Biodiversity and climate change: why tree planting schemes may not be the answer

The first phase of the delayed Biodiversity Convention of the Parties (COP15) ended last week. There has been much talk of linking the twin crises of biodiversity and the climate. Grand plans for protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 have been hailed, and so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ are all the rage.

Massive tree planting schemes are being suggested, supported through significant new finance for ‘offset’ schemes to meet net zero obligations. The areas involved are huge. In 2011 the United Nations’ Bonn Challenge for example proposed that 350 million hectares of land would be ‘restored’ through tree planting by 2030. National governments and regional blocs too have massive plans for more trees, including notorious projects such as the Sahelian ‘Great Green Wall’. The AFR100 initiative, funded by multiple international donors including the World Bank, has committed to afforesting 100 million hectares in Africa over the coming decade. And not wanting to be outdone, the World Economic Forum is proposing the planting of a trillion trees.

Restoration myths

But is this always a good idea? Not necessarily. Many of the areas earmarked for tree planting are rangelands, areas of biodiverse rich grassland with scattered trees present such as in the savanna ecosystems that dominate southern Africa. Estimates vary but many millions of hectares of rangelands have been identified by the World Resources Institute (WRI) based in Washington DC and the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich for forest ‘restoration’. This assumes that these are ‘degraded’ forests in need of rehabilitation, rather than highly productive, biodiverse ecosystems that support many livestock and people. According to Joseph Veldman and colleagues such global restoration assessments may massively overestimate the climate mitigation of tree planting schemes.

In a 2019 paper, called ‘the trouble with trees’, William Bond (a prof from UCT) and colleagues showed how the areas identified for tree planting overlap with grassy biomes (including rangelands), wildlife species richness and livestock production. In fact, as Veldman and colleagues show, 40% of the WRI map – some 1 billion hectares – was focused on grassy biomes, highlighting an ‘inconvenient reality’ for large-scale restoration plans. As Catherine Parr and colleagues argue, tropical grassy biomes remain poorly understood and are under threat. In particular, ‘restoration’ through tree planting in such areas would have major negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity and pastoral livelihoods.

Grassland ecosystems and carbon dynamics

These forest restoration assessments – and the resulting interventions such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative – result from a basic misunderstanding of rangeland ecosystems that exist across more than half the world’s surface. This is simply ‘bad science’. Rangelands are what Bond calls ‘open ecosystems’, variegated mixes of trees and grasslands existing together in savannahs and parklands. These are maintained by grazing, fire and human actions, and are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

Grasslands may also fix carbon more effectively than forests, although estimates vary wildly. In the geological past, the expansion of grasslands may have locked up so much carbon it resulted in a cooling of the atmosphere, precipitating an ice age. Grasslands have extensive root systems and high turnover with dead vegetation matter regularly incorporated into the soil, often assisted by grazers. Grasslands can be more reflective of solar radiation too compared to darker forests, and so may act to cool the earth. Yet carbon forestry schemes focus on the above-ground biomass, and tree biomass is much more visible and measurable than the poorly understood below-ground carbon dynamics among root networks and in the soil. In other words, these are not degraded lands in need of restoration to a ‘natural’ forest.

Forest obsessions

This obsession with closed forests has a long history, seeing grasslands or savannas as ‘degraded’ forests, and forests as the desirable protector of environments. Many of the current well-meaning attempts to advocate reforestation replicate colonial discourses, where foresters from northern climes influenced nascent forest departments across the world.

For example, the idea of the taux de boisement normal – the percentage of forest cover required by a ‘civilised’ nation – took hold in the French colonies from the 1800s, and since then tree planting has become part of what Diana Davis describes as a civilising mission to offset ‘desiccation’ and the assumed ravages of desert advance. Equally, the negative description of rangelands as ‘wastelands’ in India has framed attempts at environmental rehabilitation from the colonial era to today.

These basic misunderstandings of rangeland ecologies persist today, and are promoted by the likes of WRI along with multiple well-meaning projects and agencies through their advocacy of ‘forest restoration’. These efforts reinforced and in turn commoditised by the panoply of carbon forestry projects under schemes such as REDD+ and through investment projects available through growing voluntary carbon markets, seen as central to meeting ‘net-zero’ commitments globally.

The problems with tree planting in rangelands

So what are the problems with tree planting? Here are seven points (see also this excellent article by Forrest Fleischman and colleagues, as well as a recent paper on India and associated Twitter thread).

  • Most tree planting projects focus on exotic, fast-growing trees. These are assumed to produce the most carbon the quickest. But fast-growing trees planted in rangelands can quickly become a problem. Ask many across Africa about the issues they have with the invasive Prosopis juliflora, which was originally introduced by aid programmes to provide fuel wood. Exotic tree planting also eliminates existing grassland ecosystem biodiversity, which has emerged over millennia through the interactions of vegetation and herbivores.
  • Carbon projects require managed tree planting to claim carbon credits against an assumed degraded baseline. The easiest approach is the planting of large plantations. These are easy to manage and the carbon credits can quickly be calculated and cashed in. But plantations exclude people, livestock and wildlife and can seriously undermine plant biodiversity too. A rush to net zero through tree planting, Oxfam argues in a recent report, could have major implications for land rights and food security.
  • Rushed planting of trees in unsuitable environments can lead to large losses of planted trees. The incentives to earn a quick buck on carbon credits can result in huge damage. Areas are cleared, trees are planted and then they die, with no benefits to anyone. In the odd calculations of carbon credits, this may have resulted in ‘avoided deforestation’, but the consequence is often the laying waste of environments.
  • Tree planting in grasslands, aiming for a managed, stable forested area, runs counter the natural ecosystem dynamics of such areas. In tropical grassy biomes the amount of trees and grasslands fluctuate, with patches of each increasing and decreasing because of rainfall, fire and other factors. Imposing a regularised regime of management on such a setting, assuming baselines and calculating carbon gains makes no sense.
  • Tree planting schemes where people and animals are excluded can result in the massive build-up of flammable herbaceous material. Without regulated ‘cold burn’ fires, the consequences of forest fires can be devastating, as seen around the world in recent months. This can result in huge losses of carbon – exactly the opposite of the plan.
  • Water cycles may be disrupted by tree planting schemes, as fast-growing trees need a lot of water to grow. By contrast, grasslands have high levels of infiltration and are important in maintaining hydrological systems. Carbon schemes however do not put a price on water, so trees win out.
  • The landscape value of tree plantations – serried rows of exotic trees – may be lower than that of long established grassland systems, where cultures of livestock keeping and wildlife use have created a lived in landscape. Rangelands may be anthropogenically created, but they are not necessarily degraded and in need of rehabilitation.

Enhancing dynamic ecologies: putting people first

Trees are natural elements of grassland landscapes and of course have many benefits for people and environments, providing shade, fruits, browse, leaf litter and so on. In some cases, new planting may be desirable, but more often encouraging regrowth of existing trees as part of variegated landscapes makes much more sense as a route to capturing and sequestering carbon to meet the climate challenge. As Susie Vetter explains:

“Tree planting should enhance and diversify local livelihoods, avoid the transformation of tropical grasslands and savannahs, promote landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity, and distinguish residual carbon stocks from those derived from reforestation and afforestation.”

Many current pronouncements tout massive tree planting schemes with huge targets for areas to be covered, linked often to major finance for ‘carbon offset’ initiatives to meet net-zero climate obligations. These are vigorously backed by powerful international conservation organisations in alliance with big business, sometimes the worst fossil fuel polluters themselves. But we should be sceptical. So-called ‘nature-based solutions’ need to involve people first, otherwise they will fail; tree planting is of course a social and political issue.

This article was written by Ian Scoones. An earlier version was posted on the PASTRES blog.

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The politics of control in Zimbabwe’s COVID times

The COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe has improved since our last report, with infection rates and deaths declining in all areas. The alert level has been reduced to Level 2, with restrictions relaxed. At the same time, the vaccination drive has continued apace, with the government now mandating all civil servants to take a shot. So far just over 20 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine – mostly from China – although there are big variations across locations and age groups.

