Land invasions in Zimbabwe: a complex story

The Land Reform Deception: Political Opportunism in Zimbabwe’s Land Seizure Era by Charles Laurie, is now out in paperback. The book delves into the period of Zimbabwe’s land invasions from 2000. It is based on lots of in-depth interviews from a whole array of people – from dispossessed farmers to former farm workers to politicians to security service operatives.

The empirical sections of the book demonstrate how the land invasions were not a pre-meditated plan by President Mugabe, and that they evolved in ways beyond the control of the state and party. The confusion, contradictions and ambiguities come across very well in the interviews and through the data. As so many have said before, it was not a simple story, and one that certainly varied across the country, often between neighbouring farms.

This textured approach provides a counter to the simplistic tales often told. Yet, despite the richness of the empirical material and the extraordinary access that Laurie gained across a range of actors, the book is driven by an overarching narrative that once again distorts and simplifies. The publicity blurb gives a hint:

“[Land invasions’] soon escalated into an out-of-control frenzy targeting all farms in the country….The state claimed that the seizures were carried out in response to a public cry for land redistribution and to rectify colonial-era injustices, but the move was economically and socially disastrous for the country. Land was distributed to those with little or no farming experience, and, as a result, agricultural output contracted and inflation and unemployment rose dramatically.”

Why would the state target its own dominant agricultural industry using such violent and illegal methods?, Laurie asks. He points to patronage and corruption among a political elite “the land seizures were carried out by high-ranking officials, mostly veterans of the national war for independence, for financial and political gain.”

This narrative, much of it framed around a critique of the work of people like myself, Sam Moyo and others who have studied the land reform process, detracts from the rest of the book, where there’s lots of useful and intriguing data. Sadly only seen through one rather distorted lens, it does not get a thorough treatment, but as a book from a PhD thesis the data is all laid out nicely, so alternative interpretations are possible; it just requires more work, and ignoring some of the text.

While the book was only published in 2016, most of the data comes from around 2005. Some of the claims made – including by Stephen Chan in the foreword – that studies of land reform in Zimbabwe are narrow and limited could not be made today. Just look at some of the fantastic research covered in the previous blogs in this series[ all in different ways adding to but broadly corroborating the arguments made by Sam Moyo, Prosper Matondi and myself and team over the years.

The myths trotted out – on post land reform production, farm worker displacement and so on – in setting up the book have long been addressed. This makes the book’s driving argument seem rather dated. Much has happened in the 13 years since. This I guess is one of the frustrations of the long PhD then protracted publishing process. It takes so long, and things change.

So this book has to be read with caution, and the wider framing and driving narrative laid aside in favour of the detailed information on farm occupations, violence and eviction. It needs to be seen as an historical account on those years around 2000, from the vantage point of the mid-2000s. For in 2005, the farmers interviewed and surveyed had recently been removed, and the distress and outrage is clear, clearing affecting their responses (many from positions of deep denial and now dispossessed rural white privilege, as discussed in the last blog in this review series).

An important contribution, following others, derived from interviews with a range of well-placed informants, is the view that the invasions got ‘out-of-hand’ and were not meant to go beyond a few demonstrations, responding the constitutional referendum defeat. This lends support to the argument that this was neither an instrumentalised political project led from the top nor a bottom up revolution mobilised from below, but a mixture of the two. It also questions the argument that there was limited demand for land (as suggested by a Gallup poll from 2000 that is favourably quoted), because so many got involved in the land invasions all over the country.

This highly varied and often chaotic dynamic of land invasions (seizures in the language of the book) also challenges the argument that whole thing was a ‘deception’, as suggested in the title. The book rather contradictorily insists that the land reform was only driven by the interests of a desperate political elite willing to sabotage the agricultural industry for personal gain. While of course not denying that political aims and patronage gains were part of the story, the account of contingent and specific events beyond the control of anyone, is to my mind much more convincing, and reflective of the our research experiences in Masvingo for example.

The book correctly makes the case for looking at a detailed timeline of invasion and eviction for each area, even each farm, emphasising the sequencing of who was involved, and who gained what, when. This is vital, and a point made in our writing before, but with different conclusions. What this book, as so many other studies, fails to do though is to distinguish the early invasions of what became A1 land and the land acquisitions that followed (often up to two years later) through the allocation of A2 land. The composition of invaders and those who gained land through the often corrupt A2 allocation process is massively different, and explains some of the confusion about the role of ‘cronies’, repeated again here.

