Zimbabwes land reform: challenging the myths

crop_salesDuring the past decade, Zimbabwe has undergone a tumultuous process of land redistribution. (Pictured: Successful farmers are accumulating through crop sales)

The way forward on the land issue is a challenge facing us all. In an attempt to stimulate constructive national debate on this vital topic, we are pleased to publish this series on livelihoods after land reform, based on a comprehensive 10-year study of the situation on the ground in Masvingo province. This is the second in the series.

Understanding the consequences of land reform requires finding out what is happening in the fields and on the farms. Only with a more local focus are the true dynamics revealed. In this feature, we zero in on Masvingo province in the central south and east of the country.

In Masvingo province about 28% of the total land area was transferred as part of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme, according to official figures. Much of this land was previously cattle ranches, with limited infrastructure, low levels of employment and only small patches of arable land, often irrigated patches around homesteads. This was taken over by over 32500 households on A1 sites (making up 1.2 m hectares) and about 1200 households in A2 areas (making up over 370,000 ha), alongside perhaps a further 8,500 households in informal resettlement sites, as yet unrecognised by the government.

At the same time 1 m hectares (18.3% of the province) remains as large-scale commercial operations, including some very large farms, conservancies and estates in the lowveld that remained largely intact

This radical transformation of land and livelihoods has resulted in a new composition of people in the rural areas, with diverse livelihood strategies. In order to understand more about who was doing what we undertook a success ranking exercise in all 16 sites across Masvingo province. This involved a group of farmers from the area ranking all households according to their own criteria of success. A number of broad categories of livelihood strategy emerged from these investigations. These are listed in the table below.

Livelihood strategies in Masvingo province


Over a half of all the 400 sample households across A1, A2 and informal resettlement sites – were either stepping up accumulation of assets and regular production of crops for sale or stepping out successful off-farm diversification. These households were accumulating and investing, often employing labour and ratcheting up their farming operations, despite the many difficulties being faced.

But not everyone has been successful. 46.5% of households were finding the going tough, and were not regarded as successful at this stage. Some are really struggling and only just hanging in; others are in the process of dropping out through a combination of chronic poverty and ill health. Joining the land invasions and establishing new farms in what was often uncleared bush was not easy. It required commitment, courage and much hard work. It was not for everyone.

Variable outcomes


Farming success depends on hard work

Others without start-up assets have been unable to accumulate, and have continued to live in poverty, reliant on the support of relatives and friends. Some have joined a growing labour force on the new farms, abandoning their plots in favour of often poorly-paid employment. Within the stepping out category some are surviving off illegal, unsafe or transient activities that allowed survival but little else. Still others are straddling across two farms one in the communal area and on in the new resettlement and not really investing in the new areas, while some are simply keeping the plot for sons or other relatives.

It is not surprising that there have been such variable outcomes. In the period since 2000 there has been virtually no external support. Government was broke and focused support on the elite few, and the NGOs and donors have shied away from the new resettlement areas for political reasons. Instead, most new farmers have been reliant on their own connections, enterprise and labour. Without support to get going, many have found it difficult, and it has only been those through a combination of access to assets, hard work and luck that have really made it.

As has been widely reported, there are some who have made it only because they have benefited from patronage. These are the so-called cronies of the party, well-connected to the machinery of the state and able to gain advantage. These cell phone farmers preside over areas of often under-utilised land, perhaps with a decaying new tractor in the farmyard.

Yet, despite their disproportionate influence on local politics, they are few-and-far between, making up less than 5% of the total population in our areas. In Masvingo province such elite capture is not the dominant story, despite the media assumptions. Masvingo is of course not Mazowe or Marondera, but even in the Highveld the situation is much more diverse than what mainstream portrayals suggest.

Hard graft

Overall, in our study sites there is a core group of middle farmers around half of the population who are successful not because of patronage support, but because of hard graft. They can be classified as successful petty commodity producers and worker peasants who are gaining surpluses from farming, investing in the land from off-farm work and so are able to accumulate from below. This is, as is reported in subsequent features in this series, having a positive impact on the wider economy, including stimulating demand for services, consumption goods and labour.

While it remains important to address abuses of the land reform programme according to strict criteria set by a land audit, it is also important to focus on the wider story, dispelling myths and engaging with the realties of the majority. This is why solid, empirical research is so important. Only with these facts to hand can sensible policymaking emerge. Evidence rather than emotion must guide the process.

In the following articles of this series, we will be reviewing the data from the Masvingo study and challenging the myths, for example, that there is no investment going on, that agricultural production has collapsed, that food insecurity is rife, that the rural economy is in precipitous decline and that farm labour has been totally displaced. The final article in the series will turn to some of the institutional and policy challenges ahead, aiming to define a positive, forward-looking agenda for the future. Next weeks article will look at who got the land and who are the new farmers?

Zimbabwes Land Reform: Myths and Realities published in November 2010 by Weaver Press in Zimbabwe (http://www.weaverpresszimbabwe.com/), Jacana Media in South Africa (http://www.jacana.co.za/) and James Currey in the rest fo the world (http://www.jamescurrey.co.uk/store/viewItem.asp?idProduct=13498)

(by Ian Scoones, Nelson Marongwe, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba, Jacob Mahenehene and Chrispen Sukume.)

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