The period of Level 4 lockdown during the most recent wave has taken its toll. During this period, lasting up to 7th September, many businesses closed and most public institutions, including schools and colleges, were shut. This had a big effect on the local economy and many suffered badly. This included farmers across our sites, who complained bitterly that schools, colleges and other businesses they supplied food to were slow to open up after the shift to Level 2. This particularly affected horticulture farmers in Chatsworth and Wondedzo who rely on vegetable sales for livelihoods at this time of year, with large amounts of produce rotting.

COVID controversies

Controversies around COVID-19 continue to be central to discussions across our sites. COVID has become a symbol of control, a centre of power struggles and local politics; much more than just a disease. This has been especially evident around the vigorous vaccine campaign that the state has led.

Many, particularly younger people, still dismiss the disease: “It’s just a strong ‘flu”, one commented. “We have our own remedies for it, we don’t need the vaccines”. The view that COVID is being used by the state to control people is widespread. A number of younger informants observed that the vaccines may be used by the government, in alliance with foreign powers, to control the population, making people infertile. While conspiracy theories can be dismissed, their existence must be taken seriously as they reflect the politics of COVID times and the deep lack of trust many, perhaps especially younger people, have in authority.

Geopolitics comes into it too. “Why is this government accepting vaccines from unfriendly states like the US when they impose sanctions on us…. It seems very fishy”, one informant observed.  Others argue that it’s odd to get a free vaccine from China when health centres have no other drugs “not even paracetamol, no basic drugs, no ambulances, yet these are all free and supplied by the government. We smell a rat… there is something not right…. What deals are being made about our future?” “It’s all about making money and controlling people”, one young person commented, “COVID is destroying our lives and economies”.

Trust and the politics of control

All sorts of theories are debated, but the common theme is the little trust in the state and its solutions. Many see politicians capitalising on the COVID moment, recognising that elections are just around the corner. Other local leaders are using the requirement of the state to vaccinate to control their populations, with chiefs and headmen threatening the withdrawal of food aid if people don’t get vaccinated. Vendors wanting to sell in local bakosi markets have to be vaccinated in some of our sites, again giving more powers to local leaders. Local officials keep lists of those vaccinated and not, creating new forms of local surveillance.  Government departments have until 15 October to get their staff vaccinated, otherwise they must go on ‘unpaid leave’ until they do. All our team who work in the agricultural extension service have got vaccinated, for example.   

Others resist the state vaccination efforts completely. For example, the Vapostori church followers refuse to take them. They say that COVID like other diseases is just punishment from God. It should not be resisted, and any requirement to stop praying in large groups should be resisted lest the Almighty is angered. God will answer and find a solution, they argue. Other churches, such as the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and others, urge their followers to get vaccinated.

Among traditional religious leaders, such as the svikiro spirit mediums, there are a variety of opinions across our sites. Some argue that COVID reflects the anger of the ancestors for not following local customs and rules. They promote traditional practices for curing and healing, and some herbalists have joined others in prescribing herbal remedies for teas/infusions, gargling and steaming. The massive growth in demand for local treatments that arose especially during the most recent deadly wave has reinforced the power of herbalists and traditional healers within local communities.

Recourse to ‘tradition’ and the rejection of modern ways, around food in particular, is a common refrain. The argument that foods made from rukweza, mhunga (finger and pearl millet) and other traditional products give strength and help people resist the disease has been much repeated. This has strengthened the hand of traditional healers, mediums and some local leaders over their ‘modern’ replacements in local power struggles in a number of our sites.

There is a gender, generational and locational divide too. Women are getting vaccinated far more than men, according to those working in the local clinics across our sites. Older people too are much more likely to get vaccinated than the youth, as they have seen old people get sick and die. Parents complain that they cannot persuade their children to get vaccinated and follow the regulations on distancing, mask wearing and so on. Finally, those in town are more likely to sign up as they too have seen the effects of the disease in recent waves – some even travelling to rural homes to get their shots as there is more availability of vaccine.

Controlling daily life

COVID times have created many tensions centred on the control over daily life. Tensions play out between the state and normal people; across generations, between youth and older people; within families, and between spouses; among colleagues who are civil servants; between church followers of different denominations, within villages and even within families; between the living and the spirit world; and between local leaders and their followers within rural areas. All these tensions are refracted through local politics.

While vaccination has often been the central, immediate focus, these tensions are therefore about much more; a window on contemporary rural society in Zimbabwe. These disputes are about the politics of control, over defining freedoms and limits and the role of the state and other authorities in relation to citizens. They are about faith and belief, interpretations of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and the trust in state authority and science. And they are about wider politics around which foreign powers can be trusted with people’s health and well-being.

We all know that the pandemic is political, but it now permeates all aspects of daily life in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team from Chikombedzi, Matobo, Wondedzo, Chatsworth, Mvurwi, Hippo Valley and Masvingo for the ongoing reflections on life across our study sites

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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Challenging simplistic land degradation and restoration narratives in Zimbabwe

In the last blog, I reviewed the results of our land use analysis using a combination of Landsat satellite imagery, document/archival analysis and field interviews from Mvurwi area in northern Zimbabwe from 1984 to 2018, now out as an APRA Working Paper.

A number of themes emerged. The research showed how in this miombo savannah environment there were cyclical shifts in land use between woodland, grazing areas and arable fields depending on a set of intersecting factors. These including demographic pressure, but also included economic, social and political dimensions. Shifts occurred often quite dramatically at particular moments, when a confluence of factors combined. Such factors were often uncertain and contingent, with the result that linear, secular change in land use and the environment was not seen.

Instead, there were often cycles, a waxing and waning of different land use combinations, depending on the context. This was the case in the post-land reform period, where the land is dominated by a mix of smallholders and medium-scale farms. Today there is only one large estate remaining, contrasting with the pre-land reform period when the Mvurwi area was dominated by white-owned large-scale commercial farms.

There are some important wider implications that emerge from such an analysis that gets to grips with longitudinal environmental and land use change and its intersecting drivers. In the following sections, I identify four themes.

Non-linear, dynamic change

Unlike as is so often assumed, environmental change is non-linear and dynamic. This has important implications for how we understand ‘land degradation’, or ‘desertification’.

Degradation is often assumed to a be a negative shift from an assumed pristine (or wild) state. But what if this state doesn’t exist, and in dynamic ecologies there are more variations – whether from herbivory, fire or human intervention? Assessing degradation depends on defining an ideal state that is departed from, but the ideal may be something that is already transformed: like farmland or grazing areas – which expand and contract depending on a range of variables.

In this sense, the linear notion of degradation (and its equivalent, desertification) has little meaning in such variable environments.

Intersecting drivers

Environmental change is usually the result of intersecting drivers. As we saw in Mvurwi, change is not the consequence of a single, secular pressure, as in the Malthusian narrative so often imposed on environmental and land use debates.

Demographic factors intersect with economic, political, social and other dimensions too. And this means that change is not inexorably in one direction. There are key moments when changes happen – conjunctures when an array of factors combine, which are inevitably contingent and always uncertain.

Predicting environmental change is not an exact science, and the doomsday narratives that forecast environmental disaster may often be widely off the mark. Trees may increase, but also decline. It all depends on complex, intersecting and dynamic drivers of change, which have to be understood.

Beyond the closed forest obsession

Land use analysts have an obsession with closed forests. They are easy to see from space (large blocks of red on the satellite interpretations) and they fit the popular focus on deforestation as the major indicator of environmental damage.

But most forested areas are not closed forests (as in the Amazon for example), but open forests and woodlands, savannahs and parklands, where trees may dominate but are interspersed with different types of vegetation, including open grassland. This is the ‘natural’ landscape of much of Africa, although of course maintained over millennia by grazers, fire and human activity.

Classifying such landscapes is tricky on satellite images. Is it forest…or is it bush, or grassland or cropped land, or a mix? Trees are in all of these classificatory ‘types’ and often in significant numbers, but often are not spotted in the push to decide on a classification across the forest/not forest binary.

The sooner the grip of the standard, closed-forest image of ideal landscape gives way to a more variegated, patchy, complex understanding of temporally and spatially variable savannah ecosystems the better. We need more savannah ecologists and fewer foresters (or those obsessed with a particular type of forest) in this line of work.

