Preparing for the next pandemic: lessons from Zimbabwe

There is a lot of talk about pandemic preparedness, but what does it mean? Too often there are narrow, medicalised versions – focused for example on drug stockpiling, vaccine banks and so on. A forthcoming COVID Collective report – Pandemic Preparedness for the Real World – has critiqued this view, offering a wider perspective on pandemic preparedness. What might a more locally rooted version of pandemic preparedness look like? Can wider understandings of how building resilience within communities can assist? There have been many important lessons emerging from the pandemic experience, but are they being learned? The relatively quiet and calm inter-pandemic period is crucial, as there will surely be a next one.

During November and December 2022, we tested the ideas in the COVID Collective report with different communities in six sites across Zimbabwe in a series of dialogues. This built on real-time research in the same settings from March 2020 to February 2022. From Chikombedzi in the dry, far south, via the sugar estates of Hippo Valley and Triangle to the livestock farming area of Matobo and the maize/horticulture zone of Masvingo and Gutu to the tobacco growing area of Mvurwi, we engaged with a real diversity of rural settings (see map). There has been remarkably little commentary or research on rural contexts and we aimed to fill this gap. Our work did not rely on snapshot surveys, but on real-time discussion and reflection – involving six field researchers living in the sites, a field coordinator and Ian Scoones at IDS.

The result was a series of 20 blogs published from March 2020, when the first case identified in Zimbabwe,  to February 2022. They are all available on Zimbabweland, and also in a new book, which can purchased or downloaded online (see cover, below; full details in sources).

About 20 people who had engaged with our real-time learning during the pandemic were invited to the dialogues, each of which lasted around 3 hours, with discussions following on over lunch. Participants included farmers, local leaders, church leaders and government personnel. In one dialogue we had representatives from five ministries: Agriculture (Agritex), Health (a nurse and village health worker), education (teacher), local government (a councillor) and Home Affairs (police), along with farmers and others. We invited participants to reflect on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications for preparing for a next pandemic.

Following the wider COVID Collective report, we discussed three themes: the diverse forms of knowledge, the role of reliability professionals and how formal and informal institutions interact. These combined to generate an understanding about how resilience – and so preparedness – can be built.


A key theme from our real-time reflections and from the dialogues was the importance of making use of multiple knowledges. Under conditions of uncertainty, using varied, plural knowledges is essential, people argued.

In one of the dialogues there was an interesting exchange around how local knowledge about treatments (which became really essential during the pandemic) was devalued by formal medical knowledge systems. A particular concern was vaccines, around which there many concerns expressed. Were these being used to experiment on or worse exterminate Africans? What was the role of the Chinese in this? This raised in particular the whole question of trust in knowledge and how it carries authority – and particularly trust in the state. This was clearly lacking for much of the pandemic and remains a big challenge for preparedness plans.

During the pandemic people felt very much on their own, without the help of the state, but the processes of local innovation and information sharing were impressive. The huge array of local remedies – centred of course on the famous plant Zumbani – became central to how people managed the disease. These were shared rapidly through WhatsApp groups, allowing knowledge for example of the Omicron variant to spread from our sites in Chikombedzi near the SA border to Mvurwi and on to the UK within a week or so – far, far faster than the published scientific information and public health advice.

So, what are the implications for pandemic preparedness. The dialogues confirmed that it is vital that different knowledge systems work together – not just informally but formally. This means more investment in assessing local treatments and integrating them into pandemic responses. Also important is the task of reinforcing the knowledge networks that allow the exchange of validated information (not just from public health sources) across communities and into the diaspora. And all of this exchange must help build trust between different sources of expertise, avoiding the dangers of vaccine anxiety for example experienced this time. 

Reliability professionals

When health systems are weak and ineffective in the face of an unknown threat, then certain key professionals on the front line, embedded in networks become key. This is an important lesson from Zimbabwe. Literatures on critical infrastructures (for example water or electricity supply systems) tell us that it is ‘reliability professionals’ – not standardised protocols and routines – allow for the services to be delivered, even in contexts of high input variability. They can scan the horizon for impending dangers, while attending to day-to-day responses on the ground.

Who were these reliability professionals during the pandemic? In our real-time research we met one – a young nurse at a rural hospital. He had been training at the very beginning of the pandemic in a large hospital in Harare and had learned some of the features of COVID-19. His superiors in the hospital were fearful as they knew that COVID was coming – particularly given the proximity to the South African border. The Ministry had cut and pasted some instructions from WHO – it was all they had – but these were not enough.

When the first disease arrived in the area (during the delta phase), he worked with other local officials – traditional leaders, church pastors, heads of women’s groups – to share information but also learn from the ground. He had a good idea of the big picture, but also a sense of what was happening locally. As the pandemic changed (as it soon did), then he instituted new arrangements at the hospital and helped patients in the wards and at home. He was allowed to do this by his superiors, but it wasn’t in his job description. Crucially, he was given the latitude to use his professional skills and his networks to generate reliability in a difficult setting. But this work was not recognised or rewarded.

There are always people like him. In one of our dialogues, we heard of a Village Health Worker and an Environmental Health Technicians, who played similar roles. But it could equally have been a church leader, a party official, a councillor or whoever. The important point is that to generate reliability in the face of uncertainty –and so assured preparedness – you need these people, and their networks. And they need to be rewarded and recognised.


There was some quite heated debate in our dialogues about the role of formal institutions in the pandemic. As in our real-time reflections, there was much critique of heavy-handed, unthinking approaches to lockdowns. Everyone appreciated why COVID was a disease of crowds, but did not understand why this meant livelihoods being undermined through lack of transport, closed markets and so on and the education and mental health of children compromised through closed schools, leading to wider social problems of drug taking, teenage pregnancies and crime?

Many thought it was these lockdown measures that caused more hardship than the disease itself. Why couldn’t the Ministry of Health relax the form of lockdown over time as the disease changed with different variants? Why couldn’t the police allow for certain types of marketing (say door to door not large market gatherings)? Why couldn’t the education ministry allow classes to be held in smaller groups for shorter periods, so kids at least had something to do? Why couldn’t the police allow some church services if they were safe, without large crowds? Why couldn’t the ministries speak with each other, so people could make the case that lockdowns were causing untold hardship.?

We always talk about cross-sectoral coordination and integration, but the tendency to centralise and control is strong, especially in an emergency. However, such interaction does happen at the local level (all the people from the five different ministries at one of our dialogues knew each other – but they rarely met together). The problem is that decentralised decision-making is often restricted from on high. The opportunities to negotiate compromises at the local level was because the lockdowns were national requirements (often simply replicating global advice) and implemented with a military style, top-down approach. But global even national advice may not make sense – a pandemic is always local and the politics of response must be local too.

So, a key lesson for preparedness is to decentralise, to trust local negotiations and to be flexible in implementation, responding to local conditions. This may help (in part) address the lack of trust people had in formal institutions because of the nature of an often predatory, autocratic state. In our real-time discussions there was no love lost between farmers and the police who were endlessly taking bribes, preventing marketing and so on. But interestingly in our dialogues, after some barbed exchanges, there developed more of a compromise; an acknowledgement that during the pandemic the police were following orders, working absurdly long hours and were barely paid. Talking together and building relationships helps institutions function better. This work is vital for being prepared for the next pandemic.

Rural people in all our sites have a good understanding of the epidemiology, which improved impressively through the pandemic (often again rather faster than the science). But they also knew how their livelihoods had suffered. Making sure that pandemic responses are livelihood-compatible – perhaps working out a series of options – is vital, and public health and livelihoods more generally must be seen in one holistic approach with local people and formal institutions working together. 