The detailed mapping data on violence from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (of various sorts, ranging from disruption and low level disruption to intimidation to physical attacks, so a hugely varied category; see earlier blog) and eviction patterns are particularly interesting. While most accounts focus on violence and threat, this varied hugely over time and space, and did not relate straightforwardly to patterns of eviction. Very often other things intervened. Multiple financial and social pressures were the most common reason for farmers to leave the land, the book explains. The tactics of land invaders and state agents to facilitate land expropriation offer some important insights into how particular farms and farmers were targeted and how mobilisation for agrarian reform took place.

There is an inevitable regional bias in the accounts in this book, as it’s focused very much on Mashonaland Central and a limited sample of farmers. Here, for example, asset stripping was far more significant than in Masvingo or Matabeleland, as there was valuable equipment to acquire. The proximity to Harare and the particularities of local politics of course meant another dynamic, with more senior officials connected to the party or the security services present. But just dismissing the rest of the country as outlier regions, not relevant to the land reform story rather misses the point. The struggle over land had regional and local characteristics, but it was nationwide. These differences are important in explaining the bigger story; something missed by the book in its somewhat desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to show the land reform always in a bad light.

The book concludes by arguing that the research by Sam Moyo, myself and others is “problematic in various ways”, that it is “far too generalised and optimistic”, although Laurie concedes that “small-scale producers can – in some select cases – make up some ground for specific commodities”. He concedes too that “smallholder operations will remain central for food production and for employment”, but, he says – displaying biases yet again – “in the long term the country will once again shift toward a reliance on commercial farming”. And in support of this argument he enlists the World Bank, which he says “believes that a business-focused, commercially motivated agriculture is a necessity for countries like Zimbabwe”.

The book claims to present “a balanced enquiry into the land seizure era”. Well I am afraid I beg to differ, but it’s still definitely worth a read, if you can peel away the biases of the framing narrative and get to the detail, much of which is important and fascinating.

This is the ninth in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

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

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Zimbabwe’s 2018 election: what do the manifestos say about land?

The Zimbabwe election has been set for July 30, and some of the manifestos have been published. What do they say about land and agriculture? There are many parties standing and plenty of independents, but only two parties count: ZANU-PF, led by E.D. Mnangagwa and the MDC Alliance, led by Nelson Chamisa.

The ZANU-PF manifesto runs to only 25 pages (although it says it’s a summary, but I cannot find anything longer), while the MDC Alliance one is 106 pages long. I put both into Wordle and these are the word clouds produced.

In many respects the basics are very similar. Lots of talk of growth, change, investment, delivery, with help being offered to nearly every sector of society. There are grand plans for technology and infrastructure, and all the rest of the fairly predictable, but in practice very unlikely to be implemented, manifesto fare.

ZANU-PF makes much of its liberation credentials and its ‘unparalleled achievements’, although there’s little mention of former President Mugabe, except in a telling of the glorious history of President Mnangagwa. The MDC manifesto is much more comprehensive and professional, even adorned with expensive Shutterstock photos, all imagining a new, tech-driven,  modern future. There’s only one mention of the notorious bullet train, referred to now as ‘super-fast railway wagons’, and no mention of its speed. God features in both manifestos, but especially in Chamisa’s foreword, which refers to an ’empathetic, God fearing and God loving leadership’ of the MDC.

So what of land? Both manifestos reiterate the ‘irreversibility’ of the land reform (p.20/p.47). ZANU-PF not surprisingly celebrates the land reform, while the MDC deploys the familiar narrative, referring to it as ‘chaotic and poorly planned’, destroying agriculture in the country (p.55). Both manifestos commit to new systems of land administration, executing an audit, removing illegal multiple ownership, implementing farm size ceilings and guaranteeing the Constitutional commitments to support a Land Commission and so on. So nothing new here, and all consistent with current policy.

While not reversing land reform, and being committed to a smallholder base for agriculture, the MDC Alliance manifesto has a surprising paragraph in a section on housing (p. 67) that claims that a new government will ‘liberate’ 2 million hectares from the land reform programme areas, handing this over to local authorities. This represents around a quarter of all land allocated during the Fast-Track Land Reform programme, and it is unclear how this will be achieved.