Meaningless baselines in carbon assessments

The focus on ‘forests’ (or more particularly closed forests) has implications for how we assess baselines in environmental assessments for carbon markets, and increasingly popular approach to mitigating climate change through ‘offsetting’ and land ‘restoration’.

Gaining benefits from the carbon market through protecting forests to fix carbon assumes that there is a baseline of protected forest. Carbon premiums are then paid on this basis, paying out to protect the forest from damage that would otherwise occur. This all assumes that a closed forest is the ideal, and that protecting such areas (or when ‘degraded’ reafforesting through tree planting) will be beneficial.

But, in open ecosystems like savannahs, the dynamics of carbon sequestration are such that grasslands combined with woodland give the highest benefits, and the idea that a successional endpoint of a closed forest is somehow best is mistaken. The idea of a ‘baseline’, so central to carbon forestry schemes (like REDD+), simply doesn’t make sense, as we saw in studies in Hurungwe.

Again, it is the linear view of environmental change, the obsession with the idea of a closed forest and a lack of understanding of land use change dynamics that such schemes are premised on – and which a large and growing carbon market is defined by. These are shaky foundations for environmental protection, and it’s no wonder that so many such carbon forestry schemes don’t work despite the hype. 

Dispelling simplistic linear ideas of environmental change

All this is why the sort of fairly basic but cross-disciplinary perspective that we pursued in our study in Mvurwi, now published as an APRA Working Paper, is so important to dispel simplistic ideas about linear environmental change and usher in more sophisticated and appropriate measures for environmental protection and land use management for such dynamic settings.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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Dynamic drivers of land use change in Zimbabwe

What are the drivers of land use change and how do they interact over time? Are the changes, uni-directional and linear, or are the dynamics more complex? This is the question we posed for our study site in Mvurwi in northern Zimbabwe for the period 1984 to 2018, now published as an APRA Working Paper.

Using Landsat satellite imagery we looked at land cover change across the area over 34 years, including former large-scale farms (now resettlement farms, both small-scale and medium-scale) and one ward in the nearby Chiweshe communal area. This broad assessment was complemented by an in-depth look at a particular site, focusing on one ward. The satellite analysis was combined with field interviews with those who had lived through these changes, together with a wider analysis of changes in demography, agricultural policy, economic contexts and politics. What emerged was an interesting story.

Open forests: a dynamic environment

Mvurwi is a high potential region receiving on average about 750 mm of rainfall annually. There are sandy loam soils and a diverse miombo savannah woodland. These are open forests, with mixed patches of denser woodland with patches of grassland in between. In the past grassland areas were created and maintained by the actions of elephants and other large herbivores, or exist in places such as wetlands where trees will not grow.

Today, such patches are created through land clearance combined with grazing by domestic animals. As William Bond from UCT explains is in his excellent book – Open Ecosystems: Ecology and Evolution Beyond the Forest Edge – open forest environments are very common across Africa and are the dominant ecosystem in southern Africa’s savannah environments. These are not the classic closed forests of the foresters’ and satellite image analysts’ imagination, but a mixed, variegated environment, maintained by herbivory and human action.  

This has implications for how we understand land use change in such environments. It is not a binary forest/not forest choice, perhaps with the intermediate option of ‘scrub’, but a much more dynamic landscape that shifts through different pressures as forest areas increase and decrease and grassland (or cropped) patches change.

Land use change: cyclical not linear

What happens to land use when you redistribute land to multiple new land holders? Well, forest cover declines and a more open landscape emerges with woodlands and farms interspersed. This much is obvious – although the number of papers I see condemning Zimbabwe’s land reform for destruction of trees is amazing, such is the strength of the negative narrative.

However, this is the least interesting part of the story. Our analysis indeed showed that land reform did of course result in a decline in forest cover through clearance of lands on what were large, underutilised large-scale farms, often used for very extensive grazing. This occurred especially between 2000 and 2004, following the land reform of 2000. But this was not a permanent state as so often assumed. After 2004, woodland cover increased again (2004-09), before decreasing in the most recent period (2009-18).

Cyclical patterns were equally repeated in earlier periods when the land was under different ownership. The past was not a presumed ideal of continuous forest cover, undisturbed by the horrors of small-scale farming. Although we did not have satellite imagery earlier and did not look at the old aerial photographs, I am sure that in the earlier periods, when tobacco farming was expanding and profitable on the large-scale farms, there were similar dynamics as seen today as settlers cleared the land.

What explained all these changes? It was not a standard Malthusian story of inexorable rises in population pressure resulting in deforestation – the story told in so many of those doom-and-gloom papers I mentioned earlier. Instead, there were cycles – periods of woodland expansion then retreat, and then repeats, as conditions changed. These cycles were driven by a combination of factors, not just population growth; although this is of course part of the story.

In the early 1980s, both large-scale and communal farming was recovering from the impact of major droughts, with vegetation cover bouncing back.  Wider economic and political conditions had a clear effect. For example, the structural adjustment period from the early 1990s saw large-scale farmers contract their operations to small, high value production of horticulture, floriculture and so on, with some switching to wildlife. This resulted in an expansion of woodland as bush expanded to previously farmed fields. In the communal areas, structural adjustment saw the withdrawal of state support and subsidies, and so a contraction of farming activity is seen.

By contrast, in more recent years there has been a decline of forest cover due to agricultural expansion. The 2000 land reform was a key moment, with major land clearing happening in the period after 2000. But after 2004, the trend was temporarily reversed due to the economic consequences of economic chaos and hyperinflation on agriculture, particularly tobacco. This changed again after 2009, when a boom in tobacco production had a big impact, with the expansion of tobacco production (and also demand for wood for curing), resulting in significant declines in woodland area. After 2009, with the Government of National Unity and the dollarisation of the economy, there was a level of stability that saw incentives for agriculture return, and especially tobacco production in this area.

A more sophisticated approach to land use change analysis is needed

The APRA Working Paper gives much more detail of the fascinating twists and turns of a complex tale. It is best read alongside a longer history of agriculture in the area, appearing in another APRA Working Paper in the same series (see an earlier blog). Our study suggests the need for land use analysis to investigate complex patterns through multiple lenses. A simple analysis of satellite images is not enough to unpack the full story, and such patterns seen from space need interpretation from diverse sources, including from those living in the area.

Satellite-based analysis of land use change is all the rage these days, as it’s (relatively) easy, is now cheap and can be subject to multiple quant analyses through widely available software that impress journal editors and reviewers (well often not me!). But it’s not enough. Our satellite analysis was basic (Landsat after all was the earliest of the public satellites and so the imagery is not sophisticated), but it was long term (over 34 years) and so allows changes and cycles to be revealed. And most importantly, we didn’t stop there, but went to the field, studied accounts in the archives and reviewed the policy debates to explore what were the drivers behind the changes.

In the next blog, I look at some of the wider implications of taking such an approach.

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Worker-peasants and peasant-workers: new labour regimes in rural Zimbabwe

Much academic debate about rural farm labour has focused on the idea of linear transitions in labour regimes through processes of agricultural commercialisation. This sees farmworkers as either moving towards a class of wage-labour, profiting from modernising, efficient, large-scale agricultural commercialisation, or into subsistence, peasant-based family farming. Yet data discussed in a new open access paper just out in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies shows that neither of these simple transitions is happening.

In our studies in northern Zimbabwe, most of those we define as ‘farmworkers’ – both men and women – combine elements of both small-scale agricultural work and wage-work through various types of employment. In addition, they also participate in the informal economy, with involvement in small-scale artisanal mining, trading and so on. These are the diverse ‘working people’ described by Issa Shivji and represent what Henry Bernstein calls the ‘fragmented classes of labour’.  

Our new paper builds on our earlier work in Mvurwi area, published in Development and Change in 2018, but extends it beyond the A1 resettlements to look at the different labour regimes across new land reform areas (A1/A2), large-scale commercial farms (LSCFs) and communal areas (CAs), spanning Mvurwi and Chiweshe. The findings equally complement the important work on labour in the post land reform era by Walter Chambati and of course the pioneering analyses of Sam Moyo.

Across the different land uses, we see an array of patterns, ranging from stable wage-work to successful accumulation largely from part-time farming to diversified livelihoods emerging under highly precarious conditions. A complex story is evident that challenges the standard, linear narratives, as well as the assumptions still evident in much policy debate about who is a ‘farmworker’ derived from the pre-land reform era.

Diverse working people

A dual character of worker-peasants or peasant-workers in the context of an informalised economy and labour market is observed. Ambivalent, dynamic, hybrid class positions describe the new labour regimes. As our earlier work has discussed, labelling thus becomes difficult: ‘farmworker’ is clearly an inadequate descriptor, but as an important set of ‘classes of labour’ supporting agriculture under variable labour regimes, these diverse working people are clearly vital for the wider agrarian economy, and a greater understanding of their livelihoods is important.

In post-land reform Zimbabwe, access to land by former farmworkers displaced in situ, and now living in former labour compounds, has enabled them to engage in farming and other off-farm activities facilitating consolidation as accumulating worker-peasants. They have mobilised their skill and labour to work for the new A1 and A2 farmers, but increasingly on their own terms. Gaining access to land has been central, and skilled farm work has allowed them to produce and accumulate, even from very small plots.

By contrast, workers in the CAs tend to be poorer peasants – often younger households with limited land and productive assets – who need to combine farm production with piecework employment. A similar pattern also occurs in the A1 areas, although there is more scope for land rental and borrowing and so building an asset base through farming.

In the LSCF, A2 and A2-Joint Venture areas, farmworkers are more classic wage-workers, but flexible expansion to other livelihood options is occurring, with a range of land acquisition and informal employment opportunities pursued, as wage work becomes insufficient to sustain livelihoods. This becomes necessary especially for temporary workers, particularly women and younger people who, due to casualisation of the labour market, can only rely on wage employment for part of the year. Casualisation and feminisation of labour go hand-in-hand, and most women engage in the labour market on a temporary, informal basis, usually responding to seasonal demand.

Fluid, hybrid labour regimes

These categories of ‘working people’ are not static. People move between places and seek different opportunities. With the offer of land – for example, the illegal land invasion near our LSCF case – workers may leave their compounds and adopt a more flexible, bricolage approach, while maintaining some links to the original farm. Compound dwellers may increase their land holdings and become full-time farmers, abandoning wage work as an option, while communal area dwellers may abandon their areas in the hope of better opportunities in full-time work on LSCFs, A2-JVs or A2 farms or as farmers in a resettlement area.

The removal of the old form of what Blair Rutherford called ‘domestic government’ on commercial farms and its replacement with ‘residential autonomy’ following land reform has resulted in a major shift in labour regimes. The massive informalisation of the economy after 2000 has generated a new impetus to diversify livelihoods, creating new classes of labour. The new ‘farmworker’ – working people combining wage work with a range of other activities including agriculture – enjoys greater flexibility and bargaining power resulting from diversified livelihoods options, although suffers extreme precarity relying on unregulated labour markets and very small patches of land.

The new regimes of farm labour that have emerged following land reform remain poorly studied. The pattern we have researched over the years in the Mvurwi-Chiweshe area with its large population of resident farm labour before land reform and high potential commercial agriculture is very different to the patterns found elsewhere. As key contributors to post-land reform agriculture, the new farm labour is also an important yet still ignored focus for policy and advocacy. Understanding the new regimes and the forms of livelihood of diverse, rural ‘working people’ is an important first step to improved policy and support for a vulnerable, yet vitally important, group of people in rural Zimbabwe.

This blog draws on the paper Agricultural commercialisation and changing labour regimes in Zimbabwe just out open access in JCAS. The work was supported by UK FCDO through the APRA programme.

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COVID-19 spreads to rural Zimbabwe

The third COVID-19 wave has firmly arrived in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. This is no longer the ‘rich person’s disease’ of those based in town. The number of cases and sadly deaths has surged across our rural study areas in the last month. This is a picture reflected across the country and indeed the region, with large increases since our last report.

After being spared for so long, why are the rural areas only now being affected? This was the topic of the conversations in our research team this month. It is clear that the Delta variant is proving extremely dangerous. Having spread from a small isolated outbreak in Kwekwe just a few weeks ago and through imports from across the border in South Africa, it seems to be the dominant variant now. Highly infectious and easily transmissible, the fact that rural people don’t move much and work and live outside makes much less difference in the face of this variant it seems.

There have been deaths recorded in all our study sites in the past weeks, with others being buried in the area having died in South Africa or elsewhere in the region. Many others have contracted the disease and have been battling it at home while isolating. Some of the most vulnerable are the front-line workers who have frequent contact with people, while living in the rural areas. Nurses, health workers, agricultural extension workers, police and others have all be noted as people who have contracted COVID-19 in our sites in the last weeks, very often passing it on to others. Mr FC is a 68 year old health worker and farmer in Wondedzo. He contracted the disease and went to the COVID quarantine centre. However, he was quickly discharged due to pressure on beds:

“The doctor and nurses decided to send me home for self-isolation paving way for the ever in-coming COVID-19 victims. I was given different drugs by the nurses, but I supplemented these by taking herbal teas. My son used to bring lemons, garlic, onion and mutsviri herbal tea. I used to cut onion or garlic into pieces where I could place underneath my pillow. Crushed onion was used to massage my chest and nose. All my belongings at home were heavily disinfected and I was given my own room where I stayed alone. All the food was brought by my son. I was given light food like crushed potatoes, rice, porridge, beans and mincemeat as swallowing was not easy. In the end, on the 15th day, I felt better and there was then slow improvement until I returned to work, when I got the disease again as I am in contact with people. This time fortunately it was not so severe and we now know how to treat it.”

Vaccine demand and compulsion

The demand for vaccination has risen significantly too as a result of the surge in disease and concerns about severe illness and death. Queues have been forming at vaccination centres in all our study sites, but demand far exceeds supply, and the many return home disappointed. While nationally over 10% of the population have had one dose, there is much further to go even amongst the older, more vulnerable age groups.

Zimbabwe’s vaccine programme has been the envy of neighbouring countries, but it does remain heavily reliant on supplies from China (and to a lesser extent Russia and India). The J&J single dose vaccine is now (finally) approved locally, so maybe there will be an expansion of supply soon, but with China now experiencing new outbreaks some worry that politically-driven gifts of free vaccines to Zimbabwe will be less of a priority.

Despite claims that vaccination will always be voluntary there have been recent moves to make it compulsory among civil servants, with memos circulating across all departments requiring reporting of coverage. This has provoked quite a bit of debate, including within our team. Among those who have been hesitant about the vaccine, several commented that they will get it now as they need to keep the job. The old tension between public health and individual freedoms is once again being played out.

Limited state capacity: reliance on local innovations

This latest surge is both more severe and more widespread than before. The state, despite its best efforts, does not have the capacity to respond effectively. Health services are overwhelmed, funeral parlours are full, drugs are in short supply and vaccines insufficient. Whether via treatment or prevention, the response has to be centred on local people, their ingenuity and capacities. As we have mentioned in previous blogs, there has been a blossoming of innovation and entrepreneurship in response to the pandemic, particularly focusing on traditional remedies.

The now-famous Zumbani herbal tea is in huge demand, and those who collect it and process it are making good money. Diaspora Zimbabweans based in South Africa are sourcing it in large quantities as an effective remedy. Team members comment that they have abandoned Tanganda (black tea leaves) for herbal teas and remedies. A few months ago, they did not like them much, but now such teas are the preferred beverage several times a day. For those who get sick there is now a common health folklore about what the most effective treatments are.

This is shared through various routes. One of our informants swore by a video she had seen on WhatsApp from a Nigerian woman extolling the virtues of steaming and certain breathing exercises. Others listen to what neighbours have done and share locally. Even our research team, now known to be the contributors to these blogs – which are often shared further through social media and in local newspapers – are asked for advice. “We are the new doctors!”, one quipped. While there is much misinformation on social media spread through rumours among relatives, neighbours and church members alike, there is also lots of useful advice. Sifting through this competing knowledge claims and making choices in the face of disease is a critical part of living with COVID-19 today.

Alongside traditional herbs and remedies, lemon, ginger, garlic and onion are the most common ingredients for local remedies and are used as teas, chest/body presses, inhalation steaming and so on. Mrs MC contracted COVID recently and explained:

I had two regimes, which is Zumbani mixed with lemon as tea taken twice a day, morning and afternoon. I also had ginger and garlic tea, which I took at sun down and late at night. I also used to chew raw onion regularly as means of opening the nasal system. I had learnt of these traditional medicines via social media, friends and relatives, I also learnt of the use of crushed onion wrapped in a transparent cloth, which then could be pressed against my chest whenever I go to sleep. It is now a habit in my family to take the traditional medicines all the time”.

The demand for such products is massive. Mrs Kwangwa has a nursery in Masvingo in the compound of her husband’s National Railways of Zimbabwe house (see pictures). They started the project back in 2014 after she graduated from Masvingo Polytechnic with a certificate in agriculture. They have been growing vegetable seedlings, fruit trees, flowers and so on, with a wide market across the province and beyond. In COVID times they have shifted focus – and now the big crops are onions and lemon tree seedlings, with plans for expanding into garlic and ginger growing once they secure a bigger plot with more reliable water supplies. As we noted in earlier blogs, everyone is now a gardener, and Mrs Kwangwa commented that her customers have expanded. “COVID-19 has popularised agriculture – I now have doctors, engineers, teachers coming for seedlings as well as the normal farmers.” Everyone wants to buy products that can help them fight infections. It’s a profitable business and they bought a Nissan Sedan and a Mazda truck to transport water, leaf litter and seedlings, and they now employ three people.

If the world is going to live with COVID-19 (in its now many forms) forever, even with protections from vaccines and so on, then the sort of innovations and investments that Mrs Kwangwa has made will continue to be vital. Research on new agricultural products and wild product harvesting and processing will be needed to support a longer-term strategy for responding to a seasonal, hopefully less virulent coronavirus into the future.

Disease spreading events

While traditional remedies help fight infection and treat disease, other behaviours may reduce transmission. People are now used to the idea of keeping a distance, wearing a mask, not going to large gatherings and so on, but it’s difficult to do this in normal life. Transport for example is rare because of restrictions and so people must resort to informal, illegal means. Such mushikashika transport is always packed, often with few measures to reduce infection. Cross-border movement is essential for many people’s businesses, especially in those study sites near the borders such as Chikombedzi and Matobo, but people have to pay the bribes to cross illegally so their business can survive. Different people commented: “It’s better to die of corona than hunger”; or “I have to carry on, I cannot let my business collapse. What will I do to survive?”; or “We just have to learn to live with this virus, we don’t have any other safety net”.

In our sites, our team (now all expert field epidemiologists too…) identified a number of spreader events. For example, one malaicha – an informal transporter of goods – became infected and spread the disease widely as a result of contacts made through his business. Equally, particular shebeens (illegal drinking places) have become a focus for outbreaks, as people gather in packed rooms, as the official bars and restaurants remain closed. Although church gatherings are officially banned and most churches comply, some – such as the Apostolic churches – resist and hold their (often huge) gatherings at night. It being winter, people huddle together and so become infected.

Perhaps the most risky gatherings are funerals. With more people being buried – sometimes several a week in a village – funerals bring together people from across the country as relatives gather to pay condolences. Village neighbours come to pay their respects and commiserate with the family. Viewing the body happens in closed spaces, within huts while the family sits nearby. With it being winter, more happens inside in closed spaces with limited ventilation, and no one knows if wood smoke disrupts the virus or makes you more susceptible. Funerals are of course important moments in any society, and are especially so in rural Zimbabwe and for the older (more vulnerable) generation. Children in the diaspora have been beseeching their parents to avoid funerals in their villages, but with little effect. How can you not attend, at least for a short time? The traditions and rituals of passing are so significant that even a public health crisis cannot prevent them happening.

While official case numbers and deaths are thankfully declining in the last few days, this third wave has brought with it new challenges, especially in the rural areas where, for the first time, infection, severe disease and deaths are being seen on a much larger scale. There are many hypotheses as to why this is only happening now, but much must be to do with the Delta variant, which is effectively a new disease. The state is doing its best, but can only do so much. As before, rural Zimbabweans are left to cope on their own, with important innovations supporting the struggle against the disease, both for now in the midst of the pandemic and likely into the future, as this is clearly not going to go away completely.

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Hippo Valley, Chikombedzi and Matobo and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating. This is the 17th instalment of our on-going real-time monitoring of the COVID-19 situation in rural Zimbabwe, starting in March 2020.

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Land reform in England?

Illustration by Nick Hayes for Landscapes of Freedom

Access to land is not only a concern in places like Zimbabwe. In England, less than 1% of the population own half the land and 92% of land is out of bounds for ordinary people. The skewed nature of land ownership and access is what Guy Shrubsole, author of the excellent book Who owns England?’ calls England’s best kept secret. Lack of transparency over who owns what is compounded by a land registry that is impossible to navigate. Detailed research reveals that much of England is owned by a mix of rich families, large corporations, the military, the church, the crown and local governments. This huge enclosure is excluding the majority and preventing the emergence of more sustainable, inclusive ways of using the land. Sound familiar?

This is why a land reform movement is again stirring in England. This last weekend I joined a ‘mass trespass’ near Brighton, organised under the banner ‘landscapes of freedom’. Light drizzle turned to sunshine and 300 odd people set off to the Downs as part of a movement for ‘free walking’ challenging the enclosure of land, a tradition that the ramblers’ associations pioneered long ago. In this case it was not even private property, but council land rented out to tenant farmers, but removed from use by Brighton city residents just a kilometre or two from the city.

As the brilliant local ecologist, historian and campaigner, Dave Bangs explained at the trespass event, the South Downs in southern England are a valuable habitat, a site of important biodiversity of chalk grassland species, which are maintained by grazing especially by sheep. The Downs are situated in a densely populated area with huge demands for recreational use. In part protected by ‘national park’ status, the valuable habitats are under threat.

Since the Neolithic times, land in the South Downs has shifted between grazing and arable farming and settlement pendulum like as economic fortunes change and property rights shift. The loss of unimproved grazing since the removal of sheep grazing and shepherds through the great enclosures of the seventeenth and eighteenth century has been dramatic. An agricultural depression in the nineteenth century made matters worse and since the end of the Second World War the intensification of farming, fuelled by subsidies, has meant that patches of downland have declined further. Where slopes cannot be farmed, valuable habitats remain, but these are only maintained if farmers still grazing, otherwise scrub encroaches and the areas are lost.

A major review of the council’s Downland estate is underway, with all sorts of views as to what should be done. But access for people is an important demand and the ‘trespass’ was a demonstration of the importance of the countryside, even for a largely urban population. The COVID-19 lockdowns have only made this more vital. Unlike the large estates, owned by a single family or corporation, the over 10,000 acres of downland near Brighton are owned by the Council, as are many areas across England, yet are rented out to farmers on tenancies. Over years, the ploughing up of downland or the use of inappropriate crops and chemicals has continued unabated.

As a lived landscape, farming must always be part of these areas, but what sort of farming, by whom? Can sheep return and downland habitats be restored? Can tenancies involve more smallholding to supply high value products for the city? Can rights to roam be required for open grazing areas to reverse the tide of enclosure? Will access become more inclusive – can the countryside be for everyone (as Kelly Smith of Black Girls Hike explained at the trespass, land access is of course both a race and class issue)? Will new measures under the UK’s regressive Police Bill further limit the ability of Romany people and other nomads and travellers to make use of the countryside, criminalising their ways of life? These are the rural development questions being debated in southern England, but are relevant to so many places, where skewed land distribution, unequal access to land, limits on mobile livelihoods and a long history of agricultural policy that does not encompass issues of sustainability and multiple use dominate.

