly to Zimbabwe and its similarly stricken neighbors, but Mugabe's government has balked at accepting grain donated by the United States because it was not certified as being free of genetically modified material.
Zimbabwean government officials contend that if some of the U.S.-donated seeds were planted instead of eaten, they would give rise to plants with gene-altered pollen. That pollen could contaminate surrounding fields, rendering a potentially large portion of the nation's future corn harvests unexportable to European and other nations that restrict imports of genetically engineered foods.
The government has said it wants to mill the kernels and distribute the corn as meal to ensure that none of the seed is planted. But that position led to a deadlock, because USAID, which donated the corn, and the World Food Program, which is distributing it, have been unwilling to give it directly to the government -- the only entity willing to absorb the cost of milling. The agencies have insisted that the food go to nongovernmental groups for distribution because of evidence that the government has diverted food aid for political purposes.
The new agreement gets around that problem by calling for an unusual trade. The U.N. agency will deliver the 17,500 metric tons of corn from the United States to the Zimbabwean government, which can do whatever it wants with it. In return, the government will give the World Food Program an equal amount of corn kernels currently stored in that country.
The U.N. agency will pass that corn to nongovernmental organizations for distribution to the poorest and hungriest people in Zimbabwe -- people who aid officials believe might otherwise never have seen the food that was being held by the government.
It was not immediately clear how the Zimbabwean government came to possess the 17,500 metric tons it is now agreeing to trade to the World Food Program, or what it had intended to do with that food as the country slipped into its worst food crisis in decades. Diplomatic sources in southern Africa said they were not aware that Zimbabwe had any such reserves.
But sources said the deal would accomplish the bottom-line goal of getting the corn to the countries' neediest citizens.
"The main thing is that the food gets into the country so poor people get access," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
Correspondent Jon Jeter in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
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