These three themes together offer insights into how to build resilience in ways that allow people to be prepared for the next pandemic. There is a lot of lip service paid towards ideas of community resilience in the health sector. Indeed, resilience is a development buzzword that often lacks meaning, even if it attracts donor dollars (see our BMJ-GH paper for a reflection). 

So, from our studies what is resilience? First, resilience isn’t a thing that can be planted, implemented, created as part of a project, it’s a process, emerging from relationships. Second, resilience isn’t just about bouncing back to what existed before (often vulnerability and poverty), but it’s about transforming structural relations – yes, it’s political. Third, building resilience at community level is essential, but it’s not a panacea, or an excuse not to build the staff, stuff, space and social support central to health systems, as Paul Farmer liked to put.

The ‘communities’ in our research sites are not uniform – contests exist between those with different religious beliefs, between men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Finding a collective way through the pandemic was always negotiated politically, and some were left behind. As with all pandemics, COVID-19 accentuated already existing inequalities and vulnerabilities – meaning that local solutions through romantic visions of community action were not enough and external intervention and support was needed.

What emerged through our discussions was the understanding that the resilience building was all about relationships. The work of reliability professionals focused on relationships and networks (even if centred on a skilled individual), while debates about knowledge were about how different knowledge systems need to relate. Equally, innovation for a more resilient outcome had to involve multiple actors interacting with each other. And, in relation to institutions, again it was all about working together, between ministries and between the state and local actors, with different interests.

In other words, while focusing on the community (broadly understood, and often stretching far through knowledge networks), community resilience should not result in a reification of indigenous knowledge or local ‘community’ practice, somehow isolated from the world. Instead it involved diverse communities interacting with a range of players, including the formal health system. In other words, a hybrid, plural health system was envisaged as the basis for long-term resilience, and the cornerstone of pandemic preparedness.

Lessons and priorities

Where does all this leave us? How has learning in a pandemic and convening dialogues about it afterwards help us develop more effective approaches to pandemic preparedness?

We need to do better than last time. Those countries that were according to WHO the most prepared for a pandemic, had some of the worst outcomes (including the UK and the US). Why was this? It was because they relied on a narrow form of preparedness, reliant on a particular type of knowledge (mostly epidemiological modelling) and a standardised approach to pandemic response (movement control, lockdowns etc.). What they didn’t do was listen to local reliability professionals in decentralised institutions (the doctors and nurses and local government workers in the British Asian communities in the UK Midlands, for example). Nor did they work with the most vulnerable communities (in the case of the UK/US, densely packed multigenerational urban households) to help build resilience (of networks and relationships).

The four themes that emerged from Zimbabwe are therefore as relevant in the UK or the US. But they need to be thought about and implemented in different ways, with local contexts in mind. This is the job now – in the inter-pandemic period when things are calmer and lessons still fresh in the mind. It’s too easy to forget and go for knee jerk responses that replicate past mistakes when a new emergency arises. The impulse to centralise through a securitised, authoritarian response is strong, but other alternatives are essential and need to be fostered now.

Three priorities to help build resilience for preparedness emerge:

  • Support knowledge networks that connect formal and informal, local and scientific knowledges, and carry out research on local treatments and the processes by which they are developed and shared.
  • Identify and map reliability professionals and their networks across communities, and provide support and recognition to them
  • Encourage the decentralisation of decision-making across ministries, including convening cross-sectoral fora for emergency pandemic response.

All of these priorities need to be addressed now. There’s an important role for donors in this, including providing contingency funds at the local level to allow for rapid response around knowledge sharing, reliability professional support and decentralised institutional interaction.

Virtually none of these things are being done in Zimbabwe yet (or indeed anywhere else), and it will require significant finance both to local communities and the state in ways that are flexible and crucially with finance arriving in advance of the inevitable next crisis.

Further sources:

Bwerinofa, I.J.; Mahenehene, J.; Manaka, M.; Mulotshwa, B.; Murimbarimba, F.; Mutoko, M.; Sarayi, V. and Scoones, I. (2022) What is ‘community resilience’? Responding to COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe, BMJ Global Health

Bwerinofa, I.J. et al. (2022) Living Through a Pandemic: Competing Covid-19 Narratives in Rural Zimbabwe, IDS Working Paper 575

Bwerinofa, I.J et al. (2022). Learning in a Pandemic. Reflections on COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe. IDS: Brighton, 160 pages (colour) Amazon (£12.72, paper, £1.25, Kindle) or download in high- or low-resolution versions here and here).  

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and Felix Murimbarimba and was originally a presentation at FCDO Harare in November 2022. It draws from research on the impacts of COVID-19 in rural areas of Zimbabwe carried out from March 2020. The dialogues held in November and December 2022 were supported by the FCDO-funded COVID Collective.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why livestock keeping can be good for the environment

At the end of last year, together with colleagues at IDS, I spent quite a bit of time making the case for a more balanced view on livestock and the environment. We tried to raise the debate during the two big COPs – first in November at COP27 on climate change and then in December at COP15 on biodiversity. We produced a series of reports, briefings and videos to help share our (and many others’) research.

Why is this necessary? Unfortunately, livestock have been cast as the villains, contributors to environmental destruction and a major driver of climate change. While some livestock systems are obviously damaging, lumping all systems into one argument makes little sense. The result is a confused policy debate – including at the COPs – that often points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. This results in major injustices for those livestock keepers who are guardians of nature and have limited climate impacts, as we argue in a new article in the IDS Bulletin.

So through the PASTRES programme, which I co-lead, and in alliance with a range of different organisations, we’ve been trying to encourage a more sophisticated, nuanced debate. The materials shared below are just some of a growing body of evidence that offers a different narrative.

In places like Zimbabwe livestock production is integral to mixed farming systems and in the drier areas, extensive grazing is vital for people’s livelihoods. Meat and milk production is vital for income earning for many – whether from cattle or from goats and sheep. And while animal sourced foods are not consumed in huge quantities, except by a small consumption elite, such products are essential for people’s nutrition, health and well-being.

For many readers of this blog it may seem odd to have to make such a basic argument about the importance of livestock. But believe me if you read the comment columns of many newspapers, listen to activists’ proclamations about the evil of livestock production and hear how such views get wrapped up in policy-making and donor funding, then such efforts – basic as they may seem – are urgently needed.

A recent attempt at offering a clear and simple statement about the importance of extensive livestock keeping and links to the climate change debate and wider resource politics is a Primer we produced together with the Transnational Institute and the World Alliance for Mobile Indigenous Peoples and Pastoralists (WAMIP). The Primer is available here and the launch event can be viewed again here.

Livestock are not always bad for the planet

During the COPs, we made the case that livestock can be good for the environment. The effect of livestock on the climate and biodiversity depends on which livestock, where. Pastoral systems can show neutral or positive carbon balances, especially for mobile systems that distribute manure/urine and incorporate it, adding to carbon cycling.

For the climate COPs in 2021 and 2022, we produced a report called “Are livestock always bad for the planet? Rethinking the protein transition and climate change debate“. A short 2-min video explains the basic argument, and a series of briefings outline some of the key findings, which you can watch here. And further materials can be found through the following links:

– Are livestock always bad for the planet?

– The truth about livestock

– Placing livestock in context through a systems approach

– Centring livestock-keepers

In addition, a briefing linking the climate and biodiversity debates was produced on the role of pastoralists in addressing the linked crises of climate and biodiversity. And the a blog offered a round-up of debates at COP27 in Egypt.

