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February 21, 2012

Farmer dispossessed in Zimbabwe’s land reform gives his views

Christopher Jarrett had his farm in southern Zimbabwe taken from him in 2002 as part of the ‘fast track’ land reform programme of President Robert Mugabe’s government. The efforts of him and others in his position to find remedy in Zimbabwean and regional courts over the years have not succeeded.

Jarrett gave his views on the controversies surrounding the whole exercise to a delegation of the European Union mission in Zimbabwe that was visiting his region, on January 31 2012.

He starts by summarizing the effects of the expropriations on the country’s economy over most of the first decade of this century.

Then, “We now come to the meat of the matter. How are we going to fix this mess so that the private sector can again fill its core role of generating employment whilst at the same time generating wealth for all?”

Banks have been afraid to lend to old or new, post-reform farmers because of all the continuing uncertainties to do with land tenure. A constitutional amendment made all expropriated farm land property of the State. Successful post-reform applicants for land are given ‘offer letters,’ which can then lead to 99 year leases. However, it is far from clear that the leases can serve as collateral for farming finance, although that is being discussed with banks.

The main basis on which Jarrett argues for the sanctity of the title deeds based system of land tenure is access to agricultural finance. He says, “We must face up to it that neither government nor anyone else has the depth of finance necessary to bankroll annually an agricultural system structurally incapable of funding itself. Commercial agriculture used to fund itself through a robust and powerful banking sector using title to the land as collateral. This funding did not cost the taxpayer anything.”

“Now we have a crass system where very little can be produced except from beneficiaries’ limited own resources. The taxpayer through government is thus obliged to provide finance for inputs, most of which funding is never recovered. Those who benefit from these hand outs have no binding obligation to pay. There is no sanction such as loss of security of tenure lurking in the wings should these so-called “loans” not be repaid. There is no need to repay because there is no effective recourse and this adds to our collective impoverishment as our taxes are wasted.”

Not surprisingly, there is generally a huge gulf in the perspectives of white farmers like Jarrett and many/most black Zimbabweans on many aspects of the origins of the land problem, what caused what to happen, and on the best way forward.

Jarrett accuses the Mugabe government of deliberately denying Zimbabweans security of land tenure through title deeds in order ‘to keep the general population poor, subservient and no threat to the status quo.’

Jarrett’s mentions in passing different, non title-deeds based ‘security of tenure’ systems in other countries he cites favorably. But for Zimbabwe, he makes it clear that he believes a return to the pre-2000 title based system is the only viable option.

Says Jarrett, “We do not just promote and sponsor these conditions (secure and inviolate title to land) in order to restore our own rights, but we believe they should be extended into the communal areas.”

Jarrett argues that once small scale farmers have title deeds, they too will be more easily able to access finance, since their tradable title deeds can be used as collateral, which they do not currently have.

However, it is not clear that lack of collateral is the main reason for lack of smallholder access to finance. In the case of widespread small scale farmer loan defaults, would it be politically realistic in most African countries for banks to conduct mass foreclosures? It is particularly doubtful that this could work in a country with the particularly charged land history of Zimbabwe. It might be a long-established principal and practice for larger scale commercial farmers, but it is doubtful the same model can be transferred wholesale to small scale farmers. This is one reason why in most countries, the modes of financing small scale farmers are fundamentally different from the accepted loan and collateral model of agribusiness.

Jarrett mentions the increasing calls in Zimbabwe for a new system of security of tenure, for the ‘new farmers’ to have confidence to make long-term plans and investments. He does not recognize the legality of the government’ invalidation of the old title deeds of farmers like him. He says that secure tenure for the new farmers “is impossible whilst the owner (like him) still holds ownership and proof thereof in the form of his title deeds. Government is clearly incapable of compensating owners in order to take over their real rights in the land. No one can transfer a right which they do not possess. “

For the government and many Africans, that argument of Jarrett’s is agreed with, but interpreted in a radically different way: that those title deeds sought to whitewash and legitimize the theft of African land in the colonial era. Jarrett means the government does not legally own the land because displaced farmers like him still have their title deeds and were not paid to transfer ownership to that government. On the other hand, the government says the transfer of land from Africans, decades ago under various colonial governments, to what was then designated as title deeds-based ‘European land,’ is the original illegitimate transfer. It is fundamentally a clash of world views.

Says Jarrett, “The point to digest is that the land seizure problem is not going away with the passage of time. It is impossible to confiscate people’s property without fair compensation being paid. There are numerous examples of countries which have tried going down this same route, but there is not one country to our knowledge which has managed to hold on to the spoils.”

Again, it is possible to find agreement on this statement between many ex white farmers like Jarrett and many Africans, but very significant difference on which ‘land seizure problem’ is the more legitimate basis on which to find a base from which to move forward. Is it the seizure of land decades ago by colonial governments from Africans to then consign it to the title deeds-based system of ‘European land?’ Or is it the more recent seizure of white-occupied land from farmers like Jarrett to then re-distribute it to Africans as part of ‘redressing colonial imbalances?’

Jarrett’s only referral to the existence of a raging controversy about this issue is a cryptic, “The Far East, although having different standards of tenure looks forward, not back to their colonial era.”

The suggestion is that colonial land bygones should be bygones. The problem is that many of the Africans in countries with racially charged land issues like Zimbabwe and South Africa see many aspects of the issue from a perspective opposite to that of people like Jarrett. Ironically, Jarrett and other white farmers are for the first time able to partially see things from an African perspective they might have previously ignored or dismissed: that of a person unceremoniously stripped of his livelihood and what he considered his legitimate property.

While Jarrett shows no sign of seeing the other points of view that have resulted in there being the clash of world views that has led to the land problems that Zimbabwe and South Africa in particular face, he does have a suggestion for the way forward:

“Perhaps the best government can do is to mitigate their losses by returning seized land.”

To which that government would reply that it has done precisely that – returning land seized from Africans decades ago back to them.

Clearly the mindset gap between the two perspectives remains huge and perhaps unbridgeable.

Click here for Jarrrett’s full presentation.

African Agriculture

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