Both manifestos, perhaps especially the ZANU-PF one, focus on youth and women, and the need to gain access to land. Through this the gender dimensions and the cross-generational questions of land are highlighted, but few solutions are offered beyond training, business hubs and so on in either manifesto.

More differences come when plans for tenure reform are mentioned. ZANU-PF sticks to existing policy, with renewed commitment to increase security of tenure, and issue 99 year leases for A2 farms, linked to a releasing finance through collateral security. The MDC Alliance manifesto by contrast is rather confusing. There is a lot of bluster when describing the ‘transformation markers’ and the ‘smart’ agriculture plan (p.26 and p.45, for example) about the importance of a land market and land titling, claiming that this will create security of tenure and open up finance opportunities (a controversial position not supported by international evidence), but then in other places it suggests that there will be a mix of titles, leases and occupation certificates as part of a seemingly more complex response.

MDC Alliance plans for tenure reform extend to the communal areas, where there are plans to issue transferable ‘occupation certificates’ to all communal area farmers, issued by the devolved district administration and overseen by traditional leadership. Quite how this will work is anyone’s guess, and the consequences of an accelerated land market in the communal areas will throw up all sorts of problems.

Both manifestos also  have big ambitions for agriculture, seen as central to economic growth, attracting business and creating, in the MDC’s words a 100 billion dollar economy.  There is the usual mix of irrigation investments, input supply, service support and so on, but again little detail on how, where, when and who pays.

While ZANU-PF commits to continue ‘command agriculture’, the Alliance says it will abolish it and replace it with ‘smart agriculture’. For the MDC everything is smart, while ZANU-PF it’s all command policies. Yet for agriculture and more generally, both show a  commitment to a style of democratic developmentalism, as well as a strong dose of technological optimism (one of the MDC’s photos linked to text on agriculture shows a drone spraying crops). And plenty of neoliberal investment-friendly policies are scattered around both manifestos to attract the donors and investors.

For both, Zimbabwe is definitely open for business, to use ED’s overused phrase, and corrupt practices, it is claimed, will be stamped out. The MDC Alliance offers more details on how this will be done with a new culture of government, and a lean and professional bureaucracy.

Noone knows what the election outcome will be. This time the elections are being fought in quite different circumstances. While there remain problems with the electoral roll, there has been electioneering in the rural areas by all parties. There have been large crowds gathering for both the MDC Alliance and ZANU-PF. Who knows if it is the free t-shirts and food, or real interest. I doubt many will bother to read the manifestos.

Yet this time around there is certainly a live debate and two very different presidential candidates, spanning generations. Recent opinion polls suggest that Mnangagwa has the edge in the presidential poll, but it may go to the second round. In the parliamentary and local elections there are more independent candidates than previously adding an interesting local complexion, and if the primaries for both main parties are anything to go by there are important local contests too.

Assuming the mass of international election observers judge the polling to be ‘free and fair’, we will know the result in August or September. Whoever takes control, land and agriculture are certainly going to be high on the agenda.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: The Zimbabwean

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Race and privilege in Zimbabwe: a rural and urban divide

A recent paper in Africa by Rory Pilossof and Jacob Boersema offers a nuanced and differentiated account of ‘white’ attitudes to land reform. Distinguishing urban-based whites and ‘farmers’ (although recognising the blurring and connection between the two), they highlight that there was not a simple racialised solidarity in the face of the land invasions.

Interviewing urban whites, they surprisingly found limited sympathy for the plight of the farmers. Their informants argued that farmers had “retained their power, settler identity and colonial attitudes” and “had called the attacks upon themselves”. While white owners of businesses in town were worried that the invasions might spread and affect their properties, this in the end did not happen (although ‘indigenisation’ policies certainly caused some problems).

One urban informant thought that “the suffering of white farmers was overplayed, particularly internationally. He argued that the farmers used their white privilege to mobilize international sympathy, while at the same time bringing the whole white community into disrepute for drawing attention to whites and (inadvertently) to their continued privileged position in the country. He also contended that farmers were not the only ones put under pressure in the years following 2000. Civil servants, opposition supporters, unemployed workers, the urban lower class and evicted farm workers also faced hardships.”

