JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Zimbabwe's national security minister has told the country's last remaining white farmers that they will be jailed if they refuse to abide by a deadline that passed over the weekend for them to leave their farms, according to a newspaper report on Monday.
The official Chronicle newspaper quoted the minister Didymus Mutasa as saying police would be "unleashed" to deal with white farmers who ignored the eviction notice.
"Those farmers who do not comply with the orders to vacate the land will be dealt with severely," said the minister, known to be close to President Robert Mugabe. The deadline was on Saturday.
Farming officials said there were no immediate reports of arrests but they feared the worst.
Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence, with acute shortages of hard currency, food, gasoline, medicines and essential imports. The meltdown is blamed largely on disruptions to the agriculture-based economy after the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000.
Annual inflation is running at more than 1,000 percent, the highest in the world.
The U.S. State Department last year put Zimbabwe on a list of six countries where restrictions on rights were particularly severe, along with China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and North Korea.
There were around 4,500 white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe in 2000, when Mugabe launched the program of land seizures that has seen agricultural production plummet. Now only around 400 white farmers remain — and at least 150 of them were handed eviction letters in December giving them just 45 days to leave their land to make way for new black farmers.
Mugabe says land reform was necessary to correct colonial-era imbalances in ownership. The longtime Zimbabwean leader blames the more-than-40-percent drop in production on repeated drought and Western sanctions.
Once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe has seen its status reduced to an importer of its staple maize crop since land reforms were launched.
Critics say many of the new black farmers were allocated farms on the basis of political patronage rather than agricultural expertise, and lack the dedication and financial resources to make a success of farming.
The chairman of farming lobby group Justice for Agriculture, John Worsley-Worswick, said that white farmers were feeling "very exposed and very vulnerable."
Farming groups like the Commercial Farmers Union and Justice for Agriculture had told their members to stay on their land and risk arrest.
"There's ongoing pressure," Worsley-Worswick said by telephone from Harare. "We are expecting arrests as farmers go back today."
Mutasa said security officials would check this week on white farmers.
"It's the duty of police to see to it that those who don't abide by the laws are incarcerated," the minister was quoted as saying by the Bulawayo based newspaper.
Farmers were given a glimmer of hope last month when Ngoni Masoka, a senior official from the Lands Ministry, said they would be allowed to stay on to harvest crops they had planted "without any disruption in that process."
U.N. agencies estimate that about 4 million people are in need of food aid in Zimbabwe.
Last year, some 700,000 people lost their homes or livelihoods in a government demolition campaign aimed at street vendors, market stall holders and allegedly illegal housing.