Medium-scale commercial farming in Zimbabwe: how has it fared since land reform?

We have a new open access paper out in the Journal of Modern African Studies – “Medium-scale commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe: The experience of A2 resettlement farms”. Contrary to assertions that A2 medium-scale farms allocated during the land reform are largely occupied by ‘cronies’ and that they are unproductive and under-utilised, a more differentiated picture emerges, with important implications for policy and the wider politics of Zimbabwe’s countryside following land reform.

The paper is based on in-depth empirical studies in Mvurwi (a higher potential area to the north of Harare) and Masvingo-Gutu (in the drier south). The findings are important as they show ways forward for supporting the revival of commercial agriculture in the country.

This has been seriously hampered by lack of finance, sanctions affecting donor investments, uncertainties around the lease arrangements, poorly designed support programmes (notably the now notorious Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) mechanisation scheme and Command Agriculture) and selective capture and corruption by elites, during and after the land reform programme.

Surprising findings

The research was carried out during 2019 and involved a representative sample of 90 farms across the two sites, representing around 20% of all farms in the areas. This was a small, random sample, but the challenges of researching A2 farms are well-known to any field researcher in Zimbabwe. They are scattered over long distances, owners are often not present and because of on-going threats of audits talking to people is often challenging. In the end, we managed to speak to everyone in the sample, generating fascinating reflections from farmers, managers and workers documented in the paper.

The findings were a surprise. In the mid-2000s, we undertook research on a small group of A2 farms across Masvingo province and our conclusions were rather dismal. By-and-large, they were not occupied and if so very little was happening, except for a few individuals where external investments were driving recapitalisation of the farms. When we undertook the recent study, there was much more happening, although anecdotal evidence suggests that this has tailed off as the economy has declined further in the last year or so.

A key period in our reconstruction of the fates and fortunes of each of the farms since the early 2000s was the small window of relative stability around the time of the Government of National Unity (2009-2013) and immediately afterwards. At this time, it was possible to raise funds and invest, and markets were relatively stable and commercial agriculture was thus feasible.

Before and after this period, this has not been the case, and over the whole period the lack of financing for agriculture has been a major constraint for all farmers. Without leases being issued, as promised, farmers cannot raise bank credit with their farm as collateral, although some have used houses in town to do so.

Meanwhile, the external financing schemes have not supported production. Across our sample not that many received equipment through the RBZ mechanisation scheme in the 2000s, but as we discussed back then (p.99), and reinforced by recent BSR revelations, this proved a hopeless investment, and mostly a source of patronage-based corruption, with well-connected elites linked to the party-state and military benefitting and so appropriating public resources.

Much the same applies to the Command Agriculture scheme. Since 2016 this has been a loan/subsidy scheme supported by the party-state. In our sample, 43.7% in Mvurwi and 12.0% in Gutu-Masvingo benefited from the scheme to some extent in 2018-19. Although higher maize yields were achieved on average, it clearly was not a good use of public funds, and much of the investment was wasted, with benefits accruing mostly to the financing ‘cartels’.

Indeed, many recipients complained to us that their allocations were late or grossly insufficient, and that it is only a very few well-connected people who can jump the queue and get inputs – fertiliser, seed, fuel and so on – as part of the programme.

Patterns of accumulation and differentiation

Our data show a growing pattern of differentiation emerging between A2 farmers. The standard narrative that A2 farmers are all ‘cronies’ of the party-state and military and that the land is unutilised and unproductive does not hold up.

Yes, there are those who are beneficiaries of patronage for sure, including via Command Agriculture, but only an elite few gain the full package, and most of those who were recipients in our sample got very little, and complained bitterly.

Equally, there also some who have large areas unutilised, but this is far from the whole story. Indeed, patterns of ‘underutilisation’ are not hugely different to what was observed during the 1980s and 1990s when these farms were settled by white farmers. It all depends on the focus of production (intensive on small areas or extensive) and the type of operation (irrigated or dryland cropping or livestock, for example), as well as the nature of the land (many areas have extensive rocky areas, unsuitable for agriculture, but great for grazing). 

In terms of accumulation patterns, some have access to external finance (from jobs, diaspora investment and so on) and can make a go of it, even under very difficult circumstances. In the two sites, we have some quite successful tobacco farmers in Mvurwi and livestock farmers in Gutu-Masvingo – proper commercial farmers by any standard. Others are more aspiring, and lack the financing, while others are really struggling, farming only a small portion. Some have managed to mobilise joint ventures with former white farmers or with other investors, including Chinese firms involved in tobacco around Mvurwi, while others benefit from close relationships with tobacco contracting companies. Meanwhile, others have effectively abandoned farming or may be holding the land speculatively for future generations. Across these groups, especially the aspiring farmers, some are investing in ‘projects’ on small areas, while others have been joined by other families and are creating ‘villages’ on the farms.

Perhaps not surprisingly the patterns were very similar to what we found in our study of a former ‘purchase area’ (small-scale commercial farming area) near Masvingo – again supposedly commercial farms of a similar scale on average. Here we found very similar categories, but perhaps fewer commercial farmers than in the A2 study, in part because of lack of state support of any sort in these areas. And this was 80 years after their establishment, not just 18 as in the A2 farms we studied.

Ways forward

A more differentiated view therefore suggests ways forward for the A2 areas.

To ensure more effective, commercial use of A2 areas requires investment based on sustained financing and secure leasehold tenure. A2 farmers we talked to wanted to be independent, not reliant on state patronage, but able to get financing on time to produce successfully. Successful production can also be facilitated through land administration policy – including land audits and forms of taxation – that encourages more intensive, commercial use. But farm investment will only flow if the conditions are right, which means getting the leases issued, the contestation over land resolved through land compensation and private and public finance made available in flexible forms, and not through state schemes that are prone to corruption and patronage.

Contrary to assumptions – including our own before undertaking this latest research – A2 medium-scale farms do have future, but those with potential need investment and support, while others need to be encouraged to pass on the land they received during the land reform. The next blog will discuss the political consequences of the emerging pattern of differentiation on the A2 farms, and the implications for policy.

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

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The rich people’s virus? Latest reflections from Zimbabwe

A few weeks back Oxfam released a major report, ‘The Inequality Virus’, documenting the way COVID-19 has affected different populations and parts of the world. The now well-established impacts on the already-marginalised are presented, alongside how the rich have benefited. But the debate in Zimbabwe is currently rather different – people are wondering why the virus is hitting the urban rich and well-connected the most.

The last weeks have seen a massive spike in reported cases and deaths in Zimbabwe. The deaths of senior politicians, party officials and business people have been widely reported. It has provoked a level of concern, even panic, across the country, especially given the parlous state of the health care system.

Last weekend I caught up with the team who is monitoring the situation across our rural study sites – in Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo, Chiredzi and Mwenezi areas. This is the tenth blog in a series (see here, here and here for updates since last March)

A disease of the urban rich and powerful?

In our rural study sites the experience of COVID-19 as a disease remains limited. Team members were able to report a few cases from each of the sites, with some deaths usually among older business people, but many of the funerals were of those coming back from towns or from South Africa. COVID-19 is still, it seems, not a rural disease – although of course, given the complete absence of testing in these areas, we cannot know for sure.

Over the past week or so, team members have been discussing why COVID-19 seems to be concentrated among the urban rich and powerful with locals in the rural areas where they live. Many explanations were offered. The rich move around more, they fly in planes, drive in cars; we barely move, especially with lockdown. The rich don’t do physical exercise, they move in cars; we walk everywhere – we have to, and do manual work. The rich work in offices and enclosed spaces; we are outside, in the clean air. The rich eat junk food, and have conditions like BP, diabetes and so on; we have fewer chronic conditions and get good food from our own local vegetables, which give immunity.

All this makes sense epidemiologically, but what was central to local narratives across sites was that local responses were not just passive – the consequences of being poor – but due to active choices about prevention and treatment. Unlike a few months ago, there is a tangible fear of the virus now. The news reports of the rich and influential dying despite their privilege, mean that people have to act to protect themselves.

Local remedies and vaccine anxieties

There is today a booming market in local vegetables (such as Rudhe/Ulude and Mutsine/Umhlavangubo (Shona/Ndebele)– ‘weeds’ from fields mostly), as well as local medicines. Hot teas of many sorts – lemon and ginger, guava and eucalyptus, soaked onion – are combined with steaming using a variety of herbs. Herbs, roots and tree products such as Ndorani/Intolwani, Rufauchimuka/Umafavuke, Zumbani/Umsuzwane and Chifumura are hot commodities, and lemons are reportedly selling for 20 bond notes a piece.

As people explained, they cannot get to town for conventional medicines, and in any case they have no money, so local approaches are better. They point to cases where people have recovered using such medicines. WhatsApp group messages are full of advice on local herbal medicines, and offers of their sale.

What then of the prospects of a vaccine? Here there is a raging debate across our sites. When asked, most people seemed highly sceptical. The Chinese have offered vaccines to the country (to be available free, despite early confusion), and this has been widely trailed in the press, as part of China’s effective vaccine diplomacy. While in time there will hopefully be allocations from COVAX, the central global facility too, it’s the Chinese vaccine offer that seems to be generating the most debate.

Where does the scepticism come from? In part it emerges from (usually unfair and often racist) attitudes towards Chinese interventions in Zimbabwe and the quality of Chinese products, disparagingly referred to as ‘Zhing-Zhong’ – cheap, low quality products likely to break or be useless. People also worry that the state will force people to have the vaccine.

There are also rumours that vaccines cause infertility, make women grow beards and have other severe side-effects, potentially resulting in death. It is difficult to know where such rumours come from, but they are very real. I was sent a whole string of videos (mostly coming from anti-vaxxers and others in the US) by a friend who had received them from a church-based WhatsApp group. There are likely many similar ones circulating.

Amongst our informants across the study sites, there was a general unease about the rapidity of the vaccines’ development – pointing out of course that there is still no vaccine for HIV/AIDS after many years. There was also a sense that, among poor rural people, they have not been affected so far, and that the local medicines and remedies being used seem to be working so far.

As across the world, vaccine anxiety mixed with vaccine nationalism will be a big issue for Zimbabwe when vaccines finally come to the country.

Farmers’ lockdown struggles

Combined with the flood of migrants from South Africa coming back over the festive period, there were many press reports of the elite partying unprotected and churches gathering in large numbers. The consequences are now being felt with the current surge. For good reason, the government has clamped down on the strong advice of the medical professionals. Since Jan 2nd there has been a strict ‘Tier 4’ lockdown across the country, recently extended for two weeks until the middle of February.

People report that this is the strictest lockdown yet, with severe movement restrictions, a curfew and business hours restricted from 8am to 3pm. Many arrests have been reported and once again there are accusations that the lockdown is being used to suppress political dissent. In the past, people could flout the rules or get round them – especially if you could bribe the police or were well-connected. Some are still able to get round the lockdown restrictions, but many fewer this time. There are shebeens (drinking places) that operate after dark, some transport operators that dodge the police road-blocks and a few churches still flout the rules, but for most the elaborate process of getting exemption letters is a daily struggle. One of our colleagues explained how he had to get an exemption letter locally in the township in Masvingo to get another exemption letter in town to travel to Chiredzi so he could look after his sugar farm. It’s not easy being a farmer at the moment.

The informal markets and many shops remain shut. Getting farm inputs is nearly impossible as movement restrictions and curfews mean many businesses have closed. Farmers cannot move their produce, and horticultural produce is rotting in the fields. Those who used to rely on vending of agricultural products at fixed locations have to move around or sell from home, with far reduced returns. Input supplies for farming have dried up – with fertiliser being absurdly expensive (up to US$40 per bag) and much in demand because of the heavy rains this year. The rains have resulted in livestock disease outbreaks, notably blackleg, but getting access to medicines is difficult because of movement restrictions, and cattle are dying in numbers. Despite it being a good season overall, especially on heavier soils, gaining the advantage of this is proving tough, both in terms of production and marketing.  

With the good season, there are at least some early crops. Cucumbers, pumpkins, sweet reeds and early maize are already being consumed, along with the proliferation of local vegetables and wild fruits that have grown this year. This is a major help to many. Those who planted early look like they will get a decent crop in most of our sites, including those that are traditional ‘drought prone’. But late planted maize is currently looking weak and, with the lack of fertiliser and incessant rain, much of it is yellowing.

The COVID barter economy

Even the COVID economy discussed in previous blogs is highly constrained at the moment. There is very little money circulating and people must get along with their own production and barter exchange. The growth of farming in town is dramatic – the outskirts of Masvingo are reported to be ‘one big farm’! Sugar beans or sweet potatoes with maize seem to be the favoured crops, and these will be keeping many people fed in the coming months.

Those who have some crops can exchange for other goods in their neighbourhoods. Barter is the basis for exchange without cash, and word is put out on the street or via the WhatsApp groups if things are available or needed. Goods are moved around the townships by a proliferation of push-carts, operated by many who have lost their jobs. And with the informal markets closed, selling has moved to people’s homes or mobile shops – in carts, wheelbarrows or cars – linking informal township-based wholesalers (who source for other towns or abroad) and a network of small-scale retailers and vendors.

As we have discussed before, there has been a massive growth of small-scale mining across our sites. In the last few weeks, two new areas have opened up near Masvingo and adjacent to our study sites, with now thousands of miners arriving in a new gold rush. Many underground mines have been flooded with the heavy rains, and some are now dangerous, but mining continues in others, often with serious attendant dangers – not only of mine collapse, but also of COVID-19 infection.

An unequal disease

COVID-19 is certainly an unequal disease, but in unpredictable ways. In Zimbabwe, it affects the rich and powerful disproportionately through illness and death and the poor through livelihood struggles during lockdown. How will the inequality virus’ evolution pan out over the coming months? Check out the blog for further updates.   

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

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Can South Africa help find a way out of Zimbabwe’s on-going crises?

I don’t know how many times this blog has commented on the worsening economic and political crises in Zimbabwe. It seems to be never-ending and still getting worse. The misplaced expectations that the ‘new dispensation’ would provide an escape route following the 2017 ‘coup’ were short-lived. If anything, things have got worse.

It is a nightmarish combination: faction fighting within the ruling party and military top brass; capture of the economy by business-political elites; relentless corruption across public activity; violence by state security forces against dissent; sanctions by the international community; lack of investment and a divided opposition barely worthy of the name.

And added to all this is the COVID-19 pandemic, now accelerating across the region, with many of Zimbabwe’s elite being struck down, including four cabinet ministers being among the dead to date.

Tough times for most

In the midst of national political and economic chaos, now going on for over two decades in different forms, people must get on with their daily lives in increasingly difficult circumstances in the midst of a pandemic. With many having lost formal employment, the economy operates largely informally and public services barely function. Times are tough for most. A ‘lost generation’ is talked about – those growing up since the late 1990s have not seen any of the fruits of Independence that people profited from in the 1980s. The image of the educated Zimbabwean, employable across the world, is fast disappearing.

This dire situation has made self-reliance and local innovation essential. And access to land, as a vital route to securing livelihoods, is especially important. This is why the land reform, especially the distribution to many households – who are in turn linked to many more in the communal and urban areas – in the smallholder A1 areas, is so vital to Zimbabwe’s story over the past 20 years. Without state support and shunned by donors as being ‘contested areas’, the A1 resettlements have for many been the focus for survival in a collapsing economy.