The mass trespass in Brighton was all very genteel. This was no jambanja’ land occupation, where economic marginalisation and desperation for new land-based livelihoods drove invasions and occupations of private property in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. There were no ‘base commanders’ or ‘seven member committees’ or stand-offs and violent encounters with farm owners. In Brighton, the tenant farmers came more to watch what was going on rather than to confront, and the police kept their distance. And, after some short speeches, a few poems and a song or two, we all returned to our comfortable, middle-class, urban homes.

Yet despite the peculiar Englishness of it all, the demands for land reform are growing. The excellent investigative work by Guy Shrubsole; the important Labour Party commission on land led by George Monbiot – Land for the Many; the long-running and brilliant magazine, The Land; and even a bestselling book – ‘The Book of Trespass – beautifully written and illustrated by Nick Hayes, all point to a shift in perspective on land in England.

The secret has been exposed, people have rediscovered the value of the countryside during the pandemic and the debate has become even more pressing as further restrictive measures are proposed for those who most rely on mobility and access in the countryside. Land rights are an English issue too.

More on UK land issues on this blog can be found in the links below:

Why radical land reform is needed in the UK  

Scottish land reform: echoes of Zimbabwe?

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Zimbabwe faces a COVID-19 surge: what is happening in the rural areas?

Vaccination drive at Hippo Valley sugar estate

The increase in COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe has been significant in the weeks since our last blog. This has been matched by an increase in recorded deaths. The government has responded with a new ‘level 4’ lockdown, imposing a curfew, restricting business hours, limiting inter-city transport, requiring movement exemption permits, closing schools and educational institutions and banning all gatherings, except funerals where numbers are again restricted.

The national level data show an increasingly dangerous situation, but why now and how has it affected the rural areas? As we have reported in the past, the incidence has been extremely low in most of our study sites, but this has changed somewhat recently, although few deaths have been recorded. Why this change?

Why is there a surge now, including in the rural areas?

Informants across our study sites point to a number of factors.

  • First it is winter and this is the cold and flu season when respiratory infections spread as people are more frequently inside and interacting in close proximity.
  • Second, it has been marketing season when people have been travelling about, gathering at market places, interacting with itinerant buyers and going to auction floors in the tobacco areas. Indeed, it has been in the tobacco areas that the greatest spikes in infections have been noted, and people have speculated that buyers travelling from hotspots – such as Karoi – have brought new infections into areas.
  • Third, it has been the relaxation in measures, including the day-to-day practices of hygiene that have occurred. Certainly over the last months people had gone back to a (nearly) normal life, and abandoned wearing masks and had attended large gatherings of weddings, funerals and church services. These are now banned, but some churches are dismissive of the regulations and argue that the power of prayer in large gatherings should be recognised as a way of combating the disease, and many are still continuing.
  • Fourth, early foci for infections have been educational institutions, including Bondolfi mission, Morgenster and Great Zimbabwe University. Here students and staff have been infected and later isolated, but in places where there is residential accommodation such as teachers’ colleges and boarding schools, the virus can spread, and those moving to such establishments – as day pupils, as service providers or sometimes as church goers  – can in turn spread the infection to their communities.
  • Fifth, the ease of movement from South Africa through illegal crossings improves in the dry season as the Limpopo has little water and the danger from crocodiles and hippos recedes. This is the period for mass movements, as people go and shop in South Africa and bring back goods. At the Chakwalakwala crossing people move daily in their thousands, even with cars and trucks crossing the sandy river bed. This has a focus for significant importation of disease, as South Africa’s surge is in full swing, increasing earlier than Zimbabwe’s.
  • Sixth, the increase in dry season trade is linked to major markets in the south of the country. These bring people together over wide areas. These Bakosi markets are preferred to going to town as you can buy everything from iron sheets for roofing to a chicken for a meal, and everything else in between. Much comes from South Africa, but local produce is also sold and exchanged. Such large markets are also a focus for social events and much interactions. In the midst of a pandemic, they are clearly foci for infection, and have now been closed.

All these factors have combined in the last couple of months to fuel the pandemic in Zimbabwe, extending it to the rural areas.

Why do death rates remain low, at least for now?

Yet despite this, the number of deaths in our study sites remain low. This remains an anomaly as vaccination rates and existing immunity from earlier infections rates are low.

When we discussed this, the team pointed to the difference between mortalities of those coming from South Africa (and indeed of South Africans and Zimbabweans), pointing to different lifestyles, unhealthy diets of processed foods, co-morbidity factors (including being overweight, having diabetes and so on). Poverty, they argued, has kept us healthy!

In our study areas, burials have been occurring in cases where bodies have been returned home from South Africa. Cemeteries in Bulawayo for example are reported to be being under pressure. This may yet change, but there are some interesting hypotheses about what both results in infection and causes death.

Many informants across our sites point to local remedies as important in managing infection. While more people are getting the disease, its effects though far from pleasant are being addressed by local remedies. Mr Moses Mutoko from Wondedzo Extension in Masvingo district explained:

“In June my whole family was infected by an unknown ‘flu. It was persistent and heavy. We treated ourselves by steaming of a mix of Zumbani (a local herb), eucalyptus leaves and lemon, covering ourselves with a blanket for 15 minutes and sweating hard. We would also drink the mixture morning and night. We would also gargle several times a day with coarse salt and warm water and drink large amounts of water when we wake up and before we go to sleep to clean the body. We all recovered and are fine now. I have shared this prescription with the community, and everyone has taken it up. We hope it will save people from the disease.”

People across our sites urge the government to take local treatments seriously and invest in research as well as promoting seemingly efficacious ones.

Vaccine views

The surge in infections across the country has put the vaccine programme in the spotlight. Earlier reluctance among some has turned to an increasing eagerness to be vaccinated. Currently approximately 6% of the population have had a first dose, but rates have slowed of late due to supply problems. The vaccines being offered remain only the Chinese, Russian and Indian vaccines with an offer via the African Union of Johnson and Johnson vaccines being rejected on the grounds that the infrastructure for delivery was not up to scratch.

Many speculated that this was just politics being played out, with the Zimbabwe government snubbing the West. With the Chinese offering a further 2 million of their Sinovac shots, Zimbabwe may be able to play politics, but it seems a risky strategy right now. This is especially so as delivery is patchy, and the logistics not always streamlined with shortages reported across our sites. Nevertheless, the government’s overall COVID-19 approach has met with approval, both from other countries in Africa, and from the Zimbabwean population according to the Afrobarometer survey.

For a time Zimbabwe had been seen as a potential vaccine tourism destination, with private clinics offering shots for US$70 or more, and South African travel agencies offering pricey vaccination travel packages. However, with current shortages, this has all stopped for now.

Meanwhile, companies such as Tongaat Hullett who run the huge sugar estates are offering shots to workers, as there has been a local peak in infections on the estates, with worker compounds closed down and put into quarantine. Again, this is linked to the season and the greater movement of people associated with cane cutting.  

The discussion in our team and amongst informants across our sites on vaccination continues. Many views are expressed:

  • Some complain that agricultural extension workers are not treated as front-line workers and do not get priority on the vaccination lists like doctors and nurses, yet they have to have face-to-face contact on a regular basis and must travel over wider areas. These individuals are keen to get a shot but have failed so far.
  • Others say that since deaths remain low and that the surge will likely abate after the marketing season and when the weather warms up, then they don’t mind and will wait for an more effective vaccine. They argue that these vaccines are not fully protective like the ones for measles, diphtheria and so on that Zimbabweans are very familiar with and many can name a case where someone vaccinated gets it again.
  • There are some who argue that the situation is nothing like that experienced with AIDS when burials were happening daily and everyone was affected, and yet, they comment, we survived that without a vaccine and through changing behaviours and practices over time.
  • Still others say it’s like any other severe ‘flu and we must learn to live with it, using local remedies. It’s clearly now endemic and it will be part of our winter experience forever.

Just like in discussions across the world, there are plenty of views, each with their own evidence and case studies to share. Complexity, uncertainty and contested interpretations of both science and experience remain the order of the day.

