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Natural Resource Governance around the World

ZIMBABWE. The undeniable need for an agrarian reform

Written by: Morgane Le Gal, Michel Merlet, (from Elisabeth Tisserand)

Organizations: Institut de Recherche et d’Applications des Méthodes de Développement (IRAM), Réseau Agriculture Paysanne et Modernisation (APM), Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme (FPH)

Type of document: Paper / Document for wide distribution

Documents of reference

TISSERAND, Elisabeth. Zimbabwe, la réforme agraire détournée. Courrier de la Planète N°47, Septembre-Octobre 1998.

The land question was one of the key issues of the war for independence, which in 1980 led to the birth of Zimbabwe from the ashes of Rhodesia. The land tenure situation was at that time typical: 6000 white landowners divided half the country’s arable land and had secured 90% of the best soils, whereas the black population, 80% of whom lived in rural areas, were living on unproductive and eroded land. They were confined to reservations called the Tribal Trust Areas (TTA), which have today become the Communal Areas.

The new power 1 born from independence lanced an ambitious agrarian reform program in order to rectify the social imbalance and unequal land access resulting from the apartheid system, which formed the basis of the Rhodesian economy. 10% of the cultivable land occupied by commercial white-owned farms was passed through the Resettlement Schemes land regime. Each of those farms was redistributed to a few hundred families. During the ten years of the Land Resettlement Programme, the state voluntarily bought the land from landowners and then distributed it to indigenous families: 5 ha of cultivable land per family, to which pasture rights on additional surface area were added depending on the region. 58,000 families were settled on this land over the eighteen months following independence.

But this intervention remained altogether insufficient. In spite of the redistribution, the number of landless farmers has increased. New farms hadn’t benefited from the supportive measures that were necessary (fertilisers and seeds, advantageous loans, extension…), nor from a coherent agricultural policy that would have permitted their development and proved the effectiveness and relevance of the reform. Big commercial farms continued to control respectively 73 and 66% of the country’s best land (that of grade I and II 2). The Resettlement Scheme farms controlled only 4 and 6% and the small commercial farms (the majority being indigenous producers) 1 and 4% 3.

With Resettlement Schemes, the state kept the land, and granted beneficiaries of the agrarian reform usufruct rights through three kinds of permits: to cultivate, to reside and to use as pastureland. Both constricting and restrictive, the peasants could lose their permits at any moment. Land-access insecurity, a lack of technical monitoring and the absence of investments resulted in particularly weak agricultural output, and production (wheat, corn, peanuts) was essentially used for auto-consumption and the internal market.

Although the Communal Areas were also State property, they underwent a distinct evolution. The traditional land tenure system continued to be practised: the village chief periodically divided land rights between families. They benefited from considerable subsidies and technical aid from the State. Farming was dynamic on these commons despite the narrowness of the plots (on average barely more than 1.5 ha).

When the Landcaster Agreements, which had permitted the implementation of the first stage of the agrarian reform, expired in 1990, the government lanced a new campaign denouncing the whites’ control of both the economy and agricultural land. It established the New Land Policy, which authorised the requisitioning of land without financial compensation, with the exception of buildings and infrastructures. However, this measure had a limited impact because the government hesitated before the risk of interfering with the commercial farming sector, which was responsible for a large part of national production and foreign returns 4. The international financial backers who were financing a large part of the land redistribution program as part of a structural adjustment plan, which maintained that the « right to private property » ought not to be disputed. At the signature of the Lancaster Agreements, the United Kingdom committed to pay 20 million British pounds to the Zimbabwean State as a contribution for an equitable redistribution of farmland and thus, in order to bring a certain compensation for the British settlers’ control of farmland. Other financial backers, including the European Union, also endorsed Zimbabwe’s agrarian reform program, through bilateral and multilateral agreements or through NGOs. The British contribution permitted the reinstallation of a little less than half of all the families concerned by the program over the first ten years of reform. The former colonial power then refused to accept that its nationals and descendants be expropriated, as a number of landowning farmers from the white community had the double nationality, British and Zimbabwean. Starting in 1992, it set conditions on its financial aid, including more consistent compensation for expropriated farms, the right to approve or disapprove the relevance of expropriation, and the conservation of mutual agreement mechanisms between seller and buyer, until it finally stopped financing the agrarian reform.