The ‘development’ agencies meanwhile have concentrated on humanitarian and emergency aid and avoiding the productive sectors of the economy – for sure such aid is much needed, but it’s barely making a dent on the core challenges of economic development. The state has hardly been present, so incapacitated has it been by the exodus of skilled personnel, lack of funding and rising debt. Instead, it has been people’s hard work and ingenuity that has held things together….but only just.

Those living in the elite neighbourhoods of Harare – the party, business and military elites and the expat, diplomatic and donor community – are shielded from much of the worst. They have foreign exchange cash, health insurances and the ability to escape to South Africa if needs be… and the golf courses and some tourist resorts are still open (and gloriously empty). For most people, though, the situation is really difficult, and increasingly so, as the chasm between the (very few) rich and the (majority) poor increases. As everyone has been saying for over two decades: it can’t go on, surely.

Can South Africa help find a way out of the current mess?

So what can be done? For a long time, opposition supporters and allied liberal commentators from inside and outside Zimbabwe were holding out for ‘regime change’. For many years, Robert Mugabe was the bogey-man, so when a well-oiled PR machine emerged around Emmerson Mnangagwa some fell for the spin. Others focused on the opposition and the hope of electoral change, but when Morgan Tsvangirai died, and the opposition fell apart in unseemly disputes, this option seemed to shrink. Now hopes seem to be pinned on South African intervention.

An interesting International Crisis Group briefing came out recently that suggested that the South African government was abandoning its approach of ‘quiet diplomacy’ promoted by Thabo Mbeki, premised on solidarity between two liberation movements, and becoming more assertive. This is probably necessary to unblock the impasse. Unlike previous ICG commentaries, this one is more sanguine about the prospects of opposition politics. Endemic corruption and economic mismanagement is evident across the state, mostly at the hands of ZANU-PF politicians, but also from MDC allied politicians in major cities. The solution no longer seems to be a naïve assertion that all will be well with a new party in power; even the once-feted Nelson Chamisa’s star seems to have somewhat faded.

Unravelling ‘state capture’ by political and military elites is not straightforward, as South Africa has clearly found in addressing the catastrophe of the Jacob Zuma era. However, rather than a holier-than-thou rhetoric from Western diplomatic missions about ‘good governance’, maybe Cyril Ramaphosa and colleagues will be able to address the Zimbabwe situation more sensitively and concretely with practical solutions, rooted in a better understanding of the context.

Pragmatic compromises

So can the South Africans engineer some form of national government that incorporates opposition politicians, technocrats and others, and sets up forms of accountability that stops the rot? Not an easy task, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but it will be necessary to satisfy international investors and aid donors, and it may be the only survival route for some within ZANU-PF. Backing a more technocratic political network within and outside the ruling party may provide the basis for a relaxing of sanctions too.

The South Africans will have to seek a pragmatic solution that is widely acceptable. Maybe such an initiative might just capture the moment when there is a new administration in the US, and find a way for the UK and EU to find a route through the sanctions impasse. Easing sanctions could have a huge impact. For example, sustained development in the land reform areas has been constrained for two decades due to their designation as ‘contested areas’ by Western donors. The agreed compensation deal with former white farmers offers a (yes tricky and fraught) way forward, and the potential for investment and growth from the core sector of the economy – agriculture –opening up.

Of course there must be conditions to any deal, with political reforms firmly on the table. What this means for scheduled elections in 2023, for the military’s support to a new government and for some of the most corrupt in the political-business elite who profit from on-going chaos, is unsure of course. As Brian Raftopolous argues, “Zimbabwe’s future looks bleak. Its state continues an authoritarian trajectory as it carries out its intention to dismantle the opposition. Yet the legacies and the futures of Southern Africa’s liberation movements face increasing public scrutiny even as the alternatives remain opaque.”

South Africa cannot afford the complete collapse of Zimbabwe given the fragility of its own economy, and with insurgency troubling Mozambique the usually stable southern African region looks extremely volatile, requiring solutions soon.

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

Photo credit: GovernmentZA, President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives in Zimbabwe. 11 Mar | Flickr.

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‘The land is the economy, the economy is the land’, but does this include young people? Reflections from Zimbabwe

There has been a flurry of studies on young people and agriculture in recent years, including in Zimbabwe. The wider critical literature has challenged the standard narratives around youth specific policy measures – such as narratives that youth are innovative, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and so the future of agriculture that we see in report after report. Instead, much of this work makes the case that broad, fairly standard development policies – improved infrastructure, better education, agricultural R and D, labour policies and so on – are what is needed to expand “landscapes of opportunity” for everyone, including younger people.

A recent comparative study using survey data from six African countries showed (rather obviously) that opportunities expanded when people were near markets (for off-farm work) and when agricultural potential was higher (for farming). More interestingly, the patterns were not much different between different age groups, although those in their 20s reported ‘no activity’ most frequently and those in their 30s were more likely to engage in off-farm work.

Large surveys such as this reveal very little however about the relational dynamics of generational change and the ways life courses are adapted. This is an important point made by a paper on youth and food systems, which eschews an age-based categorisation beloved of surveys and argues that youth is a “transitional phase within a life cycle”. It’s this transition (often including considerable periods of ‘waithood’) – of establishing a home, gaining access to land, investing in agriculture or starting up a business – that is crucial. Of course, as the paper argues, such processes of generational change intersect with gender, class, wealth, location and other dimensions.

In this sense, there are particular challenges faced by young people – across a variety of ages depending on their life course. This comes out in the more empirically-grounded, qualitative studies, which are increasingly coming out on this theme with work on Zimbabwe.

For example, a comparative assessment of young people’s experiences in commercial farming ‘hotspots’ in Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe highlights the many challenges people face in first gaining access to land, capital and markets for agriculture as a young person. As the paper highlights, social relations – amongst family and beyond – are crucial, but overall it’s very hard work and challenging, according to the testimonies collected.

Successes can quickly be reversed, as ‘hazards’ strike – both misfortune and mistakes. The paper’s conclusions that it is not land or credit that is needed are slightly contradicted by the data, as it’s clear that in Ghana and Zimbabwe land constraints are very real, and access to finance is a challenge across sites for young people. The paper concludes that what young people need is an insurance or form of protection from sudden, unexpected shocks, adding to the array of policy measures on offer.

More in-depth studies are offered from different parts of Zimbabwe that reinforce some of these themes. For example, based on in-depth life histories from Matabelaland (Lupane and Umguza districts), Vusilizwe Thebe argues that challenges of young people are very contextual. In the A1 resettlement area many young people who occupied land or joined parents who did so are disconnected from the sort of deep networks that provide access to resources and help transitions in life courses as in nearby communal areas. Nevertheless, young, independent, single women have been able to make a go of agriculture in the resettlement areas, whereas patriarchal institutions would have constrained such opportunities elsewhere.

A study from Goromonzi in Mashonaland East by Clement Chipenda and Tom Tom focused on the challenges of social reproduction in the new resettlements, and pointed to the complaints of young people feeling left out of the land distribution. This has resulted in generational conflicts between young people and their parents, as those without land and employment have to resort to highly precarious work, such as gold panning or temporary hired labour. Young people in Henry Bernstein’s terms are a new fragmented class of labour. These class tensions and implications for social reproduction are important themes raised.

A similar sense of struggle was highlighted in our study of young people in land reform areas in Masvingo district and Mvurwi farming area (see also earlier blogs here, here, here and here). The ROAPE paper that summarises the findings shows how

Opportunities for young people following land reform are severely constrained. The precariousness of work, the challenges schooling and getting qualifications, family disputes and illnesses, the lack of land, the poor productivity of dryland farming, and the difficulties of establishing businesses without capital, are all recurrent themes. While a few have found their way into reasonably remunerated jobs, the routes to accumulation, and getting established as independent adults, are limited for others, with very small-scale irrigated farming seemingly by the far the best option.”

The wider politics of young people and land reform is picked up by another recent paper by Fadzai Chipato and colleagues, which focuses on youth struggles. The paper documents the long association between youth, the liberation war and ruling party politics and the particular position of young people in the struggle over land. However, the paper highlights the real problems of the conflation of state and party politics and the use of land as patronage resource. This has resulted in an increasing disenfranchisement of young people, as they next generation does not feel it is being provided for, with land not available and the economy in ruins. However, the cross-generational struggles for livelihoods are being revived, often outside party control, as young people exert their agency and organise to take land through informal invasions as well as upsetting land use laws and claiming land and water for their farming.

‘The land is the economy, the economy is the land’ is a well-known ZANU-PF rallying cry. The centring of land in the politics of the country means that questions are always raised about who gets land and through what means? The land reform undoubtedly benefited a large number of people, many of whom are doing well, but this was a particular generation, and others who were children or even not born in 2000 are now seeking out livelihoods in rural areas. The generational dimensions of the agrarian challenge does not go away through a redistribution; in some ways the conflicts intensify, but between different people.

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

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Lockdown politics: reflections from Zimbabwe

Last week, the blog looked at the COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe. The situation continues to get worse. On 9 January, there were 20499 reported cases and 483 deaths – 6000 more cases and over 100 more deaths in just a week. It looks like the South African ‘new variant’ is taking hold. Another very severe lockdown was imposed on 2 January, with strict movement restrictions, many businesses closed and a curfew.  

However, like many other African settings, as discussed last week, so far at least the rural areas in particular seem not to have significant coronavirus incidence, with reported cases concentrated in urban areas. So are widespread, national lockdowns justified? Should governments persist with the harsh lockdowns that are perhaps best designed for different Western, urban settings with different social and economic profiles?

This is a difficult one. We don’t know if the early action by African states – including Zimbabwe – prevented a massive early spread, and it would be foolhardy to experiment with releasing lockdowns to boost the economy if it resulted in a massive transmission of disease during a second wave. And especially so in settings where health systems are deeply inadequate.

The Swedish experiment of a light lockdown has faltered badly in recent months, and the haphazard approach of the UK government to pandemic control measures has resulted in a huge and unnecessary death rate, even with a top quality health service.

Hardships, but innovations and transformations

What then are the downsides of the current approach of strictly following international public health guidelines? As we have documented in the blog series since March last year, the impacts of lockdowns on rural populations across our sites have been harsh. And the new lockdown in Zimbabwe is already biting hard.

This is a pattern seen across Africa as many studies have now shown. Reduced market access, lack of mobility for labour and work, school closures meaning kids don’t get an education… and so on. The story is now familiar. There have been many surveys of the impacts and the considerable costs of lockdowns. Lockdowns particularly hit those reliant on formal markets and those requiring mobility for their livelihoods.

Yet, as our field reports during 2020 have shown, in a largely informal economy, where exchanges are local, there has been an impressive resilience in rural areas and small towns in Zimbabwe so far. Without wanting to dismiss extreme hardships, falling perhaps especially on women and young people, the adaptations and innovations we saw over the past 9-10 months across our sites have been impressive. 

Whether in terms of marketing, health care, off-farm income earning, trading or artisanal mining, a new array of new activities have sprung up so that people can survive during lockdowns. Compared to the formal phone surveys that many researchers are fond of, asking not just about what has changed from the status quo, and so highlighting the costs, we have also been asking what has emerged, highlighting innovations and opportunities too.

Our qualitative work across multiple sites in Zimbabwe shows not just how the existing agro-food and livelihood system suffered, but how it also was transformed – by necessity, and through skill and ingenuity. Reading back across our accounts from March 2020 onwards it is interesting how the tenor of the commentary changed: from negative impacts to positive opportunities, even in very tough circumstances. 

Authoritarian reactions

A common argument about the downsides of lockdowns is that they provide space for authoritarian states to exert control on restive populations under the guise of public health measures. The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition has recently produced a significant report (and video) on the shocking abuses that have occurred in Zimbabwe (and across SADC) over the past year, with heavy lockdowns and restrictions on movement seemingly being used as a pretext for arrests and violence, directed particularly against the opposition.

The ‘closing of civic space’ is very apparent in Zimbabwe, and was heightened especially in the build-up to the proposed 31 July uprising. While this never happened in the ways envisaged, the clamp-down was severe, affecting everyone, but especially journalists (arrested and imprisoned) and opposition leaders (sexually assaulted and imprisoned). This pattern continues, with new arrests during the past week, and some still imprisoned.

The argument in the Crisis Coalition reports is that lockdown measures were ‘excessive and disproportionate’, with state and security services using lockdowns to boost their control against rising opposition and internal faction fighting. It is implied that lockdowns should be released with ‘civic space’ restored. In other words, it is suggested that lockdowns are manipulated, becoming simply a political tool.

Many public health officials would however disagree, and especially now. With great hardship and without resources, they have been implementing the measures in good faith, with the genuine fear that the pandemic will take hold, and that only strict public health measures will hold it at bay. Public freedoms are always curtailed in a health emergency for the greater, longer-term good, they argue. Lockdowns are therefore essential, even if private civic freedoms are curtailed.

Lockdown politics

This of course is a tension seen in many countries, with anti-lockdown protests in favour of ‘freedom’ a common occurrence. However, in Zimbabwe, the context is particular. A more sophisticated reflection on these tensions is necessary.

It is always about politics, and political assessment of trade-offs. In the UK, for example, the discussion has been about opening up to boost the economy and people’s jobs and livelihoods, while protecting health through a complex and confusing set of public health measures. In Zimbabwe, the state had similar concerns, as the already dire state of the economy was made worse by the pandemic, and fears of public unrest and opposition mobilisation were raised.  Yet, actually, those economies with stricter public health measures have actually fared better economically over the pandemic, particularly in east and southeast Asia.

Lockdowns are of course no excuse for human rights abuses and illegal activities. These have been seen in many places, as the ‘emergency’ rhetoric of a pandemic provides the pretext for authoritarian measures, as well as corrupt practices. The rush to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) at the beginning of the pandemic saw procurement practices abused massively across the world.

In Zimbabwe, media exposes resulted in the sacking of the health minister and fingers pointed to the very top, while in the UK the extent of involvement of senior politicians and associates in the Conservative party in getting favourable government contracts is only now becoming clear. This is now subject to a number of lawsuits, although still remarkably little mainstream media commentary, despite apparently extreme forms of corruption.

Pandemics are windows onto society

A pandemic exposes the worst and best of any society, and Zimbabwe is no exception. The failure of governance, the abuse of power and the authoritarian approach to politics has been laid bare, along with the tragic lack of capacity in the health service and the neglect of key workers, notably doctors and nurses who have been underpaid for years. But, at the same time, the way public health workers have worked tirelessly across the country sharing messages about keeping a distance, washing hands and so on has been impressive; in many cases involving people who are barely paid a living wage. The commitment of medical professionals is also amazing. Despite the terrible working conditions, they have insistently argued for solid public health measures and may have helped offset something worse. And, in response, the extraordinary resilience, as well as the improvisation, ingenuity and innovation, that people have shown over these months continues to impress.

Over the coming months, we will continue to monitor the situation across our Zimbabwe sites and report back via the blog, as the unpredictable life-cycle of a pandemic reveals much about the struggles of daily life and the political, cultural, social and economic responses to adversity in rural settings, which remains the on-going focus of this blog.

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

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Can Zimbabwe survive a second wave of COVID-19?

On January 2nd, Vice-President and Minister of Health, Constantino Chiwenga, announced another strict lockdown on the whole country. As in March, non-essential businesses are shut, travel is restricted and schools are closed. Everyone is urged to stay at home. In the last week, there have been a further 1342 cases, adding to the total of 14084 recorded. There have been a further 29 deaths too, including a number of high profile business people and politicians, adding to a cumulative total of 369.

Zimbabwe seems to be facing a second wave, driven by the new variant coronavirus from South Africa. I caught up with colleagues yesterday to hear about the current situation and to reflect on how has Zimbabwe fared since the first case was identified in March 2020 (see the Zimbabweland COVID-19 blog series).  

On the face of it, Zimbabwe like many other African countries outside South Africa and to some extent Nigeria, has been relatively spared the ravages of COVID-19 to date. The total (reported) cases and deaths remain low. Compared to the US, UK and much of the rest of Europe, where last week’s reported figures are a small fraction of what is happening each day in these countries, the figures seem to portray (relative) good news.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a wave of Afro-pessimism: Africa was going to be hard hit, and with poor health services and many co-morbidities the toll would be massive. This did not happen during the first wave of the pandemic. In fact, the richest, supposedly most ‘efficient’ countries on the planet suffered worse. Why is this?

Why so few cases?

There are many theories out there, and no one really knows – uncertainties are everywhere. Some claimed it was the heat, but of course there are cold parts of Africa in some seasons and places, and hot places around the world have suffered terribly too, notably in Latin America. Some said it was because of widespread BCG tuberculosis vaccination, but the comparative data proved dodgy. Some said it was because of a young population demographic. This certainly helped, given the susceptibility of different age groups, but there are plenty of other places where a ‘young’ population was hit hard.

Certainly African countries, including Zimbabwe, responded to the pandemic quickly and effectively in line with WHO recommendations, with national lockdowns, restrictions on movements and health campaigns. This was unlike Western nations where the response was sluggish, with an arrogance that they knew best. Clearly, they didn’t and coronavirus did not turn out to be like ‘flu as all the elaborate preparedness and contingency plans assumed.

The experience of past pandemics/epidemics has also probably helped in Africa. The AIDS pandemic taught African nations and peoples a lot of important lessons: know your epidemic, take it seriously and change behaviour to save lives. The same applied to Ebola in West Africa and of course SARS in southeast Asia. Such experiences shape cultures and practices, and citizens, experts and institutions learn lessons the hard way. In the West, assuming that COVID-19 was ‘flu was fatal – literally, and resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US and Europe – but Western nations had not experienced the ravages of a serious pandemic for many years outside certain communities.

In some ways it may have been that poor health conditions actually helped. Acquired or pre-existing immunity through the frequent attack of multiple pathogens may have made certain people more able to fend off COVID-19. Noone knows this for sure, and plenty of poor and marginalised people have died, but it’s a hypothesis worth exploring, as many of the (recorded) deaths have been among middle class and richer people, where co-morbidities – being overweight, having diabetes etc. – are similar to those in the ‘healthy’ West.

The spatial pattern of cases also gives some clues. Cases in Zimbabwe, for example, are heavily concentrated in the larger urban centres, where poorer people live in crowded places and moving to jobs means travelling on crowded transport. The colonial design of racially-segregated cities has resulted in increased susceptibility to this type of respiratory disease, requiring new thinking in city planning.

The other foci of infection are on the borders, highlighting the impact of migration as a spreader of disease, especially from South Africa. With the new variant extending from the coastal areas of South Africa, the transfer of the virus through migrant populations moving back and forth, especially through the festive period, has already happened. Add to this the crowded conditions and long queues at the borders such as Beitbridge seen over the holidays, it has been a recipe for rapid spread.

Understanding disease contexts in rural areas

However, there still remain very few (recorded) COVID-19 cases in any of our rural study areas, and few stories about people who have died. This is the case across the country – from Mvurwi to Chikombedzi – and the exceptions are in all instances a few imports from returning migrants, most common in Matobo. This is striking and contradicts the national narrative of growing infection.

We have been observing the local situation now for 9-10 months, and the pattern seems clear. Despite massive under-reporting due to an almost complete absence of testing, the rural areas seem to have been spared so far. As colleagues noted, “it may be that we have had the disease, but there are a range of ‘flus’ (respiratory diseases), and we know how to treat them with herbal medicines. Even the local village health workers are encouraging their use.”

We asked people in each of the study sites about why there were so few cases, and they consistently identified the activity patterns of people in rural areas. They live outside, there is ‘plenty of air’, they are not crowded together, as villages and homes are spaced out and people don’t move around so much – certainly compared to the ‘big bosses’ from Harare who seem to be suffering most. The moments when infection might happen included, according to their listing, funerals, markets, tobacco selling points, schools, indoor church services and beer parties where receptacles are shared. They also all pointed out that people are generally good at hygiene as this part of cultural practices for washing and cleaning, especially before eating.

As Paul Richards and Daniel Cohen point out on the African Arguments blog, understanding infection risk in context is essential, and this requires detailed insights into what people do where and why. In Africa it is not meat packing plants or care homes where concentrated transmissions occur, but in other settings. In order to shift behaviours and reduce infection, there is a need to know more about – for example – “the way infection hazard is shaped by key ceremonial activities in private spaces.” This means not just relying on the generic ‘science’ and projections from generalised models, or even the direct experiences of elite policymakers in large urban centres, but engaging with those who are confronting the disease, even if at this stage at very low levels. As they comment, it’s imperative to:

involve at-risk communities of all kinds in debate about how to manage the hazards associated with a second wave of the disease in Africa, based on diligent backward contact tracing undertaken while disease circulation remains relatively low. The time to do this work is now.

Only with such engagement and supported by effective testing – as was the case with Ebola in West Africa – will people shift practices, perhaps in quite subtle ways, to prevent disease spreading. The blunt tool of lockdowns and generic health messaging may be increasingly ineffective in a second wave, and more attuned responses will be needed.

Dangers at the borders

As colleagues said, “people are fed up with lockdowns, they don’t know why they are happening”. In the last period, things had got back to a (sort of) normal. Or at least people had found ways of managing the restrictions. Businesses had been re-established, markets had reopened, people were moving about (even if paying bribes to the police at roadblocks), funerals were being held with numbers way beyond the stipulated number, schools were open and mask wearing had become much more casual. The announcement of a new harsh lockdown has been met with dread. People remember the first major lockdown from late March, and cannot afford to return to that situation of extreme hardship.

But notes of caution also come from the border areas, especially in the last weeks. Over the festive period there have been a huge number of returnees from South Africa wanting to visit their relatives and rural homes. The massive queues at the border posts, with traffic jams of 20km or more have been widely reported. Traffic disruption has also occurred further away as police check for COVID test certificates among motorists and truckers.

As we have observed in previous blogs, migrants have invested in their rural homes during the pandemic, and have opened up fields, moving members of their families to these homes and away from towns in Zimbabwe or South Africa. Some villagers have been complaining that grazing areas are becoming short as so much land once fallow (and so available for grazing) has been ploughed this year, spurred on by the very good rains. There is now more movement and mixing with migrants from elsewhere, and especially around holiday times.

With the main border posts highly congested, others have resorted to illegal crossings. The Limpopo is flowing due to plentiful rains and normal crossings on foot are not passable. Boat operators have sprung up using large inflatables, with crossings costing Rand 200 per head. Huge numbers of people cross each day – around 150 per boat – along with goods and supplies, and sometimes even vehicles. Soldiers and border security forces are paid off, and a lucrative transport business has emerged, alongside other activities including supplying food to travellers. These crossings are taken by those without the full paperwork and who cannot pay for the U$50 cost of a COVID test. No doubt viruses along with people and goods are being imported too.

What next?

To date, the rural areas of Zimbabwe have yet to experience the direct impact of the disease, and only the consequences of lockdowns. This may yet change. In the coming weeks, we will continue to monitor the situation in our study areas. How will they cope with the new lockdowns? Will the second wave hit the rural areas this time? What strategies are being used to respond locally, with they remain effective even with greater transmissibility of the virus? Before the next update report, next week the blog will look more broadly at the debate about lockdowns and their politics.

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

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo and Mwenezi. Image credit: NewZimbabwe.com

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Zimbabweland’s 2020 wrap-up

2020 has been quite a year in Zimbabwe and across the world. The blog has had two major series of posts, and this wrap-up features both – now with the links all working.

One series has followed the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe, and particularly the consequences of lockdown in rural areas. The blogs are based on discussions with our team based across the country – from Mwenezi to Matobo to Masvingo to Gutu to Mvurwi. The pandemic measures have radically reshaped the rural economy, with diverse impacts on different people. Heavy-handed clamp-downs have combined with (as ever) plenty of innovation and adaptation as people find ways of surviving. Luckily, despite dismal predictions, Zimbabwe has as yet not been heavily affected by the disease, a pattern seen in many parts of Africa. Why this is will be the focus of continuing discussion in the new year when this series will continue.

2020 has also seen the 20th anniversary of the fast-track land reform. Our surveys across Masvingo province have continued throughout the 20 years, documenting how livelihood changed in this turbulent period in Zimbabwe’s history, where economic collapse, political chaos and continuous sanctions preventing investment by Western development agencies have persisted. The other major blog series this year therefore presents of the results of our longitudinal studies looking at what has happened in A2 medium-scale farms, A1 self-contained, villagised and informal settlements across Masvingo. The story is fascinating yet complex, and the blogs present much data to show how there have been both important successes, but also major challenges.

Links to the two blog series are presented below. Additional themes discussed this year include commentary on the important compensation deal signed between former white commercial farmers, yet another blog on land tenure (given the on-going intransigence of the debate) and one on conservation and development in the Lowveld. A new paper on the history of commercial farming in Mvurwi was also highlighted.

As ever the blog has been widely read across the world, with many thousands of views, multiple subscribers and plenty of reposts, notably in The Zimbabwean and Chronicle newspapers. The blog will return in the new year with more evidence-based research and comment on agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe and beyond. 

COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe: a blog series

Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy, Nov 9

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“Know your epidemic”: Reflections from Zimbabwe, Sep 27

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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe, Sep 7

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Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe, Jul 27

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’, Jun 15

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers, Apr 27

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Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essential, Mar 30

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Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: a blog series

20 years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: what does the future hold? Jun 29

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (summary and reflection), Jun 22

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A2 areas), Jun 8

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 informal settlements), Jun 1

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 villagised areas), May 25

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 self-contained areas), May 18

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on: Introduction to the blog series,May 11

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

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Zimbabweland’s 2020 wrap-up

2020 has been quite a year in Zimbabwe and across the world. The blog has had two major series of posts, and this wrap-up features both – now with the links all working.

One series has followed the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe, and particularly the consequences of lockdown in rural areas. The blogs are based on discussions with our team based across the country – from Mwenezi to Matobo to Masvingo to Gutu to Mvurwi. The pandemic measures have radically reshaped the rural economy, with diverse impacts on different people. Heavy-handed clamp-downs have combined with (as ever) plenty of innovation and adaptation as people find ways of surviving. Luckily, despite dismal predictions, Zimbabwe has as yet not been heavily affected by the disease, a pattern seen in many parts of Africa. Why this is will be the focus of continuing discussion in the new year when this series will continue.

2020 has also seen the 20th anniversary of the fast-track land reform. Our surveys across Masvingo province have continued throughout over 20 years, documenting how livelihood changed in this turbulent period in Zimbabwe’s history, where economic collapse, political chaos and continuous sanctions preventing investment by Western development agencies have persisted. The other major blog series this year therefore presents of the results of our longitudinal studies looking at what has happened in A2 medium-scale farms, A1 self-contained, villagised and informal settlements across Masvingo. The story is fascinating yet complex, and the blogs present much data to show how there have been both important successes, but also major challenges.

Links to the two blog series are presented below. Additional themes discussed this year include commentary on the important compensation deal signed between former white commercial farmers, yet another blog on land tenure (given the on-going intransigence of the debate) and one on conservation and development in the Lowveld. A new paper on the history of commercial farming in Mvurwi was also highlighted.

As ever the blog has been widely read across the world, with many thousands of views, multiple subscribers and plenty of reposts, notably in The Zimbabwean and Chronicle newspapers. The blog will return in the new year with more evidence-based research and comment on agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe and beyond. 

COVID-19 in Zimbabwe: a blog series

Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy, Nov 9

“Know your epidemic”: Reflections from Zimbabwe, Sep 27

Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe, Sep 7

Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe, Jul 27

COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’, Jun 15

COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers, Apr 27

Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essential, Mar 30

Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: a blog series

20 years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: what does the future hold? Jun 29

Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (summary and reflection), Jun 22

Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A2 areas), Jun 8

Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 informal settlements), Jun 1

Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 villagised areas), May 25

Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 self-contained areas), May 18

Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on: Introduction to the blog series, May 11

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

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Unequal land, unequal societies

A really important report from the International Land Coalition and Oxfam is just out calledUneven Ground: Land Inequality at the Heart of Unequal Societies’, along with 17 supporting papers. Through new analysis it shows that land inequality is even larger than previously thought, and that this has dramatic effects on poor people’s livelihoods, particularly those of women and young people.

In the rhetoric around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) there’s lots of talk about rising inequality, and pleas to ‘leave no one behind’, but most discussion barely touches on land, despite land access being vital for so many people’s lives. The corporate-driven concentration of land holding has been well researched around discussions of the ‘land grab’, but this report goes further, digging into the dynamics of inequality and how changes in the agri-food system are driving it.

New analysis, dramatic conclusions

The report adopts a new methodology for exploring land inequalities, taking account not just of patterns of land holding and farm size, but the significance of multiple holdings across a corporate portfolio, land value and the presence of landless people. This shifts the metric dramatically, highlighting levels of hidden inequality so far not exposed.

The report estimates that there are around 608 million farms in the world with most being small family farms. But it is the largest 1% of farm operations that make use of more than 70% of the world’s farmland, and these are linked into global, corporate led food systems that in turn support this inequality. The 80% of farms that are smallholdings of under two hectares are by contrast excluded from the benefits of such markets. The report’s extended analysis of land value shows how, “the wealthiest 10% of rural populations across the sampled countries capture 60% of agricultural land value, while the poorest 50% of rural populations, who are generally more dependent on agriculture, capture only 3% of land value.”

Patterns vary across the world of course, but levels of land inequality are high everywhere and are rising. Not surprisingly, land inequality is particularly high in Latin America, the US and parts of Europe, where smallholder farming has all but disappeared in many farming areas. The UK is of course a stark example, and has been discussed on this blog before (see here and here).

In Asia, the huge numbers of smallholders make inequality measures just of land holdings less high, but when you take account of the equally huge numbers of landless people, then the measure changes quite dramatically. Under any measure, patterns of land inequality are not as high in Africa, but they are rising. And the post 2007-08 land grab documented widely shows how land investments were concentrated in Africa with, according to the Land Matrix, 42% of deals across 10 million hectares over a decade. As countries seek out investment, especially in cash-strapped, debt-ridden post-COVID-19 times, the temptation to allocate notionally ‘empty’ or ‘idle’ land is high. Combine this with corrupt governance practices with deals to be made with politicians and others, the likelihood of the land grab accelerating again is high.

Focusing exclusively on ‘farms’ and ‘holdings’ of course misses key populations making use of land that do not use land in this way. This is a gap in an otherwise good report. Whether shifting cultivators, hunter-gatherers or pastoralists, such populations typically suffer the brunt of land expropriation. The inequality is just as keenly felt, but it is not measured in terms of the metrics used here.

Redistribution and development

The report has a lot of good recommendations, although none of them are that new. Good land governance, land taxation, effective land registries, corporate and investor accountability, protecting the commons and women’s land rights, building sustainable and equitable production and food systems, encouraging inclusive value chains and so on have all long been talked about. But the big question is of course the political economy of inequality: why is that such a pattern is acceptable? Why isn’t redistribution at the centre of the sustainable development agenda? The report unfortunately is rather quiet on this.

The period of the great land reforms in the 1960s and 70s resulted in major decreases in land inequality. As the report shows, these gains have been massively reversed since. Through various examples, cautionary tales are told – for example of Ecuador – where land reforms occurred only to be reversed by land consolidation and the extension of large-scale capitalist farming.

The report however is seemingly rather equivocal on redistribution, saying land reforms can be unsettling, redistributive policies have to be ‘aligned’ to socio-economic goals and that when post-land reform support limited (as is frequently the case), this can undermine the benefits leading to reconcentration subsequently. But land redistribution surely must be a major response to land inequality, even if (of course) inequalities in the wider agro-food systems must be addressed also. So it was a bit disappointing that the report was a little coy on the subject.

There are many possibilities for land redistribution and shifts in its use. And this is not just in the so-called ‘developing world’. For example, the Downland Estate around Brighton in the UK is owned by the city council and is leased out to tenant farmers. They have continued to consolidate land into larger chunks, expanding arable farming and reducing access land through hunting/pheasant enclosures. But moves are afoot, pushed by citizen alliances in the city and beyond, to regulate land use differently, and allow smaller scale farm holdings to be allocated as tenancies, helping to transform the local food system and local livelihoods, widening access, as well as improving environmental care. If rethinking land and its use is possible in the UK, surely it must be possible elsewhere. The report could have been more ambitious in my view.

Missing the Zimbabwe experience

Rather surprisingly, Zimbabwe is not mentioned at all in the report. Still too much of a hot potato even for the ILC and Oxfam maybe? As the most significant land redistribution of the past several decades, it surely offers important lessons. A massively unequal land holding system was redistributed with mixed effects – many positive, some negative – as discussed on this blog multiple times. In many respects, especially through the transfer of land to smallholders, Zimbabwe implemented what the report is arguing for, offering a new trajectory for agrarian development.

In Zimbabwe, as has been seen again and again elsewhere, the failure to provide the needed supportive infrastructure of investment, regulation, taxation, land administration and so on may potentially undermine the gains of land reform, as this blog has long argued. And if the pressures of capital are the same as elsewhere, the process of land grabbing of extensive areas taken by smallholders will be an issue to look out for.

Zimbabwe is broke and claims it is ‘open for business’ and, with a deeply corrupt polity, the conditions are right for a dangerous reversal of land reform in the name of ‘investment’. Indeed, on the margins of the country this is already happening, whether in quasi-privatised national parks or in new investments in commercial agriculture.

Land and power

The report concludes that “reversing land inequality to any significant extent will require a deep transformation in power relations. Solutions will require major changes in political, economic, and legal norms. They will require action that strikes at the root of what makes societies and economies unequal and unsustainable”. Absolutely. But, as the Zimbabwe experience has shown, this will require more than just ‘inclusive processes’ and ‘involving civil society’.

Challenging inequality is a struggle against powerful interests, and redistribution always affects the powerful – which is of course why it often doesn’t happen. Moving beyond the easy rhetoric about inequality being at the heart of the SDGs and central for tackling sustainability and development together, land must be at the centre of this inevitably political struggle.

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

Image credit: International Land Coalition

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Land and compensation in Zimbabwe: frequently asked questions

The debate about compensation of former white farmers in Zimbabwe continues to rage. The compensation agreement signed in July agreed a total amount of US$3.5 billion to pay for ‘improvements’ to the land that was expropriated. After 20 years of discussion, this was a major step forward. However, there seem to be multiple positions on the agreement and little consensus, along with much misunderstanding. However, some things are happening, and a joint resource mobilisation committee has been established with technical support from the World Bank and others.

Since my earlier blog on this subject, I have been asked many questions. Below are some of the frequently asked questions, and the responses I have offered (sorry, a bit long, but it’s complex). Although there are many remaining doubts and concerns, it remains my view that now is the time (tentatively and carefully) to move forward.

How is the money going to be raised? This is the big one. All sorts of ideas have been floated, but given the state of Zimbabwe’s economy and the lack of trust in the current government, it’s going to be tough. Some significant moves towards the demanded political reforms (also central to the Constitution) will be a prerequisite for any substantial debt deals with the international financial institutions. And with the whole world in debt and with economies depressed due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not a good time to raise such amounts of money, even with novel bond instruments being suggested by some. However, there are other routes to paying off at least some compensation amounts that don’t involve raising huge sums in uncertain international markets – and at least getting the process started. As discussed below, revenue raised from land taxation, leveraged funds through bankable leases, joint venture arrangements, land swaps and donor investment in public goods could all contribute to elements of the compensation – perhaps quite a lot. A fund that held such revenues – a simpler mechanism than a frequently-touted land bank – could in turn be the vehicle for both paying compensation and also investing in agricultural recovery. Overall, if some progress is made, signalling a willingness to continue the process in good faith, there will be possibilities for further dialogue and new international market financing options down the line. There has to be a way out of the impasse, but it requires all parties to engage, and it will take time, but it’s the direction of movement that’s critical. The South Africans and the wider SADC community of nations can help with this, as can wider friends and allies of Zimbabwe, including the Chinese together with Western nations.

The compensation is only for improvements, what about the land? The painstaking calculation of the value of fixed improvements on farms taken over by land reform came to an agreed figure of US$ 3.5 billion. It is imprecise but it is important, as for the first time an agreement between the parties was reached. Paying it all in full and within expected timeframes will almost certainly be impossible. But the important thing is to show that the Zimbabwean government is serious and payments for improvements flow faster than before. But some argue that this is not enough and another equivalent amount will be needed to pay for the land. This runs against the cross-party agreement in the 2013 Constitution, approved in a national referendum, where compensation for land is only offered to land held under investment treaties (BIPPA farms) and, reflecting a deeply-problematic racial bias in the provision, ‘indigenous Zimbabweans’. While the Constitution points to the former colonial power as the potential payer of compensation for most land acquired during the land reform, no one – neither the Zimbabwean state nor the British – expect this to be realised. This was formulaic political positioning, seen as rhetoric rather than any real expectation. Yet some, referring to various court rulings, still think this is a possibility, and the lobbying of the UK government on this continues. To my mind, this is an unfortunate diversion, and is a route to the sabotage of the carefully agreed Constitutionally-aligned deal. Continuing to debate wider compensation for land gives credence to a view that has since been abandoned by the pragmatists. US$ 3.5 billion is a lot of money, and paying it would be a signal that this phase of Zimbabwe’s history is over.   

