- Relief organisations are disputing claims by Swazi government officials that a culture of food dependency is being created in the country.
The local media has widely reported government comments that "indolent" Swazis were refusing to plant crops because their food requirements were being provided by emergency rations of maize and other staple foodstuffs.
Chairman of the National Disaster Task Force, Ben Nsibandze, said recently "some drought victims are no longer prepared to plough their lands to take advantage of recent rains. They claim that they are assured of continuing government food aid. Some of these people have even started selling their arable land, as they believe there will be free food."
World Food Programme (WFP) country representative Abdoulaye Balde dismissed these claims, saying, "There is no substance to these allegations."
Nsibandze's task force, which gathers intelligence on food requirements in areas affected by drought, also warned that Swazis seeking to "deliberately exploit the relief aid programme" would be investigated.
"We would like to advise such people that the local relief committees have been tasked to provide lists of all such landowners who deliberately fail to utilise their land. The committees have also been advised to be vigilant in their selection of deserving hunger victims - the programme is not intended to promote a dependency syndrome," he said.
The minister of agriculture, Mtiti Fakudze, has repeated Nsibandze's comments on state-owned radio and television but, when approached by WFP, neither official could provide evidence of Swazis refusing to plough in the belief that food assistance would continue.
"We could not find a single farmer, by name, who was not ploughing," said Balde. "WFP is willing to take on the expense of investigating any such situations. What appears to have happened is there was a land dispute involving some chiefdoms, and this caused some farms to cease cultivation."
IRIN visited food distribution points in Lavumisa in the southern Shiselweni region, and Siphofaneni in the central part of the country, but could not verify claims that a cycle of food dependency was disrupting farming activities.
"No one is doing that. If the fields are not being ploughed it is because of AIDS, or farmers are too poor to buy implements, or the drought," said Thembi Khoza, a volunteer worker at a food distribution point at Lavumisa.
Another aid worker said Swazis took pride in producing their own food. "We would know who isn't ploughing on purpose. These stories about lazy farmers preferring food aid is an urban myth - or a rural myth."
According to UNAIDS, 33 percent of the sexually active adult population is infected with HIV/AIDS - the world's highest rate - and two-thirds of Swaziland's roughly one million people live on US$2 or less per day.
Relief organisations have been concerned that rumours about Swazis exploiting emergency food rations would discourage donors and jeopardise ongoing relief efforts.
Balde said in recent months food distribution was cut from 80,000 recipients to 30,000 as a temporary measure, countering speculation about aid dependency. "The May harvests were still filling the needs of many families. While those supplies were still feeding people, we cut back."
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