During this second phase, a few homesteaders with European origins may have been expropriated, yet masses of landless farmers were not settled on these lands. It has been proven nevertheless that small-scale farmers can be as productive as large, commercial farms when they benefit from infrastructure investments such as in roads and irrigation installations. In Zimbabwe, 70% of cotton and corn is produced on small- to medium-sized black-owned farms, which could just as easily diversify and orient themselves toward cash crops such as flowers and tobacco, as was done in Kenya and Malawi. Nevertheless, the resettlement of small farmers is expensive when combined with policies for infrastructure development, public services, and credit for beneficiaries.

No other country in Southern Africa has resettled as many families through an agrarian re-form as in Zimbabwe: 70,000 families benefited from the agrarian reform. Yet the distributed farmland did not receive the infrastructures and technical support necessary to ensure its viability. Agrarian reform land registration systems and the agricultural policies failed to make the majority of these settlements viable. In 1994, only 10% of rural settlements were sustainable, whereas the remaining 90% were composed of families living below the poverty threshold 5. The international financial backers denounced the absence of a global policy promoting a comprehensive resettlement project, which would specify the beneficiaries as well as the investments to be made in their land in order to ensure the viability and profit-earning capacity of small-scale farms. The government then granted this program on average only 3% of what it allocates for defence, which raises doubts about the government’s political determination to establish the agrarian reform as one of its national priorities, despite President Mugabe’s assertive declarations.

In 1998, 4500 large commercial farms (having an average surface area of 2300 ha) still control 37% of the nation’s cultivated land and keep playing a large part in the country’s economy. 500 are run by indigenous people, and the other 4000 by white farmers who have either inherited from the first settlers or belong to multinational companies. They still possess more than 80% of the irrigated land, which benefits from nearly 5700 private dams.

The production of the Communal Areas multiplied tenfold in 15 years, and in 1998 represented close to half of the national cotton and corn production. These common areas’ production was reoriented toward export products having a higher value added (flowers, citrus fruits, market-garden produce, tobacco, cotton, sugar). The State farms (in particular those of the ARDA, Agricultural and Rural Development Authority) are large commercial farms. It is difficult to know precisely how much surface area they occupy, but their presence in the agrarian structure seems relatively weak.

In 1997 and 1998, riots denouncing land tenure inequalities multiplied, and the Mugabe administration intensified pressures on commercial farmers of European origins, while again threatening to seize farms from the white community. The lack of international financial support limited the possibilities of agrarian reform. The pressure on white farmers led them to reduce their investments.

The government took a lesson from the first Resettlement Scheme, which turned out to be economically unviable. From then on, it concentrated its efforts on supporting small commercial farms, created by the division of large nationalised properties or by regrouping lands from the Resettlement Schemes. This new turning point in the agrarian reform is advantageous, on the one hand, for well-to-do farmers with a capacity for technological investment, and on the other hand, for the urban middle class endowed with the financial and political means to buy land and employ farm labour.

In early 2000, the opposition between the party in power, the Zanu-PF and the recently created Movement for Democratic Change, which has a more urban social base, gives agricultural occupations a more and more visible political dimension. The Zanu-PF encourages a new wave of farmland occupation, led by independence war veterans and young Zanu-PF supporters who rely on the small farmers’ impatience in the face of the agrarian reform’s slowness. In this way, it tries to win the rural electorate. The farmland occupations are carried out in a strong climate of violence, which still continues today, after Mugabe’s victory in the elections.

Beyond the political dimension of the debate on the Zimbabwean agrarian reform, revisiting these historical facts illustrates to what extent the land question is always central to any country’s development.

Paper Editors: Morgane Le Gal and Michel Merlet (IRAM)

Translation: Mary Rodeghier (AGTER). 2007.

1 Lead by R. Mugabe and his party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front ZANU-PF.

2 5 categories of land are discerned according to their agro-ecological potential, I being the highest.

3 Source : Sam Moyo, in Zimbabwe, Economie poli-tique de la transition, Dakar 1991.

4 Zimbabwe is the third tobacco producer in the world. This cash crop represents 30% of the country’s exports. It is « whites » who cultivate the largest amount of tobacco in these entirely mechanised and competitive farms. Consequentially, there was a great fear that the economy would collapse if these commercial farms had been dismantled and distributed out in small plots to landless farmers.

5 Moyo S., 1995, The Land Question in Zimbabwe, SARIPS, 333 p.