Moving on to COP15 on biodiversity, we produced another short 2-minute video that summarises some of the key arguments in a series of briefings. You can view it here. The following sections offer some overviews and links of the six briefings.

Why tree planting in rangelands can be bad for biodiversity and the climate

Mass tree planting schemes are proposed as a way to combat desertification, improve biodiversity and address climate change through ‘carbon offset’ schemes. Initiatives funded by international donors such as the AFR100 and the ‘Great Green Wall’ are deeply problematic, yet have targeted over one billion hectares of rangelands across the world.

This briefing explains how such initiatives can exclude people, livestock and wildlife and can seriously undermine plant biodiversity.

Enhancing biodiversity through livestock keeping

Carefully managed grazing in extensive (especially in mobile) livestock systems is essential for biodiversity conservation in many ecosystems across the world. Mobile pastoral systems can create bio-corridors through transhumance routes, disperse seeds, create fertile hotspots or mitigate against fires.

A briefing produced for COP15 offers eight examples of how pastoralism and conservation can work together.

How livestock keeping can reduce wildfires

Regular fires are essential for ecosystem health in rangelands. In rangeland ecologies, fire is important for conservation, but it must be limited and controlled, and this requires grazing. In meeting the challenge of increasing wildfires, supporting pastoral systems is likely to be much more successful than just focusing on fire suppression and more firefighters.

This briefing sets out how extensively-grazed livestock with more people looking after them can reduce the risk of fire.

Rewilding and ecosystem restoration: what is ‘natural’?

What is ‘natural’ and what is ‘wild’ is deeply contested. Rangelands are not simply degraded forests, as some assume. Plans for conservation must include pastoralists and other land users who have created valuable landscapes through use by people and their animals over many years.

This briefing sets out how different values and understanding of ecosystems are used in debates on rewilding, and why a more sophisticated debate is required.

Pastoralists as conservationists

Pastoralists and other livestock keepers are too often pitted against conservationists. Pastoralism is not compatible with a style of conservation that encloses and excludes, but extensive livestock-keeping can be central to more people-centred conservation approaches.

This briefing sets out how creating mixed use, integrated landscapes and emphasising co-management a can build a conservation approach that works for both people and planet.

The blog draws from an article on the IDS website and links to work undertaken by the ERC funded PASTRES programme based at IDS and EUI.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Zimbabweland’s top posts of 2022

As is traditional at this time of year, it’s time to review the top blogs of 2022. Below is a list of the top 15 by views on the website. Of course this doesn’t count all those who have read the blog through the email alert (do sign up if you haven’t – there’s about 1000 of you who receive an alert every time a blog has posted). And then there are also those who read the posts when they are republished in Zimbabwean newspapers, including the Zimbabwe Mail, The Chronicle, The Zimbabwean and the Zimbabwe Independent (along with a host of different websites). Thanks to all those publications plus those on Twitter for reposting.

As you will see, some of the blog series were popular this year, most notably the one on urban agriculture. Another series on conservation dilemmas in the Lowveld following our visits to Gonarezhou and the Chikombedzi field sites earlier in the year also got a lot of attention (and comment). The series on ‘drought’ and ‘disasters’ picked up on earlier posts, and continues to be an important theme of our work. The most recent series on religion hasn’t been up for long enough to get so many views, but has been widely appreciated as an under-studied topic. These series are initial digests of on-going research across our sites in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Hippo Valley/Triangle and Chikombedzi. We’ve got more themes – and so more blog series – planned for next year.

The blog also focused on a number of new books this year, including ones on ‘neoliberal restructuring’ and ‘ethnicity’ featured in the top 15, as well as an important journal special issue on contract farming. Each year I try and review new books and articles coming out on land, agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe. It’s a reflection of the vibrant research culture in the country that our team is happy to be contributing to in a small way. Our own books also featured on the blog, including the huge compilation of past articles in ‘Researching Zimbabwe’s Land Reform’. This was produced so as to make available journal articles that are scattered across different publications and are often unavailable in libraries in Zimbabwe. We have distributed a copy to most university libraries in the country now.

The COVID-19 pandemic dominated our research and blogs over the past couple of years and we have produced another book – Learning in a Pandemic – which is a compilation of 20 blogs, with an overview introduction. We have been distributing this book around our field sites and handing it to key institutions across the country as a reminder of the important lessons that we learned during the pandemic.

As ever the blog has been read widely across many countries, with Zimbabwe, the US, the UK and South Africa seeing the most visitors. As a source of information and an archive of research over many years, many visitors arrive through search engines at old posts (the ones on agricultural entrepreneurs continue to be some of the most read each year). There are now about 475 blogs on the site, so do have a look around. And look out for more in 2023!

  1. View The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe
  2. View Urban agriculture in Zimbabwe: a photo story
  3. View Omicron for Christmas: what was the experience in rural Zimbabwe?
  4. View Why COP27 needs a more sophisticated debate about livestock and climate change
  5. View The neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa: two new books
  6. View The trouble with elephants: why limits on culling are bad for conservation
  7. View NEW BOOK: Researching Land Reform in Zimbabwe
  8. View ‘Living under contract’: reflections after 25 years
  9. View Ethnic minorities in rural Zimbabwe: identities and livelihoods
  10. View Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty
  11. View Failing institutions: the challenge of governing natural resources in Zimbabwe
  12. View Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production
  13. View What is drought? Local constructions, diverse perceptions
  14. View The changing face of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe
  15. View What is environmental degradation and what should we do about it?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Navigating uncertainty, predicting the future: the importance of religion in Zimbabwe

In today’s uncertain world, having a sense of what the future holds is vital. This is why biblical predictions and prophecies hold so much cachet, offering hope in times of turmoil. While religion may be the ‘opium of the people’ it can provide a sense of direction when none seem available. This is of course religion’s power, and why those who claim they can foretell disasters and cataclysmic events are held up high, attracting followers and sometimes great wealth.

Responding to drought and keeping the spirits happy

Our discussions on drought and how people manage uncertainty (see a previous four-part blog series) highlighted many examples of how farmers made use of natural signs as a source of prediction – bird song, particular trees, clouds and so on. And when these failed – as they often do – then everyday adaptation and attuned response based on accumulated experience is necessary.

In the past, as discussed in the previous blog, people would rely on rainmaking ceremonies conducted in relation to wider territorial cults to assure good harvests. Paying respect to the ancestral spirits, brewing beer and offering libations and providing contributions to the rainmaking cult shrine in Njelele were all part of the annual cycle. Only some key people were involved, led by the spirit mediums (svikiros) and assisted by the rainmaking messengers (nyusa) and supported by the traditional leadership. Only men and post-menopausal women and pre-pubescent girls could be involved in the ceremonies. Ritual purity was essential to please the spirits and assure good rains and harvests.

As discussed before, such practices are declining across our study areas, and nearly completely absent in some such is the dominance of diverse forms of Christian religion described in an earlier blog in this series. But this does not mean that appeasing spirits or a Christian God is not central to dealing with uncertainty.

Indeed, all churches pray for rain as part of their services, while the spiritualist churches go further and call on spirits to assist their followers (whether the Holy Spirit or some others linked to the ancestors), using a whole array of ritual objects and practices to cement the relationship, whether anointed oil, holy water, sacred beer or burning candles and incense.

Prophecy and hope in challenging times

The prophets of the indigenous African churches are especially important, offering hope and salvation to their followers. They offer predictions on coming seasons, as well as suggesting what agricultural practices to follow. For individuals who have suffered mishaps, particular advice can be offered, sometimes for a fee.

