Ten years ago large areas of Zimbabwe’s commercial farmland were invaded by land-hungry villagers, led by war veterans and backed by President Robert Mugabe. The Zimbabwe supreme court ruled the land reform programme illegal, and since then images of chaos, destruction and violence have dominated global coverage.
But as Zimbabwe moves forward with a new agrarian system, a more balanced appraisal is now needed for the process that overturned a century-old pattern of land use dominated by a small group of large-scale commercial farmers. This means listening to the results of solid, on-the-ground research.
In our 10-year study in Masvingo province, we examined what happened to people’s livelihoods. “We got good yields this year. I filled two granaries with sorghum. I hope to buy a grinding mill and locate it at my homestead.” These are the words of Samuel Mafongoya, a Masvingo farmer who was one of the many beneficiaries of the controversial land reform process. Not every story was as positive, of course. The hard evidence was complex and nuanced. But it also contradicted the overwhelmingly negative images of land reform presented in the media.
At independence in 1980, over 15m hectares were devoted to large-scale commercial farming by about 6,000 farmers, nearly all white. This fell to about 12m hectares by 1999, in part through a modest land reform and resettlement programme largely funded by the UK. Formal land reallocation since 2000 has resulted in the transfer of nearly 8m hectares to over 160,000 households, mostly are ordinary people from nearby areas. If the “informal” settlements outside the official programme are added, the totals are even larger.
This major restructuring has had knock-on consequences, and there have been heavy hits on certain commodities and markets: wheat, tobacco, coffee, tea and beef exports have all suffered. However, other crops and markets have weathered the storm, and some have boomed. Production of small grains and edible beans has increased dramatically compared with the 1990s, and cotton production too has gone up. True, there are major problems in certain areas, but agriculture has not collapsed.
In Masvingo, reform saw more than a quarter of the land taken over by around 32,500 households on smallholder sites, 1,200 households on slightly larger sites, and 8,500 households in informal resettlement sites. It has resulted in a new composition of people in the rural areas, with highly diverse livelihoods, based on mixed crop and livestock farming. Another resettlement farmer, Petros Chakavanda, told us: “We are not employed but we are getting higher incomes than those at work.”
In fact, our studies showed that over half of the 400 households sampled are accumulating and investing, often employing labour and increasing their farming operations. And their activity is having a positive impact on the wider economy, stimulating demand for services, consumer goods and labour.
Others were finding the going tough. 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. It is true that some new farmers have made it due to political connections and patronage. Yet, despite their disproportionate influence on local politics, in Masvingo they make up less than 5% of households. Remember too that since 2000 these new settlers have received very little external support. The government was broke and often focused its efforts on a few of the elite. Meanwhile, aid organisations shied away from the resettlement areas for political reasons.
We do not want to underplay the abuses that took place or the challenges that transition brings. However, our research has dispelled the assumption that Zimbabwe’s controversial reform was “all bad”. Solid empirical evidence has challenged the myth that there is no investment, that agricultural production has collapsed and food insecurity is universal, that the rural economy is in precipitous decline, and that farm labour has been totally displaced. There are many challenges ahead, but we believe it is possible to define a positive, forward-looking agenda for the future.
• Some names have been changed. Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, by Ian Scoones, Nelson Marongwe, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba, Jacob Mahenehene and Chrispen Sukume.
Ian Scoones, co-director of ESRC STEPS Centre and a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Blasio Mavedzenge, an independent researcher from Masvingo, Zimbabwe and co-author of Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities.