Land reform: going beyond the policy impasse

For most commentators, Mugabe’s fast track land reform programme was an unmitigated disaster. Thousands lost their jobs and homes, food production nose-dived, laws on property rights no longer seemed to apply and the economy spiralled out of control.

Some plots that were previously used for commercial purposes are being better utilised by small scale farmers.
Some plots that were previously used for commercial purposes are being better utilised by small scale farmers.

However, recent studies have shown a different, more complex picture of the situation on the ground. For the first time, all the academic studies that have been carried out on FTLRP over the past 11 years have been gathered together in the Journal of Peasant Studies, edited by Lionel Cliffe, Jocelyn Alexander, Ben Cousins and Rudo Gaidzanwa. The group hopes the collection will lead to further debate and analysis of the issues so a workable way forward can be found.

One of the most recent studies was carried out by a team lead by Professor Ian Scoones at the Institute of Development Studies. Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities challenges the myths that there is no investment, agricultural production has collapsed, food insecurity is rife, the rural economy is in precipitous decline and farm labour has been totally displaced.

They carried out a detailed study looking at 400 new farmers in Masvingo, who had taken over land from commercial farmers that was previously dedicated to cattle ranching with little agrarian output.

Blasio Mavedzenge, a field researcher for the Zimbabwe Department of Agriculture who worked with Scoones, spoke to BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents recently about what they found.

“The large scale farmers were not practicing any cropping at all. A huge diversity of crops is now being produced from the same land. The land is being better utilised now than before. It caters for more people now than before,” he said.

He called the programme “a roaring success”. The BBC interviewed one of the new farmers in the area. Shadrack Ruwafa works on a former commercial farm which has been sub-divided into about 200 plots.

He said: “The Zimbabwean struggle has always been about land. Land is our factory. We are farming people and land has always been important to us. We did not just come without talking to the then farm owner. We went to him and asked him can we share the land and that is how we came here. He accepted there was no violence.

“We are doing some great farming here. We had 68 trucks to take the produce away from the farms. The white farmer was only planting about 12 hectares and now look at all the produce that is coming out of the land. There was one farmer here and now there are about 200. We have far exceeded what he was doing.”

Mavedzenge said the study showed political persuasion did not seem to be a factor in land redistribution. “No one was asked which political party they belonged to. Once they heard land was available, people came from north, south, east, west. We were at pains to find things like that,” he said.

However, he admitted he could not say that cronyism wasn’t a factor. Although there are significant geographical gaps in the areas surveyed, studies included in the journal show the great majority of the beneficiaries were not members of the ruling elite. In their introduction, the editors found most studies concluded land went to “poor” Zimbabweans, with Manicaland as an exception.

In A synopsis of land and agrarian change in Chipinge district, Zimbabwe, Phillan Zamchiya finds: 50 per cent of the beneficiaries are listed as civil servants including members of security branches, 22 per cent traditional authorities; veterans received 17 per cent of the land and only 11 per cent of the recipients were listed as “ordinary”. However, the editors acknowledged a number of gaps in research that need to be looked at.

Despite a number of positive findings in the reports, more than a million people in Zimbabwe will require food aid between now and March 2012 with 12 per cent of the rural population unable to buy food, according to the World Food Programme. The Institute for Development Studies says just over one third of new farmers are making a living from their land, 20 per cent are juggling their farms with other work but 40 per cent are barely managing.

Zimbabwean economist John Robertson told the BBC: “The areas where there has been something that can be called success are very small and very few. Most of the new people farming the land that was confiscated from large scale farmers are producing enough for themselves and not much more.” “We have got all these thousands of people, desperately trying to make a living. But it’s all at a very low level. We have halved output, it has been a disaster.”

He points to the mass displacement of farm workers, most of whom lost their jobs and homes in the land invasions. One farm worker, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC they were living in an old tobacco shed on the farm they used to work at, hiring themselves out as labour to the new farmers for little or no money. He said: “Before land reform, we didn’t have any problems with our employers, it was very nice. We got union level wages so we did not have any problems. Our employers even used to pay our children’s school fees and even hospital bills.”

However, studies have shown that some farm workers did benefit from land reform. In some of the schemes surveyed in the journal, in Masvingo they constituted 11 per cent of A1 beneficiaries; in Mazowe a smaller proportion; in one scheme the proportion was 30 per cent.

The editors of the journal concluded that a lot more analysis needed to be done on the land situation in Zimbabwe but added: “It is to be hoped that this collection can prompt some potential applicable ideas for policy, but also further debate around options – especially about ways forward beyond what most contributors see as a policy ‘impasse’.”

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