While some of our informants condemned these new Johanne Masowe churches as just ‘false prophets’, in it for the business and sometimes sexual favours, there are others who are firm believers, arguing that such prophecies will be fulfilled, and the directions should be followed.  

When there is no one else to turn to and when such prophecies offer some surety and hope in difficult times, then it is no surprise that such prophet-led churches have many followers. It is perhaps a reflection of the times that such churches have become so popular – and indeed politically influential. If the state and ruling party cannot provide and provide the basic protections, then other sources of succour must be sought.

During the pandemic the role of prophets became significant. With Apostolic churches rejecting modern medical explanation and intervention, the COVID-19 pandemic was interpreted in different ways. Predicted in the bible and representing a scourge on humans by God, it was accepted as fate rather than as an epidemiological challenge. Prophets offered support to those who were fearful and treatment for those who became sick. In the absence of other forms of support, given the parlous state of the health system, such alternatives were often seen as the only alternative and people flocked to the prophets, with many more appearing during the pandemic.

Waiting for the rain

The annual agricultural cycle is centred on waiting for the rain, and anyone who can offer predictions for the season and ways of preventing disaster have great power. The power of the territorial rain cults in the past and the prophets today is witness to the importance of this role. An agricultural extension worker joked that they are the ‘scientific prophets’, providing meteorological information during the season and advice on how to adapt agricultural practices, but they often cannot compete with the church prophets; or at least people will consult both to inform their decisions.

Warnings of impending apocalypse as well as salvation are recurrent themes in Christian doctrines, but how these are interpreted and explained to followers differs widely. Such events may seem inevitable, resulting in a sense of despair but also dependence on religious intervention. In the case of the prophets this becomes a source of income as well as an opportunity to garner more followers. While not rejecting external support and recognising the value of science, the state and wider development, other churches – whether the Pentecostals or the Seventh Day Adventists – foster a view that disasters cannot be averted but for the grace of God, making prayer, religious commitment and doctrinal adherence essential.

For others, a sense of hopeless inevitability only offset by divine intervention is rejected with a focus on people’s empowerment and transformation. This too is seen as a religious vocation. The liberation theology of the Roman Catholic church has had influence in Zimbabwe through Silveira House, and a progressive alternative for development, centred on peace and justice, is promoted.

Religion in turbulent times

Religion therefore offers many different compasses for navigating uncertainty in a turbulent world, based on different doctrines and interpretations. The rise of the ‘new’ churches and the role of prophets however is especially important in many of our study areas, with important implications for how people confront uncertainties and adapt their agricultural practices.

Understanding how religious belief influences agricultural practice – and particular adaptation to climate change and addressing wider uncertainties – is a crucial theme, but still remains rarely discussed.  

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. This is the fourth and final blog in this series. It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The politics of religion in Zimbabwe: land, agriculture and citizenship

Religion and politics have always had a close relationship. The early European missionaries provided a platform for the establishment of the colonial state and a modernising vision, while today the Pentecostal denominations along with the prophets from indigenous African churches are influential both in national politics and in local land politics. Meanwhile, although not as visible as before and to some extent incorporated into syncretic forms of Christian religious practices, traditional forms of religion remain significant to livelihood practices, informed by their connections with the spirit world.

Traditional, ‘ecological’ religion

In different ways religions of all stripes are deeply connected to land and resources. Traditional forms of religious practice highlight the importance of ancestral and wider territorial spirits. In some important ways, traditional beliefs are deeply ecological, with spirits defining territories, controlling rain and protecting particular sites – whether sacred groves or pools, where spirit mermaids (njuzu) reside. Angry spirits can destroy lives and livelihoods it is believed and must be appeased through appropriate forms of supplication and strictly managed religious ceremonies led by spirit mediums.

Across large swathes of the country, collections (rusengwe) were made led by spirit messengers (nyusa) who would travel to the Njelele shrine in Matabeland near one of our sites in Matobo. Such contributions would assure good rains and successful harvests for those communities. During the liberation war, the enlistment of key territorial spirits (mhondoro) provided the support for the guerrilla fighters as they fought to liberate the country. Meanwhile, hunters would draw on the assistance of particular ancestral spirits during the expedition, allowing them to hide from their prey before the kill. Land and resource control were centrally about religious adherence and practice, as the material and spirit world were always connected.

As people have converted to Christianity, such beliefs and practices are not so obvious today, but as a subterranean set of beliefs deeply rooted in culture they are never far away. The appeal of some of the new prophets lies in particular with mimicking traditional practices, dress and ritual as a way of extending their appeal. Spiritual forms of Pentecostal Christian religion show many overlaps, and even Roman Catholic fathers are reported to link their preaching in a flexible way to traditional forms.

Many churches are incorporating kurova guva ceremonies (bringing the spirit back some time after death to be sure it is not angry and revengeful) into their practices, ensuring peace and harmony with the spirit world – an important contributor to successful agricultural livelihoods. Syncretism and hybridity are the watchwords today.

Religion and the politics of the domestic sphere

The politics of religion are also evident in the domestic sphere, influencing in particular gender relations and inheritance. This has important implications for access to land and resources, especially for women. While Zimbabwe has progressive legislation on inheritance on the statute books, how this implemented varies widely.

For some churches accepting that women can inherit land on the death of husband is anathema, as women are assumed to take on subservient roles to men. Justified by ‘African tradition’, this is especially obvious in the Johanne Marange Apostolic church, where polygamous practices mean husbands often have multiple wives, all of whom work together for the family, along with their children. Amongst the wider network of Apostolic prophet churches similar beliefs are held, but this does not prevent entrepreneurial women become prophets themselves, often with significant church followings.

Conservative views on gender relations are evident too amongst the Pentecostal churches and some Protestant churches, but how inheritance plays out in practice is often involves a political tussle at the family level and outcomes vary. By contrast, more progressive views are expressed by other churches, with women involved in religious activity, although often in a minor role compared to men despite proclamations about empowerment and transformation.

Gender relations therefore remain a site of political contention across churches, and whether women gain access to resources and are empowered independently varies greatly.

Politics, parties and religion

Given the importance of religion in everyday life in Zimbabwe, it is no surprise, then, that politicians position themselves carefully. For example, the former president Robert Mugabe was a committed Catholic, educated by Jesuits in mission schools, while the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa has deep associations with the Methodists, while regularly praising other churches. Meanwhile, Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition, and notably from a different generation, is a pastor and preacher linked to the AFM, and has become embroiled in the church’s in-fighting.

All political leaders make a point of being visibly present at significant events held by other churches than their own, and regularly consult with church leaders. The Pentecostal churches, as noted in the first blog in this series, often attract an educated elite often with business and professional connections. With significant funds at their disposal and with powerful, influential followers they cannot be ignored. Church leaders’ sermons (such as from Prophet Walter Magaya PHD (Prophetic Healing and Deliverance) Ministries and Emmanuel Makandiwa for UFIC (United Families International Church) are listened to attentively for their political proclamations. The same applies to the ZCC, an African indigenous church again with huge assets and influence and important followers. The Apostolic churches have a rather different following and so political constituency but remain very significant politically in many parts of the country, making mobilising church leaders and followers a key part of any election campaign, as happened in 2018.

Church leaders with significant followings are sometimes drawn into political wrangles, such as during the establishment of the Government of National Unity. Arbitration and brokerage are all part of the role of church leaders in order to maintain national peace. As one of our informants commented, the practices associated with the death of Queen Elizabeth II were all about assuring peace and stability (and of course the maintenance of a ruling elite) but managed through religious ritual authorised by to the state.  

