Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: challenging the myths
During the past decade, Zimbabwe has undergone a radical process of land redistribution. A new book to be launched by the Royal African Society explores the successes and failures.
By Ian Scoones (Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex)
Zimbabwe’s land reform has had a bad press. Images of chaos, destruction and violence have dominated the coverage. While these have been part of the reality, there have also been successes, which have thus far gone largely unrecorded. The story is not simply one of collapse and catastrophe. It is much more nuanced and complex.
As Zimbabwe moves forward with a new agrarian structure, a more balanced appraisal is needed, requiring solid, on-the-ground research aimed at finding out what happened to whom, where, and with what consequences. This was the aim of work we carried out in Masvingo province over the past decade. The question posed was simple: what happened to people’s livelihoods once they got land through the ‘fast-track’ programme from 2000?
The answers are extremely complex, and discussed in detail in Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities. The study involved in-depth field research in 16 land reform sites across the province, involving a sample population of 400 households. The study area stretched from the higher potential areas near Gutu to the dry south in the lowveld.
What we found was unexpected, contradicting the overwhelmingly negative images of land reform presented in the media and much academic and policy commentary. There were problems, failures and abuses, but the overarching story was much more positive: the realities on the ground did not match the myths so often perpetuated in wider debate.
A changed agrarian structure
Across the country, the land formal re-allocation since 2000 has resulted in the transfer of nearly 8 million hectares of land to over 160,000 households. If the ‘informal’ settlements, outside the official ‘fast-track’ programme are added, the totals are even larger.
Two main ‘models’ have been at the centre of the process – one focused on smallholder production (A1 schemes – village-based arrangements or small, self-contained farms) and one focused on commercial production at a slightly larger scale (A2 farms). In practice, the distinction between these models varies considerably, with much overlap.
Events since 2000 have resulted in a radical change in the nation’s agrarian structure. At Independence in 1980, over 15m hectares was devoted to large-scale commercial farming, comprising around 6,000 farmers, nearly all white. This fell to around 12m hectares by 1999, in part through a modest, but in many ways successful, land reform and resettlement programme, largely funded by the British government under the terms of the Lancaster House agreement.
The Fast Track Land Reform Programme, begun in 2000, allocated more than 4,500 farms to new farmers, making 20 percent of the total land area of the country, according to (admittedly rough) official figures. This represents over 145,000 farm households in A1 schemes and around 16.500 further households occupying A2 plots – a significant shift to many more small-scale farms focusing on mixed farming, often with low levels of capitalisation.
There are, though, still more than 4ml hectares of large-scale commercial farms. But only around 200-300 white-owned commercial farmers are still operating, most having been displaced, along with a substantial number of farm workers.
Successes and failures
This major restructuring has had knock-on consequences for the agricultural sector. The transfer of land from the narrowly-controlled, large-scale farm sector has resulted in heavy hits on certain commodities and markets.
Wheat, tobacco, coffee, tea and beef exports have all suffered. On average, from 2001 to 2009, wheat production decreased by 27% and tobacco production by 43%, with more dramatic declines from 2006. Maize production has become more variable too, with average production over this period down by 31% from 1990s levels.
However other crops and markets have weathered the storm and some have boomed. Aggregate production of small grains has increased by 163% compared to 1990s averages. Edible dry bean production has expanded even more, up 282%, Cotton production has increased slightly, up 13% on average. The agricultural sector has certainly been transformed, and there are major problems in certain areas, but it emphatically has not collapsed.
Yet aggregate figures – with all the caveats about accuracy – only tell one part of the story. Understanding the consequences of land reform requires finding out what is happening in the fields and on the farms.
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 32,500 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.
New land, new livelihoods
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.
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 increasing their farming operations, despite facing many difficulties.
Not everyone has been successful – 46.5% of households were finding the going tough, and not regarded as ‘successful’. Some were really struggling and only just ‘hanging in’; others were 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.
Others without start-up assets have been unable to accumulate, continuing to live in poverty, reliant on the support of relatives and friends. Some 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 were surviving off illegal, unsafe or transient activities that allowed survival but little else. Still others were straddling across two farms – one in the communal area and one in the new resettlement – and not really investing in the new areas, while some simply kept the plot for sons or other relatives.
Such variable outcomes are unsurprising; in the period since 2000 there has been virtually no external support. Government was broke and focused efforts on the elite few, and 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 through a combination of access to assets, hard work and luck that have really made it.
Some have made it due to the widely reported phenomenon of patronage. These are the so-called ‘cronies’ of the party, well-connected to the machinery of the state and able to gain advantage. So-called cell phone farmers, they preside over areas of often under-utilised land. Yet, despite their disproportionate influence on local politics, they make up less than 5% of the total population in Masvingo province. And even in the Highveld provinces the situation is much more diverse than mainstream portrayals suggest.
A forward-looking agenda
Overall, in our study sites there is a core group of ‘middle farmers’ – around half of the population – who thrive because of sheer 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 able to ‘accumulate from below’. This is having a positive impact on the wider economy, including stimulating demand for services, consumption goods and labour.
Our decade of research in Zimbabwe has addressed the abuses of the land reform programme, but has also dispelled the myths and engaged with the realities of the majority. Solid, empirical evidence has shot holes in the myths that there is no investment going on, agricultural production has collapsed, food insecurity is rife, the rural economy is in precipitous decline and farm labour has been totally displaced.
There are many institutional and policy challenges ahead, but from our research we believe it’s possible to define a positive, forward-looking agenda for the future.
Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities is published by James Currey