How can donor financing of compensation be focused on public goods in A1 areas? In the absence of a wider deal with full financing at least for now, how could some steps towards addressing compensation be initiated? As discussed before on this blog, breaking down the payments into different elements is the first step. Disaggregation between A1 and A2 areas is crucial. Within each area further disaggregation is required between payments for items that have become public goods (farmhouses that are now schools or clinics for example, or dams irrigation systems that are now jointly used by multiple smallholders) and those that remain private. The public good elements could be part of a major public, donor-supported investment in infrastructure development, including rehabilitation of such assets. Mostly in the A1 areas, these could be part of an aid programme supported by donors and international finance institutions as part of a commitment to rehabilitating the productive economy and addressing poverty and food insecurity. This may end up being a quite large proportion of the funding. With compensation payments being made – yes incrementally over years – the designation of fast-track resettlements as ‘contested areas’ would be removed, and donor support for basic development and humanitarian aid in a the fast-track resettlements could commence. This would address long-standing issues of development, including schooling and health that have been denied to residents for 20 years due to international agencies’ ‘restrictive measures’.

What about private financing of compensation payments for improvements in A2 areas? Private payments towards farm improvements is in my view a perfectly legitimate expectation of A2 farmers who have acquired larger farms and inherited improvements, including houses, fixed equipment, dams, roads and so on. Now surely is the time to establish a system of land taxation, appropriate to the natural region and the expectations of production from a particular farm. This would contribute in part to paying off compensation owings over the coming 30 years or so and would also providing ongoing financing for the necessary land administration system – of audit, land registration/lease issuing and so on – that must accompany any formalisation of compensation and shifts in legal ownership. A taxation system would also provide incentives to invest in A2 farms, some of which have lain idle, while also flushing out those who are holding land simply for speculation. It will not be popular, and some of course will find ways of not paying it, but partial private financing of compensation and agricultural recovery will offer an important message for wider financing.

What about former farm workers? This is an important question, but the Constitutional arrangements that the deed addresses deal only with compensation for land improvements. A separate arrangement is needed to ensure that former farm workers get a fair deal after the land reform. There were around 300,000 workers working on commercial farms at land reform. However, it’s important to get the numbers right. Only half of these were permanent workers, and so on salaried arrangements with accommodation and/or other benefits; the rest were temporary workers moving to and from their own homes and so outside legal obligations for compensation for being laid off. The 150,000 odd permanent workers were supposed to have been paid salaries owed and some form or redundancy payment when farms were taken over. Ensuring that this was paid by the former farm owners should certainly be a condition of any payment of compensation. Any owings due could be removed from the payment and distributed to listed workers. The approximately 40,000 former workers who were displaced in situ are perhaps the most vulnerable group of those workers who lost out due to land reform. A focused development effort is required to support their livelihoods, including land allocation, improving accommodation conditions and assuring worker rights in the new land reform farms. While essential, this wider development challenge is another issue, separate from the compensation arrangements, but must follow on from it as a key aspect of post land reform development efforts by government and development partners.  

If donors invest in land reform areas won’t this all go to party cronies and the military? This is a line that I have heard from some, reflecting the (still) poor understanding of land reform distribution. Noone denies that patronage has been important in allocating land, and continues to be so under the new dispensation as political scores are settled through reallocating land. However, this is concentrated almost exclusively in the A2 areas, where public investment in paying for infrastructure as improvements would not be focused (see above). A1 areas were occupied largely by poor and marginalised people from communal areas and the unemployed from towns. Yes there were war veterans involved, but many of them were poor communal farmers too, and had been for 20 years. Of course after the invasions the ruling party has made use of its capital, sometimes by force, in the new resettlement areas to exert its power. But this doesn’t mean that all A1 farmers are party followers; they may ‘perform ZANU-PF’ in order to get by, but many are extremely critical of the lack of state commitment to post land reform support and are very critical of the party-state. And even within the A2 areas, not everyone is a ‘crony’ as is sometimes suggested. Far from it. Depending on which part of the country, the proportion is limited, perhaps 20 percent at the most. For this reason targeting public aid investments can maintain the position of ‘restrictive measures’ (aka sanctions), avoiding direct support to party officials and the military, and so not contradicting the demand for political reform and the tackling of corruption and party-military patronage.

Isn’t all this a gambit by ZANU-PF to gain credibility? Yes of course it is, but it also represents a commitment to at least one part of the Constitution, agreed across all parties, and a commitment to reengagement. As a move by the technocrats within the party, led by Mthuli Ncube and others in the Finance Ministry, it’s a last ditch attempt as the economy sinks even further following the pandemic to gain recognition and pursue dialogue with international partners, particularly in the West. The opposition have rejected the move as they want wider regime change and the Western diplomatic community as ever are hedging. It’s a difficult call, but given that the compensation issue – largely raised as a key condition by Western governments under lobbying pressure from white former farmers – has held up economic development for 20 years, rejecting it now seems self-defeating. Caution is required, but failing to grasp an opportunity now opens up more dangers of an extended impasse, deepening poverty and the likelihood of more regressive forces making their move in Zimbabwe’s factional politics.

Won’t the compensation deal open up the opportunity for land grabbing and speculative investment? With compensation paid and land transferred formally and no longer ‘contested’, this does open up new opportunities. While there are dangers of unscrupulous investors, land grabbing by elites and land speculation emerging, these are all issues that an effective land administration system can deal with. Land is still held by the state so a free-for-all land market can be avoided, while checks and balances should emerge through an effective land audit, cadastral survey, land registration (through permits and leases with conditions) and a land taxation system. Zimbabwe is far away from this now, which is why I have long argued for compensation to be seen as one part of wider land administration system, which could be tested then rolled out on a district-by-district basis. Dangers accepted, there are also positive opportunities that emerge from the releasing the impasse of ‘contested areas’. With clarity of ownership and use, leases and permits can then become vehicles for raising funds through the banking system and other investors will be more interested in joint ventures and contract farming arrangements of different sorts, with much-needed capital investment following. This may allow opportunities for former white farmers to rejoin the farming community on a new basis, but now with security and clarity. Equally, external investors – whether from China, Germany or Britain – may at last see investment in Zimbabwean agriculture, across the value chain, as a viable option, providing impetus to the rehabilitation especially of A2 farms. There are two sides to any coin and with the right safeguards, with a substantial investment in land administration – another area where external donor funding and expertise can pay dividends for wider development – the prospects for investment and growth could be substantially enhanced.

Where next? The need for a pragmatic politics

There is a lot of technical work ahead to make the compensation arrangement work, whether around systems of international financing or debt restructuring or around the mechanisms of payment by farmers for private goods and by donors and the government for public goods. It requires some painstaking work assessing different farms and defining the pattern of payment required, as well as setting up funding mechanisms to make it happen. If land taxation and payment of dues to workers are to be conditions respectively for A2 farmers and for ex-commercial farmers, this will require some hard bargaining, as well as some robust systems for checking compliance. But all this is possible: if there is a will, there is a way.

For starters, there are some clear low-risk opportunities for international partners to engage with – around paying for improvements through an infrastructure rehabilitation programme in the A1 areas; through setting up a functioning land taxation system or through establishing an effective land administration system to allow investment to flow. These are all good bets, technically-focused and uncontroversial, yet important for much-needed development. With such public and aid commitments, then other private investments will be encouraged, either through taxation systems or through external investment into the sector.

With the opposition crying foul, the Western donors and diplomats prevaricating, some white ex-farmers remaining vocal critics and demanding compensation for land too and the more radical elements in the ruling party and beyond suggesting that this is selling out to the colonisers, gaining a political consensus around this is going to be hard. It will require some hard-nosed pragmatic politics, focused on rebuilding the economy and constructing a platform for on-going dialogue and reform. If this breaks the 20 year impasse on land and the economy this could still be a major breakthrough for development, one that could improve the lot of all Zimbabweans now and for the longer term.

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

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