Most of the new churches studiously ally themselves with the government of the day, gaining benefits in terms of political patronage as a result, as well as protection of their assets from expropriation, including land. Mobilising followers in advance of elections is often a feature of this association with political authority.

Troublesome priests

However, this supportive relationship with the state is not a certainty. The appeal of opposition politics among the more urban, elite Christian protestant and Pentecostal churches is a case in point. Other churches have taken a stridently independent stand, especially in recent years, although different factions and struggles over co-optation exist.

Some Anglican bishops spoke out over the violence following the 2018 election, calling for calm; others towed the ruling party line, resulting in serious divisions within the community. The Roman Catholic church has had a long tradition of association with struggles from below, including very visible support to the liberation struggle.

The Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace spoke out early about the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland through its landmark report, Breaking the Silence, in 1997. The publishing houses associated with the church have long offered outlets for critique of the state, whether through popular magazines such as Moto or the string of publications that came from Mambo Press in Gweru.

Changing religious and so political landscapes

Religious and political affiliations are closely connected therefore and so religion has a huge impact on how state authority is claimed and citizenship defined. As the religious landscape changes, notably with the rise of Pentecostal and African indigenous churches, so does politics and citizenship.

For example, the preaching of self-reliance and autonomy by the Apostolic faith churches affects people’s relationships with the state, with followers rejecting standard medical advice (rejecting medicine and vaccines in the pandemic, for example) or not committing to formal education, a feature of most Zimbabwean’s aspirations since the colonial period.

In these debates, land and agriculture are never far from the surface. As discussed in the previous blog, many institutionalised Christian churches have significant land holdings, with major investments linked to agriculture, as well as other businesses. Some of these holdings were inherited from the colonial era, while others have been established more recently. All reflect a particular relationship between church and state, which has changed over time. Some church lands were taken during the land reform, but churches that were in political favour lost little, and some have continued to accumulate through close connections to the party-state.

While the forms of territorial land control and ancestral spirit supplication are no longer as evident, certainly within the African indigenous churches the role of the spirit world is central and biblical teachings on land and agriculture remain significant across all denominations. Religious beliefs thus construct relationships to land and resources in particular ways, with important political implications – which is why all politicians from whatever background must pay close attention to how religious identities and positions are changing, particularly as elections loom.

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. It is the third blog in a short series – see also here and here It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Religion, agriculture and market dynamics in Zimbabwe

The last blog offered a brief overview of different churches across our study sites. This second blog in this series focuses on their role in agriculture and markets, and more broadly rural livelihoods. Given their different histories, forms of organisation, finance and religious beliefs different churches’ influence is quite varied.  

The modernising mission

As discussed previously, the missionary churches that dominated in the colonial era were committed to a vision of elite, technically ‘modern’ African farming. This was often central to the paternalistic form of development offered through vocational training and an array of ‘development’ projects.

The famed American Methodist ‘native instructor’, E.D. Alvord, proclaimed a ‘Gospel of the Plow’ in his book. He was influential in framing agricultural policies from the 1927 onwards when an extension programme was established by the state, with many of his ideas being central to support for ‘native agriculture’ for decades, becoming enshrined for example in the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1952. The Alvord Training Centre exists today in Masvingo province and has been a site of training for many of the farmers in our sites.

In the same way, training at Reformed Church of Zimbabwe centres (such as Morgenster) and Roman Catholic centres (such as Gokomere) were all focused on improving agricultural practices and the uplift of African communities.

Churches as land owners

Many of these churches also had farms on significant amounts of land allocated by the colonial state, often near ‘native’ reserve areas. These not only provided agricultural produce for use in schools, colleges and hospitals, but also were a source of revenue. They also became training centres for sharing a particular version of agriculture in a period when the extent of state-led agricultural extension was limited. Such efforts in turn were supported by manuals, pamphlets and books produced by church-owned printing presses. The modernising (Christian) version of agriculture dominated rejected the ‘backward’ ways of African agriculture and became firmly allied to the colonial project.

Not all such efforts were misplaced of course. Breeding of crops and animals, a focus on soil conservation and initiatives to encourage mechanisation were taken up by some, most notably the leading ‘master farmers’ and those chosen for freehold plots in the so-called Native Purchase Areas. However, as the liberation war revealed some such interventions as imposed by the colonial state were widely resented and became a focus for mobilisation of local farmers in the struggle.

Today, although such church farms have contracted in size, in part due to land reform, they remain important. The newer institutionalised African indigenous churches have followed the model, with the ZCC for example having multiple farms that produce significant quantities of cereals, livestock and other crops.

How church gatherings change agricultural production and marketing

The newer churches, including both the Pentecostals (notably AFC) and the African Indigenous churches (ZCC, Johanne Marange) encourage commitment of their followers through huge gatherings in different locations across the country, often several times of year. These church gatherings involve thousands of followers who are in turn joined by thousands of businesspeople, selling food, goods and so on. These are major business opportunities for those living in the area and influence agricultural production and marketing in important ways.

For example, in our Chatsworth study sites farmers gear their production to the annual gatherings of the AFM at Rufaro and make use of the huge market for produce. Plantings are done at particular times so produce is ready for the gatherings. Meanwhile, others process agricultural products for sale, including setting up canteens and small shops. Still others come with things to sell boosting their incomes.  In this way, the local economy is transformed for a number of weeks each year. While this ceased during the pandemic, with major consequences for local farmers as they explained, the gatherings have started again, although with the split in the AFM, the numbers have declined, although the breakaway group still has its own gatherings, influencing another area nearby. 

In the same way, the ZCC and the Johanne Marange Apostolic church have huge annual gatherings, attracting participation from many countries across the region. At Mbungo in Masvingo, near one of our sites, several gatherings are held by the ZCC attracting thousands, and causing traffic chaos in the area as people arrive en masse both for worship and business. In the same way, along the Bulawayo Road from Masvingo the Johanne Marange church gathers, again providing important marketing and business opportunities for farmers in our study sites.   

Such massive church gatherings have a huge influence on how agriculture is practised – what is grown, when and how its value can be transformed in these very particular markets. Largely ignored in agricultural policy and research on agricultural markets, the role of churches (of different types with different demands) is an area requiring much more insight.

Large church gatherings are a relatively new phenomenon and were not part of the old mission style churches practices. Nevertheless, the older churches have always provided an important source of markets – notably supplying church mission boarding schools, hospitals and training colleges for example.

In all our study sites, these remain important sources for marketing, and the resettlement area farmers in particular have leapt at the opportunity, producing particular crops demanded by canteens, whether soybeans or butternut squash. Lucrative deals with such church institutions, often brokered through church connections, are important for commercialising farmers in all our sites.

Religious beliefs and practices shaping agriculture

As discussed above, the mission-led Christian churches preached a modernising vision of agriculture, one that is central to government policy and extension support today. This has been pursued by newer arrivals, both within protestant denominations (such as the Seventh Day Adventists) and among the Pentecostals. This allies with their vision of rejecting the ‘backward’ African ways in religious practice, projecting this into agricultural education and training, as well as the design of projects.

These approaches are influenced more by Euro-American visions of farming than drawing on indigenous knowledges and practices and are reinforced by selective quotations from the Bible. Financing of such projects – often through donations from Europe or the US – allows such a vision to be pursued as ‘development’, in turn closely allied with state-led support in agriculture.

