HARARE Zimbabwe's government said on Friday it will not seize any more foreign-owned farms after losing multi-million-dollar compensation claims under a treaty aimed at protecting overseas investments.
President Robert Mugabe started giving white-owned farms to landless blacks over a decade ago, a policy that had the unintended result of devastating food output in a country that had been a regional breadbasket.
An estimated 4,000 farmers were thrown off their land without compensation and, while efforts to get legal redress in Zimbabwe failed, some have successfully sued for compensation in international courts.
Lands Minister Herbert Murerwa said that lawsuits brought by foreign investors at the Washington-based International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes had prompted a change in policy.
A group of 40 Dutch farmers won a 25 million euro ($32.74 million) claim there against Zimbabwe in 2009 as their farms were covered by the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPPA).
"We have acquired many BIPPA farms, but we are not going to be taking any future farms," Murerwa told Reuters.
A policy document tabled by Mugabe's ZANU-PF party at its annual conference in December showed that out of a total of 153 farms protected by the treaties, 116 farms had already been seized by the government.
The government had previously promised not to seize farms protected by BIPPA but continued to evict the farmers, citing Zimbabwe's constitution which allows authorities to take any land suitable for farming.
Justice for Agriculture (JAG), a group representing the dispossessed farmers, was skeptical about the government's policy change.
"It's ok to talk, but where is the action? They previously committed to stop disruptions on the farms but haven't done so. They have already taken more than two-thirds of BIPPA farms," JAG chief executive John Worsley-Worswick told Reuters.
"They just want to create a false perception that they will now respect property rights in order to attract investment. If they were sincere, they would have compensated the Dutch farmers back in 2009, when they undertook to pay within 28 days, but they haven't."
He said that last month a Dutch farmer was shot and injured on a BIPPA-protected farm. ($1 = 0.7636 euros)
(Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Robin Pomeroy)