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May 26, 2010

Time to ditch the 'disaster' scenarios of Zimbabwe's land reform

by Ben Cousins

The dominant view of land reform in Zimbabwe is that farm invasions from 2000 to 2001 were nothing but a corrupt land grab by Zanu-PF and its cronies. This is said to have initiated a calamitous decline in agriculture from which it has never recovered.

The story is that Zimbabwe moved from being the breadbasket of the region to being a basket case, dependent on humanitarian aid to feed its people. The media endlessly reproduces the image that commercial farming has completely collapsed, conjuring up images of empty farms and a ravaged landscape.

This stereotype of Zimbabwean land reform is profoundly unhelpful. It is not based on empirical evidence of the impact of land reform, or an understanding of underlying complexities and trends over time. Seeing land reform as a total failure clouds understanding of complex new realities that farmers, government officials, political parties and other players are grappling with in trying to chart a way forward.

The findings of a three-year study in Masvingo province will be published in a book later this year (see The study collected survey data on 400 households on redistributed land, from four sites in the province with contrasting agro-ecological potential. Farmers were engaged in different types of cropping and livestock production, including cotton, grains, oilseeds, sugar cane, cattle, goats and sheep. The sample included medium-size farms (the A2 model) as well as smallholder farms (the A1 model) in either villages or on self-contained units.

The study finds that crop yields and output on the redistributed farms, and particularly on the A1 schemes, have increased steadily in the past few years. From 2006 onwards more than two-thirds of households have produced more maize than they can consume, whenever rainfall is sufficient. Cotton production has been a notable success in one of the sites, helped by processing companies providing inputs and a reliable market. Livestock populations in most sites have increased steadily over time.

Many of the new "settlers" are adamant that their livelihoods have improved considerably after land reform, despite four droughts over the past decade. In Masvingo former beef ranches or wildlife farms are now supporting much higher rural populations than they did before redistribution.

National crop-production data compiled by the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organisation clearly demonstrate the misleading nature of images of "collapse". Trends vary considerably by crop type, showing significant decreases in yields and total output for maize, tobacco and wheat, but increases in area planted and total output for smallholder crops such as small grains, groundnuts and dry beans. Cotton production, dominated by smallholders since the mid-1980s, has seen increases in area planted, yields and total output compared with the 1990s. Export crops such as tea, coffee and sugar have seen significant decreases, but not their total collapse.

Maize, the national food staple, has been badly affected by declining fertiliser production and the disruption of seed production. These problems were compounded by ineffective (and sometimes corrupt) government programmes to supply inputs to land-reform beneficiaries. Maize is also sensitive to rainfall patterns.

Compared with the 1990s national average of 1,6-million tons, the past nine years have seen shortfalls of between 1,1% (in 2004-05) and 65% (in 2007-08), with the harvest in the good rainfall year of 2008-09 amounting to 1,2-million tons (25% less than the 1990s average).

Clearly, agriculture in Zimbabwe has indeed experienced significant problems in the years following radical land reform, but the notion of "total failure" is inaccurate. A new agrarian structure has come into being, with a much wider range of farm sizes and farming systems than in the past, replacing a highly unequal and dualistic structure.

Novel commodity chains for crops and livestock are emerging, with new agribusinesses supplying inputs and buying produce, as in the tobacco sector. Seed and fertiliser production capacity is being restored.

How many farms were seized by the political elite and the securocrats? In the Masvingo study, very few. Three quarters of redistributed land went to small-scale farmers on A1 plots. Half of all beneficiaries were ordinary people from rural areas and another 18% were ordinary people from towns. Civil servants made up 16% of the total, security-service personnel and business people about 5% respectively, and farmworkers about 7%. Urban residents and civil servants made up the bulk of the A2 settlers on medium-scale farms.

The pattern is undoubtedly different on high-potential farms in the Mashonaland provinces and around Harare, but other studies in these areas show that much land went to people with low incomes and few assets. Here the big losers were clearly farmworkers, some of whom now work for land-reform beneficiaries, but many of whom have been displaced to the margins of the economy.

Research thus reveals that Zimbabwe's land redistribution has reduced gross racial and class inequalities in land ownership and has brought into being a potentially productive agrarian structure.

This is not to deny that aspects of the land-reform process have been highly problematic. It is clear from the wider literature that land invasions in different parts of the country were often accompanied by violence and human rights abuses. Some members of the Zanu-PF-aligned elite have grabbed multiple farms, particularly on the Highveld. This is the key problem to be addressed in a land audit being designed at present. Many farmworkers were abused and lost their jobs.

Acknowledging that land reform has had positive impacts should not cloud the fact that some of the ordinary people who benefited from redistribution have subsequently been kicked off farms by cronies or securocrats. Large-scale biofuel projects currently being planned by business interests linked to the state and the security apparatus may lead to further land dispossession.

What is the way forward from here? Suggestions that a new Zimbabwean government should attempt to reconstruct the old dualistic farming sector dominated by large-scale commercial farming will encounter strong political resistance from the many ordinary Zimbabweans who have benefited from land reform. In any event a key component of the Global Political Agreement is that land reform is irreversible.

The central challenge of land policy in Zimbabwe is rather to build on the emerging successes of the new farmers and foster a dynamic and efficient agrarian economy with strong links to industry and the urban economy.

Resolving uncertainties around land rights and land administration is critically important. Attempts by the elite to extend their land holdings should be exposed. These are the issues that media reports, editorials and public debates on Zimbabwe's land reform should focus on, rather than tired stereotypes of "disaster and failure".

Professor Ben Cousins holds the DST/NRF research chair in poverty, land and agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape

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