Rejecting such influences, the religious practices of Johanne Marange Apostolic Faith followers foster a very different approach to agriculture and markets, which is having a huge impact on rural areas including our study sites. Johanne Marange followers are encouraged to seek self-reliance, with a distrust in the state, medical science and indeed standard agricultural approaches. In addition to the support for skill development in particular trades discussed in the previous blog, Johanne Marange followers are committed commercial agriculturalists, but in a form shaped by their religious beliefs. This has a large impact in areas where such followers live.

For example, the large flow of horticultural markets in Masvingo is dominated by a number Apostolic faith church members who have large, irrigated farms in the resettlement areas where we work (see lead photo). With a rejection of formal education and a strong commitment to polygamy, they rely on large reserves of family labour, as a large number of wives and children are available as labourers in any household. With skills within the church community, repairs, manufacture and adaptation of machinery is easily done, and many are important innovators in agriculture, leading others in the wider area. As skilled traders and vendors they have access to goods often at cheap prices, and large, closely linked families in tight communities encourage collective arrangements such as shared ploughing and joint arrangements for farm labour.

Religion and agriculture: a poorly understood connection

Understanding how religion affects family structure, labour and so production is a crucial but understudied aspect of agricultural development. For example, with growing numbers of adherents to the Johanne Marange Apostolic church in some parts of the country, this is having a massive influence, especially in the resettlement areas where large areas of land can be exploited with relatively good soils with irrigation potential. 

As the examples in this blog have shown – derived from discussions across our six study areas – organised religion, agriculture and markets are intimately linked. In different areas of the country, the connections will be contrasting, but recognising the role of religion in agriculture is essential; whether in terms of the beliefs and practices that influence the organisation of production and marketing, the generation of markets through church-based activity and through formal institutionalised interventions – such as church farms or educational initiatives.

Given the importance of religious affiliation in the lives of most Zimbabweans, factoring in religion into analyses of agricultural development is vital, but rarely done.

This blog (the second in a short series, see the first blog here) was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Religion and agriculture: reflections from Zimbabwe

A recurrent theme in our research across Zimbabwe is the role of organised Christian religion in agriculture and rural livelihoods. The connection is not usually made. However, religious beliefs, practices and institutions have important influences, and these have changed over time. In the last few months, the research team in sites across Zimbabwe has been exploring how religion impinges on daily life and so affects how agriculture, land use and wider patterns of social support are practised.

Today the rise of Pentecostal and traditional African Christian churches is an important feature. ‘Traditional’ African religious practice is not as widespread as in the past, and the earlier influence of those churches central to missionary activity from the colonial era is in decline.

However, the pattern varies from place to place. In some of our sites, for example, the Roman Catholic church remains significant, drawing on the long legacy of mission education and strong rural presence. In others, it is the Pentecostal churches that have seen a major rise, with the now split AFM (Apostolic Faith Mission) being central to local life. In all places, numerous new churches are being established by ‘prophets’, claiming healing and other powers.

Across our sites there are three broad categories of institutionalised Christian religion existing alongside and sometimes in tension with traditional forms of territorial and spirit-based traditional religion. How do they each relate to agriculture and rural livelihoods, and so land control, investment patterns and knowledge sharing around agriculture?

Missionary influences

The earliest Christian churches in our study areas were either Protestants (such as United Methodists, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Reformed Church of Zimbabwe (formerly the Dutch Reformed Church), the Church of Christ and Anglicans) or the Roman Catholics. The early arrivals established missions and associated schools, hospitals, teacher training centres, printing presses and so on, such as the huge complex at Morgenster under the RCZ. Through translating the bible they were influential in the ‘civilising’ mission of the colonial state and through this they influenced agriculture (see next blog in this series).

Committed to both academic and vocational training, such churches have offered an educational infrastructure across the country, with many contemporary leaders receiving their education in mission institutions. In different parts of the country different church denominations held sway, reflecting earlier missionary efforts. In our study areas, the Catholic influence at Gokomere is important, notably through the school, while at Morgenster elsewhere in Masvingo province, the RCZ has huge influence.

Educational provision, notably in the colonial era before education for Africans was widespread was important, and many liberation war leaders came through such systems. While associated with colonial conquest through missionary activity and very much bound up with the colonial state through educational and training provision in ‘African’ areas, these churches had a liberal sensibility, and many church leaders became involved in the struggle for national liberation (see later blog in this series). Investment in training in vocational skills, including agriculture, was important across churches, with different denominations having different foci. Concentrated in Manicaland, the Methodists for example are well known for supporting carpentry training and other skills, while the RCZ has long had important agricultural projects.

More recent arrivals, now with many followers across the country – like the Seventh Day Adventists – have a huge array of activities associated with their churches. As someone described it, the church is like a government – services in health, education and so on are provided, with support through the church for businesses and other activities. People’s whole lives are oriented around the church and the teachings from the bible, with pastors and preachers taking on important roles in communities. As with other Protestant churches, spiritualism is formally rejected and people dress smartly in European clothes. Other practices are deemed ‘too African’ and church services are seen as ‘more like a meeting’ rather than the more vibrant forms of spiritualism seen in other evangelical and African indigenous churches. Laying of hands, casting out demons and so on is frowned upon, although some admitted that some pastors are beginning to incorporate these practices on the margins.  

Although congregations are declining, these churches remain important across Zimbabwe, and in our sites the SDA are seeing expanding numbers amongst the protestant churches, while the Roman Catholics continue to invest in development activities, now through formalised NGOs, such as CADEC or Caritas, and progressive institutions such as Silveira House, linked to ‘liberation theology’ movements and Freirean ‘training for transformation’ approaches. Significant flows of resources come from outside the country through churches connected to Zimbabwean partners.

The rise of Pentecostal religion

However, the religious landscape in Zimbabwe is changing, especially with the rise of evangelical Pentecostal churches and indigenous African churches of many types. Amongst the Pentecostals, the AFM (Apostolic Faith Mission) – and its breakaway group Later Rain – are especially important in our sites, along with Zaoga and Members in Christ, for example. These churches are led by charismatic leaders – such as Prophet Magaya for PHD ministries and Emmanuel Makandiwa for United Family International Church) – and many have strong connections in South Africa, where some originated. AFM is especially dominant in Chatsworth, Gutu where the Rufaro mission hosts a school and its three massive revival gatherings held each year, where thousands descend on the area. These churches have constructed temples and large halls for worship and have invested in schools, and even universities. They have church farms and projects, alongside other business investments such as shops and hotels.

They raise significant funds through tithe contributions from their congregations, with followers being urged to contribute up to 10% of their salaries. With relatively rich church members they have significant financial clout and attract the interests of corporates and politicians. The local Pentecostal followings overlap with others from elsewhere on the continent, notably from Nigeria (such as the late T.B. Joshua) and the influence of US evangelical preachers (such as Christ Embassy and others from Billy Graham onwards) visiting the country has long been a feature.

Preachers encourage a commitment to self-reliance, with the holy spirit guiding practices, including in agriculture. Formally, they reject the role of other ancestral spirits, although some n’angas claim they have become involved and some groups offer a more flexible interpretation, encouraging a more syncretic belief system, although not going as far as the African indigenous churches (see below).

The importance of prophets

African indigenous churches can in many shapes and forms. The most formalised in Zimbabwe are the ZCC (Zion Christian Church) and the Johanne Marange Apostolic church, while alongside these are the huge number of small churches led by self-proclaimed prophets (Johanne Masowe and more broadly those classified as Madzibaba). A syncretic mix of Christian teachings from both the Old and New Testament and sprit-based religion, linking to the ancestors and traditional religion is observed. This has important impacts on agriculture in all our sites.