The paper notes that “White farmers certainly suffered… but their wealth also assured them relative comfort after their evictions. Urban whites claimed that many farmers maintained a comfortable lifestyle due to the wealth they had accrued as farmers.” The paper argues that “urban [white] privilege has remained invisible because white Zimbabweans and white privilege are imagined to be connected to the land and to being a farmer”. Maintaining this stereotype of course helped to conceal the on-going benefits of white urban privilege, which had remained intact through this turbulent time.

The paper observes that urban whites “still defend their privilege, although in a different way than the farmers do: not by denial but by naturalizing it or by pointing to the new black elite”. A greater reflexive awareness of privilege was seen among the interviewees, a direct result of the post 2000 situation. While racialised tropes are still trotted out, particularly by the older generation, an appreciation of the impacts of race, class and white privilege was evident amongst others, even if defended and legitimised.

Given the often simplistic, essentialised and racialised accounts of Zimbabwe’s recent history, this paper is extremely useful. Not all whites are the same (of course). As has been pointed out many times, ‘rural’ whites (farmers) were not uniform either, with different groupings associated with the CFU, JAG or independent. As the outcomes of land reform show, the attitudes of different farmers to their workers and surrounding communities over time had a huge impact on how land invasions played out initially, even if land was later acquired by those distant from local political accommodations.

The international media wanted a good vs bad, white vs black story grossly simplifying a complex situation. Stereotyped heroes and villains were presented alongside the highly selective media imagery of violence and chaos. These misleading simplifications of course helped no-one, except perhaps a few journalist hacks and newspaper editors looking for racially-inflected copy from the ‘dark continent’.

This manufacturing of a storyline of course helped push both Mugabe/ZANU-PF and the British government into extreme positions, peaking under Tony Blair’s premiership, when he was rumoured to have threatened armed intervention by the former colonial power on behalf of beleaguered whites (confirmed again by Thabo Mbeki in a recent interview). No wonder many whites in Zimbabwe thought this was the worst sort of ill-informed ‘diplomacy’ from the mother country.

Given the diversity of perspectives seen across informants, and the political imperative to move beyond these racially divided positions, the paper concludes with a challenge: “Whites will need to move beyond acknowledgement, become less defensive, and take more robust steps to undo the advantages they have enjoyed.”

38 years after Independence, this is rather a shocking indictment of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial story.

This is the eighth in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

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

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Labour and Zimbabwe’s new agrarian structure

Walter Chambati, acting director of the Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies, has probably contributed more than anyone to our understanding of how wage labour relations have changed following land reform.

His most recent paper, in the Agrarian South special issue dedicated to the life and work of Sam Moyo, makes the case that wage labour exists across farms of all scales in Zimbabwe, and is not the preserve of large-scale capitalist agriculture. Indeed, as processes of differentiation occur in the new resettlement areas, demand for wage labour – often as short-term piecework – has grown.

Based on studies in Goromonzi and Kwekwe in 2006 and 2014, the paper shows the different patterns of labour utilisation across sites and farm types. In Goromonzi and Kwekwe, 87% and 81% of A2 households hired permanent workers, with 5.5 and 2.7 hired on average. In the A1 areas, 32% and 22% households hired permanent labour, with 0.9 and 0.7 workers hired on average. Casual, temporary labour was much more important in the A1 areas, although with greater rates of hiring than nearby communal areas with around 60% of households hiring regularly.

In other words there is a vibrant labour economy in the resettlement areas, but it is highly differentiated. It also varies in terms of the conditions offered. Chambati argues that the focus on ‘work’ as paid wage work may underestimate the extent of labour hiring, as cash wages are combined with in-kind arrangements very often. Yet, he argues such ‘informal’ wage labour has a very different character and conditions of employment compared to the full and part-time labour of the past. He concludes:

“There is continuation of the super-exploitation of agrarian wage labourers that is reflected by the payment of poor wages and differing degrees of the institution of the residential labour tenancy in both the old and new farm compounds. Landlessness and/or land shortage continues to be a key characteristic of farm wage labourers as in the past suggesting the persistence of the labour reserve dynamic.”

