Zimbabwe land reforms: myths and surprises
7 May 2013
By Giles Emerson
More than ten years ago President Mugabe caused global outrage by forcibly removing many of the 4,500 white owners of Zimbabwe's large-scale commercial farms from their land. It was fully expected that the handover of these farms would displace farm workers and utterly devastate agriculture in Zimbabwe, however a major study supported by the ESRC and the Department for International Development challenges this assertion.
Professor Ian Scoones from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex investigated the actual outcomes of land reform and redistribution in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. His book Zimbabwe's Land Reform – Myths and Realities presents some surprising results of radical agrarian reform, and challenges five particular myths:
- Myth 1: Land reform has been a total failure
- Myth 2: The beneficiaries have been largely political cronies
- Myth 3: There is no investment in the new settlements
- Myth 4: Agriculture is in complete ruins creating chronic food insecurity
- Myth 5: The rural economy has collapsed
The study found that as a result of land distribution, the nature and mix of agriculture and food supply has dramatically changed. The production of wheat, maize, tobacco, coffee and tea has declined, while other crops such as small grains and edible beans have increased or remained steady.
However, the study also found that there is a core group of farmers representing around half of the population in the Masvingo province in the south-east of Zimbabwe who have been very successful.
"We recorded farmers who were investing and accumulating, building infrastructure such as wells, roads and houses and even schools, and growing surpluses for local markets in good rainfall years," says Professor Scoones.
"This is by no means true of all the households we studied. The picture is a mixed one, but generally we were surprised by the number of farms that are achieving considerable success," he adds.
It has been widely reported that the main beneficiaries of the land invasion were the political allies of the Mugabe regime, but the study showed that about half of the land was given over to poor rural people from the local area, while nearly 20 per cent was given to people in neighbouring urban areas who wanted to try farming instead of struggling on low income urban jobs. A further portion of the land went to civil servants, including teachers and others, business people and former farm workers, while only about five per cent of the households in Masvingo province could be said to fall into the category of 'political cronies'.
"We certainly do not condone the violence and corruption surrounding the transfer of this land, nor can we be clear that the picture in Masvingo province is representative of the whole of the country," says Professor Scoones.
"We are also aware that there is much to do to increase success rates and farmers need more support locally and regionally to sustain this entrepreneurial energy. But there is certainly evidence of investment, accumulation, and poverty reduction in the area," he adds.
Alongside the guarded optimism about some elements of Zimbabwe's land reform, the wider study shows the picture in Namibia and South Africa is generally bleaker. In these countries land has often been allocated according to fixed, top-down plans and without follow-up support. Inappropriate and unworkable systems, such as co-operative ownership arrangements, have also been imposed.
"There may be something that these countries can learn from the lack of strictures and the general flexibility we witnessed in Zimbabwe," says Scoones.