The ZCC has significant resources through tithes paid by congregants and like the other formalised churches has invested in farms, schools and businesses and there is a massive conference centre at Mbungo near Masvingo. Johanne Marange by contrast has less infrastructure beyond the headquarters in Manicaland, as worship takes place under trees and on mountains. The numerous Johanne Masowe prophets each with small followings have shrines often at their homes.

There is a big focus amongst the Apostolic churches in a commitment to self-reliance. The Johanne Marange church followers are associated with the skills of tin-smithing, welding, electrical engineering and many run workshops both in rural areas and in town. They are deeply committed to commercial agriculture and, as discussed in the next blog in this series, many markets are dominated by Apostolic faith followers in our study areas.

While less formalised, the huge number of local prophets amongst the Johanne Masowe followings offer an even more explicit blending of traditional religion and Christian preaching. The dress codes reflect those that the spirit mediums use (black, white, red) and the array of artefacts used (clay pots, soil, salt, bones and so on) can barely be distinguished. Reliance on herbs and divination is combined with spiritualism, the laying of hands and healing through possession by spirits. Such prophets often use religion as a livelihood pathway, coming to new areas to gain land and followers.

Across our sites, the declared religious association in our 2017/18 survey in Gutu/Masvingo for example suggested a dominance of new African indigenous churches (53%) over Pentecostal churches (25%), Protestants (12%) and Roman Catholics (10%) (see table), but this probably underestimates the importance of new prophets who have risen in prominence in recent years. While sometimes rejected by those associated with more formal religious denominations as ‘false prophets’, peddling non-Christian beliefs and practices, they nevertheless are important numerically. Meanwhile, the commercial and political clout of the likes of ZCC cannot be underestimated, while in a more mundane way the Johanne Marange Apostolic faith followers are reshaping agriculture in many of our sites in important ways.

Table: Declared religious affiliation of resident household heads attending ‘churches’ in Gutu and Masvingo A1 sites (2017-18 survey)

Roman Catholic10%
Other Pentecostal (incl Zaoga, Members in Christ)9%
Johan Marange Apostolic25%
Johan Masowe Apostolic8%

The next blogs in this short series look at particular aspects of this new dynamic, with the next examining agriculture and markets in more detail. This is followed by another that will focus on the politics of religion in land and agriculture, as well as more broadly, while the last in the series looks at how religion shapes how farmers respond to an uncertain environment.

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)


Filed under Uncategorized

Why COP27 needs a more sophisticated debate about livestock and climate change

As the climate conference, COP27, kicks of in Sharm el Sheik in Egypt debates about agriculture and land use will be centre stage. And amongst these discussions the role of livestock in the future of food and agricultural systems will be hotly debated.

Unfortunately, many of these debates are poorly informed and misleading, frequently hitting the wrong target. There are strong arguments for reducing the impact of livestock farming in places like the Amazon where expansion of pastures or crops for fodder is encroaching on valuable rainforest areas. Equally there are good reasons for many in the rich West to reduce the consumption of meat and milk from high input industrial systems.

But such arguments do not extend to all livestock everywhere. Misleading policy conclusions arise from aggregated statistics, which often miss out on extensive, smallholder and pastoralist livestock systems. For example, the well-respected data and graphics provider Our World in Data provide easily-consumed data for journalists that highlight livestock as the big villain of climate change. But these data are based on studies that do not account for most extensive livestock systems, focusing instead only on ‘commercially viable farms.’

So, in thinking about climate mitigation measures, we need to ask, which livestock, where? And always avoid being trapped by simplistic, generalising narratives that can be misleading and dangerous. This is why the PASTRES programme that works in six countries across three continents released the report – Are livestock always bad for the planet? The report digs into the data and questions the standard narrative.

In particular, ten flaws in standard approaches to climate assessments of livestock are highlighted and are discussed in a short briefing, available in multiple languages. Most such assessments use so-called life cycle assessments, but too often the data are estimated based on emission factors that make no sense in most outside intensive, industrial livestock systems. Furthermore, we have to ask whether extensive systems are in fact ‘additional’ compared to ‘natural’ systems, where wild animals rather than domesticated livestock roam. And when thinking about emissions, we have to be careful when equating methane (from animals) with carbon dioxide (from fossil fuel intensive industries) as they have very different effects on global heating.

Presenting all livestock as a villain and making the case for radical shifts of diet and land use everywhere – even going so far as promoting the idea of farm-free futures where protein is derived from large fermentation vats – makes little sense. Such a techno-utopian vision would undermine many people’s livelihoods, destroy local economies and would likely have little positive impact on the environment in places where livestock are an integrated part of sustainable agro-ecosystems.

Indeed, despite proclaiming otherwise, such positions may accentuate climate injustice, opening opportunities for further concentration of food systems, while fostering exclusionary forms of conservation or ‘rewilding’. In so doing they undermine the very people who should be at the forefront of creating climate-friendly agricultural systems, such as pastoralists and extensive livestock keepers who live across the world’s rangeland on over half the world’s land surface.

A focus on net-zero targets for carbon removal from land – through reducing livestock use and planting trees, for example – may badly misfire. Trees are vulnerable carbon sources in many environments because of fire risk and may be less good at capturing and retaining carbon than grasslands, supported by careful livestock grazing.

Mass tree planting on rangelands can result in displacement of people and their livestock, as plantation crops are established and enclosures increase. The rush to plant trees is again being driven by misunderstandings of ecosystems and carbon dynamics in rangeland settings. And such damaging tree planting is being pushed by carbon offset markets that are central to net zero deals, whereby polluting companies in one part of the world can absolve themselves by planting trees elsewhere.    

Addressing climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge for humanity today. COP27 in Egypt is a vital political moment. But in our eagerness to meet the challenge, we must be careful about false and misleading solutions that can result in heightened injustices. Certain types of livestock keeping – in the right places, with the right management – can and should be part of the climate solution.

If you are in Sharm el Sheik, there are lots of events that focus on these issues – see the COP27 Livestock Resources from ILRI. If you are not there (I personally will be amongst the livestock keepers of Matobo in Matabeland South discussing these issues on the ground), then do have a look at some of our PASTRES publications in order to get a more informed view.

Report and briefings in multiple languages: Are livestock always bad for the planet? – Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience – PASTRES

Video: Are livestock always bad for the planet? – YouTube

Article: IDSBulletin_OnlineFirst_García-Dory_Houzer_Scoones.pdf

Primer: Livestock, climate and the politics of resources | Transnational Institute (

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What is environmental degradation and what should we do about it?

It’s currently the UN decade on ecosystem restoration. Everyone it seems has grand plans, huge projects and endless new policies to guide what to do to restore the health of global ecosystems. The biodiversity COP in Montreal in December aims to seal a deal to protect the world’s ecosystems (the post-2020 framework). But in order to ‘restore’ ecosystems, it’s important to understand what ‘degradation’ is and what is being restored to what. This is less straightforward than it seems.

At the invitation of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and as an input into the framing of a large research programme supported by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) called rather grandiosely Reversing Environmental Degradation in Africa and Asia, I was invited to write a short piece on environmental degradation and its causes.

Having reviewed the project documents and the various materials around ecosystem restoration, I was surprised how (still) little attention was being paid to how to define environmental degradation and to understand the causes. Too often it was assumed that degradation was what happened when people messed up the environment and the solutions offered were basically to control them. While perhaps not so explicit, the spectre of Malthusian thinking was evident, even if given the gloss of participation, inclusion, gender sensitivity and respect for indigenous peoples and communities as part of the requisite contemporary rhetoric.

