A British academic says agriculture will be key to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery but the new government will have to be careful about who it listens to because there has been too much ideological posturing and misinformation surrounding land reform.
Ian Scoones of the University of Sussex says the new government will be offered advice from all quarters including consultants, the donor community and think-tanks, but it will have to be careful because “too much of the past period has been coloured by ideological posturing and misinformation from all sides”.
Zimbabwe has witnessed unprecedented economic decline since its controversial fast-track land reform programme which began in 2000. The government seized land from nearly 4 000 largely white commercial farmers and redistributed it to 72 000 large-scale farmers and 127 000 small holders.
The government has blamed, and continues to blame, economic sanctions imposed on the country for the economic decline while most people argue that the economic collapse is due to government’s mismanagement.
Zimbabwe’s key political parties have already agreed under their power-sharing deal that the land reform programme will not be reversed.
Scoones, who has worked in rural Zimbabwe since 1985, says a hard look at the evidence on the ground must be the starting point for a sound, sustainable policy approach for the future. “This must involve engaging with field research aimed at understanding the unfolding dynamics of land, agriculture and livelihoods – and the perspective of farmers and land users themselves.”
He says this is critical because a detailed study of the evolution of land reform in Masvingo Province since 2000 has revealed some important insights that challenge “conventional wisdoms” dominating the media and academic commentary.
The study challenges five myths that have often been repeated about the land reform in Zimbabwe. These are that land reform has been a total failure; beneficiaries are largely political cronies; there is no investment in the new resettlements; agriculture is in complete ruins; and that the rural economy has collapsed.
Smallholder farmers in Masvingo, the study says, have done reasonably well particularly in the wetter parts of the province but small-scale commercial farmers have fared badly largely due to the economic meltdown. There is, however, a general feeling that life has changed for the new farmers.
“The contrasts between…smallholder and commercial farmers are rather arbitrary and misleading. There is much blurring between these different models. Since 2000 the old dualistic agricultural economy, the inheritance of the colonial era, has gone for good and a new agrarian structure is fast emerging. This creates challenges and opportunities, winners and losers, but cannot be characterised as abject failure. New policy frameworks will have to recognise this new reality and avoid the temptation of re-imposing old and out-dated models,” Scoones says.
On beneficiaries he says 60 per cent of new settlers were classified as ‘ordinary farmers’. Seven percent were former farm workers, the same figure as that of war veterans though the war veterans generally had slightly larger and often self-contained plots. Civil servants constituted 14 percent while business people accounted for five percent.
Members of the security services – police, army and intelligence officers- the group most associated with political patronage and ruling party connections only constituted three percent of those resettled.
The study said while there was generally little improvement in commercial sector, smallholders had invested a lot on their plots. Forty-one percent had built brick houses, 62 percent had cattle, 75 percent had ploughs, 40 percent owned bicycles and 39 percent had ox-drawn carts while 15 percent owned cars.
“This level of asset ownership is higher than comparable samples in the neighbouring communal areas and since acquiring land most new settlers have been accumulating, despite the hardships,” Scoones says.
He admits that agricultural output has declined remarkably but argues that the rural economy has not collapsed.
“There is also evidence of substantial investment in new businesses in and around the new resettlements, including shops, bottle stores, butcheries and transport operations. Such investment has generated a variety of new economic linkages, creating some much-needed rural employment.
“These multiplier effects have, however, been undermined by the wider hyperinflationary pressures, together with the imposition of price controls and other measures. But, with changed conditions, these new businesses will be revived and new economic activity will undoubtedly emerge,” Scoones says.
He says future strategies must work to enhance economic stability – boosting local production and spending power. With the right support, wider economic growth can be realised but it will be essential to ensure that such support does not undermine the diversified entrepreneurialism that has emerged in recent years.
“The complex new value chains are perhaps a bit haphazard, unregulated and chaotic at times but their benefits are more widely distributed and economic linkages more embedded in the local economy. In the longer term such new economic arrangements can enhance broad-based and resilient growth and livelihood generation in ways that the old agrarian structure could never do,” he argues.
Another academic, Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan professor of government at Columbia University in New York says while food production has been a casualty of the land reform programme with half the population needing food relief next year, it is important to separate the effect of drought from that of reform.
To understand how reform has hit production, he argues, one must distinguish between three groups of agricultural producers – white farmers who were the target of land reform, peasant farmers and foreign companies which owned plantations.
White commercial farmers focussed on export crops whilst communal farmers were the major source of food security, he argues.
Mamdani, an Asian who was kicked out of Uganda during the Idi Amin era, says tobacco, which was the main source of foreign currency and was grown largely by white farmers, has suffered a drastic decline and this is largely because of the land reform.
Maize and cotton, on the other hand, are peasant crops and have not been directly affected by land reform but have suffered badly from prolonged drought. Production at the estates owned by corporations has largely remained steady, he argues.