Lockdown responses

The return of a lockdown is creating real concerns. The memories of the suffering from 2020 are fresh. This is especially challenging now as this is the main season for marketing horticultural products. Transporters can only start moving after 6am due to the curfew, meaning fresh, perishable products can only get to market late. And in the evening they want to move their transport out of town before 6pm for fear of getting vehicles impounded. This constrains the marketing day and for farmers reduces income.

In the past weeks, there has been an increase in direct contracting to local supermarkets, as markets have been closed down. This is only available to some and often means lower prices, even if a market is guaranteed. Wider business dependent on agriculture and dependent on farmers buying things are suffering as business hours and movement is restricted once again. It is back to the bad old days of 2020, with businesses laying off people or closing, and farmers suffering.

The importance of real-time reflections

This is the fifteenth contribution to our real-time monitoring and reflection of the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe. It is far from a linear story and there are many contested views and diverse experiences. Without such in-depth, real-time information it is difficult to make an assessment, and so difficult to learn lessons. Lots of studies are emerging right now that offer definitive statements from snapshot and circumscribed surveys, including from rural Africa. What our tracking has shown is that these are inadequate.

A fuller understanding of this pandemic in all its dimensions will only emerge in time, and we will continue our regular reflections, so watch out for the next blog in about a month.

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How is ‘China’ helping to transform ‘Africa’? The need for a more sophisticated debate

How is China helping to transform African economies? There are many different narratives cast around in public and policy debate: China as the new imperial power, China as the radical developmentalist, China as just like any other donor/foreign power. None are very convincing. A report synthesising a number of research projects has been published recently, titled Africa’s economic transformation: the role of Chinese investment, and aims to get beyond the rhetoric and gain a more sophisticated, empirically-based analysis based on substantial UK-funded research efforts over recent years. 

Based on detailed studies from Angola to Zambia, the report covers a range of Chinese investments from infrastructure to technology to manufacturing. Agriculture and land-based investments don’t get much attention, but some wider lessons can be drawn. Overall, the report argues that Chinese investments are not exceptional, but have certain patterns. They generally focus on the productive economic sector and that although most efforts are relatively isolated project investments, they result in increased local employment (but usually initially of lower-grade jobs) with positive impacts on local markets. Investments are not by-and-large focused on extraction of goods for export to China, as some narratives suggest. Limited vertical and horizontal linkages with the wider economy are observed with projects seen as rather isolated, and with limited impacts on the large African informal economy. Training of workforces happens, and may result in skill upgrading, although in the establishment phases of business investments, higher-skilled and management jobs largely remaining Chinese.

A few years ago now, together with colleagues from China, Brazil, Mozambique, Ghana, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, we conducted similar research looking at Chinese (and Brazilian) agriculture investments, both commercial projects and state-backed aid funding – all published open access in World Development. Some of these broader trends highlighted in the report are seen, but not all. Through joint ventures and contract farming efforts – accelerating since our earlier studies in Zimbabwe around tobacco – have resulted in much greater integration of agricultural businesses within the economy, even with smallholders. While tobacco is definitely geared to export to China, the spin-off linkage benefits to rural economies have been huge.

Training has been an important feature in Chinese agricultural investments, with large numbers of Africans trained at Chinese universities in a variety of subjects, along with support for technical upgrading. For example, Chinese investment in the Zimbabwean Tobacco Research Institute has been important, supported by exchange visits and investment in equipment. The Chinese Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centres (ATDCs) have had mixed success, and have turned out very differently in different countries. However at a time when state and Western donor investment in agricultural R&D had shrunk to virtually zero in many countries – certainly in Zimbabwe – the establishment of the ATDC at Gwebi was widely welcomed, even if the technologies on offer did not quite fit the new post-land reform setting.

As Carlos Oya and colleagues’ fascinating study of labour practices in Chinese construction and manufacturing sector investments in Angola and Ethiopia shows, there is no single labour regime observed. It very much depends on the wider political-economic context, and the dynamics of accumulation in the national economy, the nature of the state priorities and political commitments to different policies (foreign investment vs labour rights for example). The origin of the investment firm therefore has less of an impact than the investment context. This conditions what labour is available and hired, and how labourers are treated. Indeed, contrary to popular conceptions Chinese investors have no worse labour practices than others, with increasing integration into the local economy, with a localisation and training of the workforce seen over time. There is therefore no one pattern of Chinese investment, no one predictable outcome. This is part of the problem with the report as, in its search for a generalised prognosis, it frames the whole problematic in terms of ‘China’s investment’ and ‘Africa’s transformation’, as if both China and Africa were singular.

We know from the case studies discussed in the report – and reinforced by our multi-country study on agricultural aid and investment – that patterns of Chinese engagement vary massively between different African countries. This depends on historical legacies (particularly from the liberation wars and independence struggles of the 1960s and 70s), political positioning (for example in respect of alignment with US/Western interests, and especially in relation to Taiwan), and the state of the economy (investing in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia or Nigeria, where economies have been booming is a very different prospect to investing in Mozambique or Zimbabwe). Not surprisingly, all these factors impinge on what investments happen and how they pan out.

Equally, ‘Chinese’ investments have to be understood in terms of where they come from. Some emanate from the centre, and are part of the Chines aid-investment strategy. But most, even if via State-Owned Enterprises, emerge from particular provinces. These may get central state backing for ‘going out’, but they take on a very particular provincial character. They are ‘Chinese’ in that they come from the People’s Republic of China, but they are more accurately described as from Guangdong or Yunnan. As research on Chinese economic development shows, there is a huge variety of approaches, with quite different provincial styles of business and investment. This important dimension did not come out in the report, resorting as it did to generic characterisations geared perhaps to a simplistic UK aid debate.

However, repeatedly we see in our work the very different provincial characteristics of the host firms of different ATDCs across countries resulting in contrasting priorities and operations on the ground in Africa (Zimbabwe and Ethiopia for example are massively different). ‘Chinese’ firms that take up tobacco joint ventures in our study sites in Mvurwi in Zimbabwe come from very different parts of China (not necessarily tobacco growing regions, as some are expanding from mining or other businesses), again with different business models, labour practices, investment priorities and sources of finance.   

Going beyond the ‘China in Africa’ simplification is long overdue. The individual research studies covered in the report no doubt pick up the particularities and the context (I admit that I haven’t read them all), but these sort of syntheses and associated policy debate too often fail to. We have to understand the particularities of these ‘development encounters’, and nuance the debate. Of course, just as we differentiate between ‘European’ investment from the UK or Sweden, so we must between ‘Chinese’ investment from Hunan or Hubei.

Investment outcomes and development processes are always a complex political negotiation – of knowledge frames, values, cultures, interests and economic priorities – between located firms and particular local political economies. Whether focusing on investments from China, Europe or the Americas, some more sophistication is needed in thinking through the processes, practices and possibilities of such encounters.

Photo credit: NewZimbabwe.com

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COVID-19 and economic transformation in rural Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 situation looks uncertain, with localised outbreaks and a rise in infections south of the Limpopo in South Africa. On June 11 there were 191 new cases (including 82 that were reported late) and 3 deaths reported, making a cumulative total of 39,688 cases and 1,629 deaths and a current seven-day rolling average new case rate of 77 per day, with a discernible upward trend. Vaccination rates are increasing, but very slowly and somewhat chaotically with 691,251 vaccinated so far.

On June 12, Vice-President and health minister, Constantino Chiwenga, imposed new restrictions, with the banning of gatherings, the limiting of business hours, a stipulation that offices should only be half full and the prevention of moving to and from ‘hotspots’. This is a set-back as things had got largely back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in the previous weeks. Across our sites people had got back to work. It’s harvest season and markets have been open, with the selling of grains, tobacco, beans and horticulture happening across all sites. Meanwhile in the sugar estates it’s cane cutting season, with much activity and movement of people to provide temporary labour.

With so many people gathering at marketing points and traders, labourers and transporters, the fear was that these could become sites of infection, hence the recent move. Larger gatherings of churches, farmer field days, training events, funerals and so on were previously allowed if not exceeding 50 people, but are now either banned or have a reduction in permitted numbers. While these regulations were sometimes not kept to, as of last week our team report no major COVID-19 problems in any of our rural sites across the country, although the worry is that this may yet change.

The national pattern currently seems to be small, focused outbreaks that are dealt with by Ministry of Health ‘rapid response teams’ that operate in each of the provinces, coordinated through the district COVID-19 taskforces, which has membership from across sectors. The most recent such outbreak near our sites was at Bondolfi teachers’ college where there were a number of cases reported. Isolation and quarantining seem to have stopped further spread fortunately and all are now recovered.

Currently there are concerns in Kariba where the district taskforce has been targeting ‘houseboat gigs’ and shebeens where many gather to drink and are spreading infection. Last Saturday a lockdown was announced for Hurungwe and Kariba districts due to 40 new cases being identified, with movements in and out of the districts restricted and a process of contact tracing is ongoing. The fear of course is that such hotspots will spread.

Variants and vaccines

Like other parts of the world, the concern is with the potential impact of new variants. So far there has been one outbreak of the Indian-origin delta variant in Kwekwe. Someone returning from India had infected a number of people and a local lockdown has occurred and been extended, again hopefully stopping further spread.

However, borders remain open, although restrictions and requirements for testing have been increased this last weekend. There is some testing, but also lots of reports of fake test certificates, with some in Mpilo hospital arrested, so it is difficult to see how the spread of variants, as elsewhere in the world, will be stopped, even if spread can be slowed.

The vaccination programme has run into difficulties with demand exceeding supply in some places, although the opposite in others. The ministry has admitted problems with distribution and administration. The main vaccines remain the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac shots (and some Indian ones too). Promises of others from Western aid programmes seem not to have been fulfilled as yet, while the Zimbabwe government has been showing caution around the US/Belgian Johnson and Johnson vaccine, perhaps part of the on-going tussle with Western powers. Meanwhile, as part of the continued frenzied vaccine diplomacy, the president received the first delivery of 25,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses at the end of last week, donated by a diamond mining company. Vaccines clearly have important soft power.

Vaccine hesitancy remains, fuelled by much misinformation through the online media, Whatsapp messages and so on. But the big issue seems to be delivery and the capacity of the over-stretched health service to delivery. The ministry correctly is keeping up with its regular vaccination programmes, and the current polio vaccination drive is occupying staff and taking them away from COVID-19 vaccination.

Our informants noted that they can arrive at a clinic and be turned away as the health staff are busy, even if there are COVID-19 vaccines there. Given the lack of incidence in our study areas, there is little urgency felt and many argue that local remedies – from local herbs and leaves to lemons, garlic and ginger – used for teas and steaming are sufficient. The cost of lemons apparently is soaring, and there are many new businesses packaging teas and juices to combat COVID-19.

Markets are open, business is back

Unlike last year when the harvest season was very difficult, this year there has been much more opportunity. In Mvurwi tobacco marketing has been in full swing across a number of auction floors, and the trading companies are busy. Transporters are moving crops around and there has been a thriving business in the areas where people gather to market their crops, as prepared food is sold and groceries exchanged through a myriad of traders. As of 12 June, this is now banned as vending in and around tobacco auction floors is prohibited and a maximum of two sellers per delivery is allowed.

Maize and soybean marketing is underway too, but the government buyer – the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) – while offering higher prices has distant depots, pays in local currency (RTGS) and the cost of transportation is high. Instead, informal traders come to the farms, exchanging goods, notably groceries, for maize in particular. This means maize goes for USD 3 per bucket not the equivalent of USD 6.

While farmers complain about being ripped off, the provision of goods locally and the ease of marketing/transport is clearly beneficial. And the growth of informal trade provides jobs and sources of income for a whole range of people, especially women and younger people. 

The cold season is traditionally a focus for horticultural production but some producers, particularly in Chatsworth-Gutu area, have been hit by frost, with large amounts of produce destroyed. In the same way, livestock have been affected be tick diseases this year, due to the plentiful rains. Despite it being the dry season now, this continues to be a problem in some of our sites, and owners are selling off sick cattle before they die and so flooding the market and suppressing prices.

Despite these challenges, the marketing difficulties for farmers of the earlier COVID-19 lockdown periods have declined and all value chains for different crops are re-emerging, with vendors, traders, transporters and others all returning to support agriculture and the marketing of products across our sites.

However, the form, composition and location of these value chains are changing. Agricultural markets are now more localised, involve a greater diversity of people with exchange and barter being important and formal sales to outfits like the GMB on the decline. In time it may be that the more formal connections are re-established with the big players returning to dominate and control the market from farm sales to retail, but for now the COVID-19 shock seems to have reconfigured markets in favour of multiple, local players, with important effects on local economies, with value distributed across agricultural marketing chains.

Small towns are benefiting

This explosion of local economic activity is seen especially in small towns. In the two previous blogs (here and here), and in our paper in the European Journal of Development Research, the implications of land reform on small town growth has been emphasised, based on work in Mvruwi, Chatsworth and Maphisa over the past five years or so. This pattern has been accelerated by the effects of the pandemic.

With transport restricted by lockdowns and curfews and endless rent-seeking by the police on the roads, there has been a move to local marketing arrangements, often small-scale and involving informal, sometimes barter, arrangements. Women and young people without land are especially involved, and their improved spending power is seen in the rise of local retail outlets in small towns offering basic goods and groceries. While lockdowns affected the operation of food outlets and many other businesses, as we have discussed many times in our blogs on COVID-19 impacts since March 2020, there has been a rebounding of activity; although with the recent announcement business hours are again restricted to 8am to 6pm, with all markets closing at 6pm and bottle stores two hours earlier.

Unlike larger businesses with a single operation, many of those involved in trade in small towns operate at a small scale and have other activities in play. Many business people in the small towns we’ve been researching had land reform farm plots and could diversify when their businesses were restricted, but now they’re very much back.

There are health restrictions in place – sanitisation and mask wearing is encouraged and large crowds are banned – but in the absence of cases and with the fear of COVID having receded from earlier periods, there is a much more lax attitude to restrictions in all our sites according to our team. This may not last if the spread of COVID-19 continues in South Africa, but for now small town business is thriving again.

The shortening of value chains and the focus on local economic activity is also reflected in investments by larger agricultural businesses. For example, in Mvurwi, an important centre for tobacco growing, tobacco companies have invested in new floors, with impressive new structures being built.

Since people couldn’t move during lockdown, they had to come nearer to the farmers. And the firms have clearly judged that this situation is permanent, with significant benefits for the efficiency of marketing and access to high quality tobacco leaf. There are now eight trading floors operating in the town, up from one earlier, ranging from the big players (ZLT, MTC, Boka) to newer companies (Boost Africa, Sub Sahara etc.). This move to local investment is reflected in the multiplication of banks in the town too. There are now six banks operating, where there were only three before. This allows farmers to gain finance, pay in sales receipts and manage their income much more easily, with the banks benefiting too.

Even in areas that don’t have such an intensive, cash-oriented commercial agriculture, there are other similar developments towards a localisation of the economy. For example near Wondedzo, because people could not travel to Masvingo, Gweru or Harare to get seedlings for horticultural operations, a number of new business have emerged, based in the rural areas. Near Zimuto Mission, for example, Mrs Z has started producing seedlings, including of rape, cabbage, tomato and so on, with a vibrant local market. The same applies to Mr B’s business in Chatsworth, again supplying seedlings to the local horticultural market, replacing the mainstream suppliers, and making serious money by all accounts. 

Localising economies

We are very far from a post-COVID situation in Zimbabwe, and must await a wider vaccination effort, with help from the world beyond China being essential. However, there are glimpses of what this might look like. The growth of informal markets, the localisation of economic activity, the expansion of rural-based businesses and the continued growth of small towns as centres of exchange and trade in rural settings are all central elements.

These are all features that have dominated Zimbabwe’s rural areas since land reform. Sometimes denigrated and dismissed as not the supposed ideal of what existed before, but maybe this transformation has been the basis for survival during the pandemic, and provides the basis for an on-going shift to a more flourishing, localised economy linked to agriculture into the future. 

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Matobo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi for continuing to report on the situation on the ground across our field sites, and for providing the photos. This is the 13th blog in this series documenting how the pandemic has affected rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe.

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