For me it all had a bit of a rebound feel about it. These were the debates me and colleagues cut our teeth on back in the 1980s, with the early emergence of ‘political ecology’ thinking and the engagement of social science in questions of environmental management. For example, the influential ‘Lie of the Land’ book came out in 1996, now over a quarter of a century ago. The book’s subtitle was ‘challenging received wisdom on the African environment’. The problem is that many of those received wisdoms persist, despite the continuous challenges.

My task was to write a short paper (10 pages – a tough job) that was accessible and to the point. A mildly adapted version is now out as an IDS Working Paper, and the abstract is below.   

This short paper explores the question: what is environmental degradation and what are its causes? It seems an obvious question, but it’s not. The paper explores definitions of environmental degradation (and restoration), challenging simplistic perspectives centred on ‘carrying capacity’. Five explanations of the root causes of environmental degradation widely applied in policy debates and promoted by different actors are identified. These are: (neo-)Malthusian arguments about scarcity and environmental crisis; technological and ecomodernist explanations; perspectives on resource inequality, distribution and development; views that centre on human-nature caring relationships and, finally, arguments for more fundamental structural change and transforming capitalism. Each suggests a very different interpretation of causes and effects with contrasting implications for research design, policy and practice. The paper is aimed at providing a quick overview of the debates, helping to inform discussions about environmental restoration and protection. Too often such debates do not explore underlying causes. While biophysical dynamics are important, environmental degradation – and so restoration – must take account of social, political and cultural dimensions of environmental change.

It is (as ever) a plea for a more integrative approach, where social science thinking can inform our understandings of biophysical processes. It is also a plea to think hard about – and actively deliberate upon – the assumptions (too often hidden or implicit) about what the underlying causes of environmental change are. Only with these understandings can solutions be devised, as root causes can be quite different according to different (social, political, economic, cultural) frames.

I apologise in advance to those who have engaged with these debates over many years like me, as there is nothing new said here at all (and probably rather too many references from myself and other colleagues at IDS and partners). I do hope though that I hid my frustrations that this had to be said all over again, as I aimed to take a deep breath and offer something clear, digestible and useful. Even more, I hope that it makes a difference to the framing of the FCDO research programme – and the many other similar ones that will unfold before 2030 when the ecosystem restoration decade concludes.

Read the paper: What is Environmental Degradation, What Are Its Causes, and How to Respond? (

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Building ‘community resilience’ through the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe

‘Community resilience’ is one of those policy buzzwords that has emerged through the pandemic. With the clear limitations of many public health measures, particularly in settings where health systems are weak, relying on community capacities to respond to pandemic shocks and ‘build back better’ (another familiar buzzword) is seen as the way to go. This does not mean that standard public health and technical measures are abandoned, but they must go hand-in-hand with community resilience-building.

For some, this is at last a recognition that local efforts count, and that centralised health systems are not the only solutions. A more plural, rooted alternative is needed. For others, this is a typical neoliberal sleight of hand, downplaying the role of state support in times and relying on community voluntarism.

Whatever the underlying motivations, the big question is what happens on the ground and how can this help both with pandemic preparedness and response? This was the focus of our research in Zimbabwe, conducted in real-time over two years from March 2020. As the earlier blog that introduced our new book highlighted, we had an open-ended approach to research. No prior questions or hypotheses and an approach that lent itself to finding out what was happening as events unfolded in real-time.

We therefore did not start out with any prior ideas about ‘community resilience’; indeed, we did not use the term (and I am not sure we could translate it into Shona or Ndebele anyway). Instead, we explored the reactions to the pandemic in different sites through deep immersion, inductively understanding the dynamics.

Resilience building in a plural health system

Our new open access paper in the British Medical Journal (Global Health) journal presents the findings and explores whether what we found was ‘community resilience’. Around two themes – adaptable livelihoods and learning and innovation – we certainly found a core set of practices, centred on making use of local, contextual knowledge, learning and sharing ideas across networks and social and technical innovation, not least around COVID-19 treatments (including local herbs and tree products, such as Zumbani, see lead photo). All contributed to a process of building resilience, the ability to resist and transform shocks and stresses.

However, these practices were all highly differentiated – across sites and amongst people – and so a simple form of ‘local’, ‘community’ resilience could be questioned. Indeed, while autonomy and independence was hailed, in practice it was the interaction between formal and informal health systems – a plural health system – that was important. In the same way a standard version of ‘resilience’ was also challenged, as the responses were not ‘bouncing back’ to a prior state, but often resulted in transformations in livelihoods, social relations and politics, sometimes with empowering effects on certain people, but more often than not a sense of resigned coping in the face of on-going hardship compounded by the pandemic.

The paper is open access, so you can read the full piece, but meanwhile here’s the abstract:

Based on real-time recording and reflection of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, this article identifies the features of ‘community resilience’ across sites in rural Zimbabwe. The findings confirm the importance of local knowledge, social networks and communication, as highlighted in the literature. In addition, a number of other aspects are emphasised, including the importance of adaptable livelihoods, innovation and collective learning. Flexible adaptation was especially important for responding to lockdowns, as livelihoods had to be re-configured in response to public health measures. Meanwhile, innovation and shared learning was vital for generating local treatment responses to the disease. In the Zimbabwe context, these adaptation and innovation capabilities emerge from a particular historical experience where resilience in the face of harsh economic conditions and in the absence of state support has been generated over years. This is often a more resigned coping than a positive, empowering, transformational form of resilience. While adaptation, innovation and shared learning capabilities proved useful during the pandemic, they are not evenly spread, and there is no singular ‘community’ around which resilience emerges. The article therefore argues against seeing ‘community resilience’ as the magic bullet for disaster preparedness and response in the context of pandemics. Instead, the highly differentiated local practices of adaptation, innovation and shared learning – across gender, age, wealth differences – should be seen as an important complement to public, state-led support in health emergencies, and so part of a wider, plural health system. 

And here is an extract from the conclusion:

Pandemics are an opportunity to rethink the way health systems operate. However, the popular idea of ‘community resilience’ must always be seen as part of a wider suite of responses and not as a magic-bullet solution. In the Zimbabwe case, responses to COVID-19 occurred in the context of a weak health service, an economy in a dire state and when trust in the state – or more precisely politicians – was extremely low. Here a resigned resilience – or coping – centred on autonomous local capabilities, although differentiated within a ‘community’ and also stretching beyond a locality, was clearly important in the COVID-19 response in rural Zimbabwe.

Generating such resilience, we saw the importance of plural health systems, involving many actors – formal and informal. This was not just ‘the community’, but a wider mix of players, all connecting around a complex pandemic response. Of course, such a plural system had long existed, but it came into its own during the pandemic. While the moniker ‘community’ is problematic and ‘resilience’ of course is an extremely difficult concept to pin down, certainly elements of what is referred to as ‘community resilience’ were present in our study areas during the pandemic.

See: Bwerinofa, I.J.; Mahenehene, J.; Manaka, M.; Mulotshwa, B.; Murimbarimba, F.; Mutoko, M.; Sarayi, V. and Scoones, I. (2022) What is ‘community resilience’? Responding to COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe, BMJ Global Health

The 20 blogs that provide a real-time overview of the pandemic are now available as a low-cost book: You can buy the 160-page (full colour illustrated) book on Amazon (£12.72 for a paper copy, £1.25 for a Kindle version) or download it in high- or low-resolution versions here and here).          

The research team are Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Felix Murimbarimba, Moses Mutoko, Vincent Sarayi and Ian Scoones.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized