The Human and Environmental Tragedy in Zimbabwe Must End

GLOBE-Net - Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown summed it up in no uncertain terms this week. Commenting on the spread of cholera from the once jewel of Africa into neighbouring countries, Brown noted this is now an international rather than a national emergency because the systems of government in Zimbabwe are in no state capable or willing of protecting its people.

“International because - not least in the week of the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights - we must stand together to defend human rights and democracy, to say firmly to Mugabe that enough is enough,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s crumbling economy and the collapse of all health services have driven millions into neighbouring South Africa, many suffering through the gravest stages of cholera an illness that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. Thousands have already died, though ’official’ figures from the administration of Zimbabwe’s government tightly controlled by long time ruler Robert Mugabe are likely to be vastly understated.

Cholera, which is spread through contaminated water and food, is the latest in Zimbabwe’s humanitarian and economic crisis, where sewage and health-care systems have collapsed and food is scarce.

The cholera problem first began in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where in 2005 the Mugabe government embarked on Operation Restore Order, an urban renewal program that involved the destruction by bulldozers of the homes or businesses of 700,000 mostly poor supporters of the opposition, thereby adding to the numbers of people without shelter, food, healthcare or jobs.

Rural Zimbabwe also suffered the consequences of environmental mismanagement. Deforestation, soil erosion, land degradation, air and water pollution, wildlife destruction by poachers seeking ’bush meat’ to feed their families, and poor mining practices leading to toxic waste and heavy metal pollution have all taken their toll on what once was the most beautiful natural environments in the world. Recent reports of anthrax breaking out amongst cattle farmers have emerged, with no treatment services available.

Farmers in Zimbabwe once grew enough food not only to feed the country, also enough to export. The country was known as “the breadbasket of southern Africa.”

President Robert Mugabe seized much of the nation’s farmland and exiled white and foreign farmers from the country labelling them as “enemies of the state.” This resulted in severe famine and prolonged degradation of once fertile farmlands that were given over to landless party loyalists.

Rules designed to halt the export of basic commodities, including beans, cooking oil, milk and flour, in an effort to alleviate domestic shortages have only exacerbated Zimbabwe’s domestic economic woes, which likely will remain until the political situation in the country is resolved.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu speaking this week to Dutch television on the need to remove President Mugabe - by force if necessary - said “He has destroyed a wonderful country. A country that used to be a bread basket – it has now become a basket case.”

The political unrest and the impacts of collapsing basic services are simply adding to the environmental stress being experienced by Zimbabwe due to climate change.

All of Central and Southern Africa is experiencing dramatic changes in weather patterns due to changing climatic impacts associated with global warming. Zimbabwe’s two largest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, are experiencing “water stress” with residents experiencing frequent water cuts and low water pressure. The country has seen a decline in rainfall of nearly five percent since 1990.

The humanitarian and environmental crises in the country are closely linked; one cannot be resolved in isolation from the other. And as the rainy season approaches, further deaths from starvation and cholera are a certainty, as will be the continued onslaught of the country’s forests and wildlife.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who along with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, wife of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela were recently denied entry visas to visit Zimbabwe, issued a statement noting that “After almost three decades of governmental corruption, mismanagement and oppression, Zimbabwe has become a basket case, an embarrassment to the region and a focus of international concern and condemnation”.

Ironically, this week Zimbabwe marked its 29th National Tree Planting Day since it was launched by President Robert Mugabe in 1980. The nation’s Minister of Environment and Tourism Francis Nhema said “an average of 5 million trees have been planted every year giving a total of 140 million trees.” However few of these trees have survived the ravages of weather, fire, termites, livestock and human damage.

A photo essay on the situation in Zimbabwe is available here.

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