This is an important conclusion, with major implications for policy. If land reform has simply replicated the inequalities of the past, but in a new form, then the progressive gains of land redistribution have to be qualified. A key challenge then is to think hard about how labour becomes incorporated into the new agrarian system. Not just in the precarious, temporary, informal ways described in this paper (and seen across our study areas too), but allowing labourers to have rights and so the provision of minimum conditions, as well as rights to land.

This is after all not a simple replication of the old wage labour reserve economy but a new dynamic where wage labour combines with small-scale agriculture, disturbing old class positions and identities. The old ‘farm worker’, trapped in a paternalistic relationship with a large-scale capitalist farmer, is rarer these days; instead those supplying labour to diverse new farms have different livelihood profiles and are constructing new identities, often as ‘worker-peasants’, combining part-time wage work with farming. This dynamic remains poorly understood, and varies dramatically across the country, by gender and age.

Studies of new labour dynamics and the implications for rights, welfare, livelihoods and economy remain priorities for post-land reform research and policy debate. The work of Chambati – alongside Andrew Hartnack, Leila Sinclair-Bright and others – offers some important pointers on the way forward, getting us beyond the unhelpful characterisations of much commentary.

This is the seventh in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

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

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Changing gender relations after land reform

There have been a number of excellent publications on shifts in gender relations after land reform. A piece in Agrarian South by Patience Mutopo, Jeannette Manjengwa and Manase Chiweshe, Shifting Gender Dimensions and Rural Livelihoods after Zimbabwe’s Fast-Track Land Reform Programme, reflected on work in Mwenezi, Mazowe and Chinoyi. Framed within a narrative of ‘re-peasantization’, they conclude:

“The return to the rural areas by women from every class has led to the formation of new agri-business activities among women, which has shaped new social production relations. In so doing, women have also redefined gender roles and household governance, negotiated with patriarchy in establishing niche land-based livelihoods, and created new migration patterns for themselves, where previously they had been confined to the household.”

Based on the early Utete audit report of 2003, only 18 percent of farms in A1 and 12 percent of farms in A2 are held by women. But, as the paper shows, this does not tell the whole story of access. The negotiation of access to land and land-related businesses in the context of patriarchal marriage and community relations has been possible for many (see earlier blogs on this theme, here and here).

Based on research in Mazowe and Goromonzi, Manase Chiweshe, Loveness Chakona and Kirk Heilliker argue in a paper in the Journal of Asian and African Studies that:

“…radical socio-spatial reorganisation such as fast track may destabilise systems of patriarchy. In the case of fast track, there has been a reconfiguration of relations between men and women yet this is uneven and contradictory and remains within the confines of patriarchal structures, practices and discourses. At the same time, women have manoeuvred and negotiated at local levels to enhance their lives and livelihoods.”

Patience Mutopo’s important book, based on extensive fieldwork in Mwenezi, shows this very well, documenting the importance of new migration and trading routes for women, who with access to land (often formally held by husbands) are investing in agricultural and livestock production in this extremely dry part of the country.

In a more recent paper in Africa Review, Sandra Bhatasara and Manase Chiweshe argue that there is a need to go ‘beyond gender’ and the fixation on the survey figures on land holding status. Proposing an ‘intersectionality’ and ‘agency’ perspective, they argue that multiple dimensions of difference interact to determine access, and women, even in constrained settings, can exert agency using a range of approaches, overt and more hidden. It is an approach focused on social relations rather than social status or categories that is advocated. They argue:

“Whilst women appear losers as portrayed in many studies, was it only gender that determined access? What about age, nationality, class, political affiliation and traditional roots among other aspects? How did the 18% quoted in several studies get land? What about married women in this debate? Were women just victims in the FTLRP?”

They conclude that land access needs to be understood within an intersectionality framework, arguing that “women were not merely victims but used versatile tactics and strategies to get land”.

This focus on agency, social relations and multiple, intersecting dimensions of difference seems an important step forward in the on-going debate about gender and land reform, moving beyond the numbers game to a focus on processes by which land access is gained. It does not make the case that all is well. Zimbabwean rural society is extremely patriarchal, with women often excluded and subject to violence, but it opens up more opportunities beyond a victimhood narrative.

This is the sixth in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

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

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The gaze from space: how satellites can deceive

There has been a proliferation of studies using remote sensing analyses of land use in Zimbabwe published recently. I seem to get sent loads to review. One by Simbarashe Jombo, Elhadi Adam and John Odindi came out recently in Land Use Policy. It nicely illustrates the problems with this sort of study.

The paper is based on the analysis of Landsat data at five time intervals from 1992 to 2014 from Chipinge. It boldly proclaims that “deforestation, land degradation, overgrazing, reduced fallow periods and other anthropogenic activities attributed to the FTLRP have led to significant land use and land cover changes”.

Wrapped up in this sentence are a whole set of assumptions. By changing land use through anthropogenic intervention (which after all was what land reform was about), of course landscapes will change. Trees will be cleared to create fields; fallow will reduce, as land use is intensified; and more livestock will make use of the land as farmers invest and accumulate. From the point of view of production efficiency and livelihoods all these changes may be good things. Just observing land use change from space tells us nothing about the outcomes and their positive and negative consequences.

This paper is far from alone in making unfortunate elisions between observations of change to assumptions about implications. It falls into the trap of assuming that all change is bad, and that more people and livestock will inevitably result in ‘overgrazing’ or ‘land degradation’. It may not be the case, as people invest in soil erosion control, plant trees (in new places), and manage livestock in different ways to previously.

I won’t reiterate the old debate about overgrazing and carrying capacity in Zimbabwe, but we have to remember that what is an appropriate stocking rate is in large part an economic and social judgement, not a scientific one. Here’s a paper by me, now nearly 30 years old. I thought we’d got over this by now! As is well demonstrated across semi-arid areas, with flexible movement and opportunistic use of non-equilibrium rangelands permanent degradation (or desertification in other parlance) is unlikely.

So comparing air photos or satellite images of former commercial farms and new resettlements showing one to have more standing biomass and the other less tells us nothing much more than the fact that one has less utilisation than the other. Degradation occurs when the economic value of a resource declines permanently. Evidence of heavy grazing, bare areas and short fallow cultivation cycles don’t prove degradation, as management and inputs may ensure longer term use is sustained.

The myths constructed about land degradation in Africa are legion, and very well documented. The enthusiasm for remote sensing comes in a long line of science deployed for political purposes. Of course this doesn’t mean that land degradation doesn’t happen. We just have to be clear about what we mean by degradation or ‘over’grazing or desertification or deforestation.

I have written before about concerns around deforestation driven by tobacco production and curing in new resettlement areas in Zimbabwe. Unless (as white farmers did from the 1940s) technological developments occur (such as rocket barns and more efficient use of woodfuel for curing), the loss of such woodlands will result in degradation with economic consequences (along with aesthetic and biodiversity losses too).

Equally, intensive use of soils, without attention to soil health, may result in the loss of soil organic matter below a critical threshold, with additions of organic or inorganic fertiliser becoming less effective. With addition of appropriate inputs, a decline in soil nutrients is not a problem per se (this is what cultivation does), the concern is when the efficacy of such inputs declines.

Having established that land use has changed (big surprise!) due to land reform (in all the expected directions except a supposed decline in small farms in the last time period, which seems odd given what is happening on the ground), the second part of the paper then tries to ‘explain’ this assumed ‘degradation’.

A set of explanations are offered based not on any empirical data but selective readings of various studies, exposing the authors’ clear biases. They conclude: “a land reform programme should go beyond land acquisition and sentimental resettlement as this will likely lead to deterioration of land and associated resources, hence further poverty”. Instead they recommend (again following a well-worn narrative) the need for private property rights and investment in commercial agriculture.

But in order to tease out the causal connections and the implications of land use change, satellite imagery can only tell one part of the story – and actually a very limited one. The paper comments that “traditional ground based mapping techniques [are] often time consuming, expensive and tedious”. But sometimes time and tedium are needed to find out what is really happening on the ground.

Too many of these sort of studies rely on easily-available imagery and fancy computing techniques without ever going to the field. To understand degradation dynamics requires talking to people and understanding field complexities; otherwise the interpretations (as in this paper – it is not alone given my reviewing experience) are simply misleading.

Sustainability (and so degradation) is necessarily a political construct, one that requires deliberation on what landscapes are desirable in what form, for whom. Using satellite imagery to construct an argument that land reform was a bad thing exposes an ideological position hidden behind a misleading gaze from space.

This is the fifth in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

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

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UK supports Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth

The UK will support Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth, it has been reported. The invitation will almost certainly be accepted, as President Mnangagwa has been on a global charm offensive, bedecked with his trademark scarf no matter what the weather.

Zimbabwe is desperate for international acceptance after being cast out in the Mugabe era. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002, following the land invasions, although Mugabe withdrew in 2003 before formal expulsion, with some Commonwealth leaders torn in their solidarities. Being invited to Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last week as an observer was a strong signal of reengagement.

So will rejoining make any difference? The answer is probably not much, but symbolism is all in international relations. Any moves are unlikely to happen until after the elections, but the meeting between UK Foreign Secretary and Foreign minister Subisiso Moyo, on the sidelines of last week’s meeting was all smiles.

Imperial anachronism or powerful trading network?

The contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth is much debated. Some regard it as an anachronistic hang-over from Empire, with all the subservient trappings of allegiance to a foreign, once-ruling colonial monarch. The excellent Afua Hirsch argues that attempts at revival are simply imperial dreams dressed up as Empire 2.0, pushing neoliberal policies on the poor, developing world.

Somewhat fancifully, others see the Commonwealth as the basis for a new post-Brexit global trading network, with the UK at its centre, and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and selected others connected in a powerful grouping to take on the world. This is of course rather absurd, but there will be moves in this direction as Theresa May’s government attempts to make the best out of the inevitably disastrous Brexit deal, with their silly slogan ‘Global Britain’.

While of course the Commonwealth of Nations is a relic of empire (its earlier incarnations were of course the British Commonwealth and the Imperial conferences), the idea that Britain could have any imperial ambitions today is of course only in the fevered imaginations of the likes of Boris Johnson. Today’s imperial powers are firmly elsewhere. The Queen likes to talk of the Commonwealth as a ‘family’; also rather ridiculous, until you remember dysfunctional families, familial power relations and imposing matriarchy.

So beyond the PR value, does Zimbabwe rejoining make any sense? Is this a sop to imperial power, which the liberation war fought? Will Zimbabwe benefit preferentially from new trade deals? Will it make any difference at all?

Zimbabwe’s role?

Following Zimbabwe’s Independence, Commonwealth connections were important. Yes, trade, but also diplomacy, including around the then seemingly intractable ending of apartheid in South Africa. With many Commonwealth countries being front-line states, they were at the forefront of the struggle. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings were important affairs. Remember the CHOGM in 1991 in Zimbabwe? It was a big deal, with a landmark declaration proclaimed. It is rare such an array of dignitaries end up in Harare.

Just maybe such unlikely connections, and the fanfare that goes with it all – can help today. With the polarisation of global power – a regressive US and an all-powerful China – the concerns of many parts of the world don’t get a look in. But in the Commonwealth, with a different constellation of the not powerful and once powerful, other agendas can be raised.

The more radical proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth group for the modern era through appointing a non-white small island state leader is off the cards for now, as Prince Charles has been accepted as the Queen’s successor. But maybe in time a reconfiguration away from the old colonial power can occur.

Vital global debates

The London CHOGM has generated some important debates on global issues. The terrible treatment of the disenfranchised so-called Windrush generation – the children of those who came by sea from the Caribbean as British citizens to help re-build the UK economy after the Second World War – has put in the spotlight the positive benefits of global migration. The madness and inhumanity of restrictive UK immigration policy has been put to the fore, prompting apologies from the PM and Home Secretary.

After the vicious, regressive Brexit debate, this is a breath of fresh air. Perhaps this will be extended to others. What about the many Zimbabweans in the UK who struggle with the immigration service, but offer important work, including – as memorably put by Jo McGregor – ‘joining the BBC’ (the British Bottom Cleaners) in social services?

The London meeting has also raised the important issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Although not Zimbabwe of course, many Commonwealth countries have long coastlines or are islands (yes I know, easier to invade and colonise), and so suffer disproportionately. Whatever you think of now UK Environment minister Michael Gove, he’s certainly good at seizing the moment politically. A marginal debate at one of the branches of the UN is now projected into the limelight with dozens of prime ministers and presidents offering support. It may be that billions of cotton buds and plastic stirrers are literally a drop in the ocean, and a UK ban will have little effect, but again the symbolism and politics count.

New solidarities for a polarised world

So, while accepting that the ideas of a new global trade pact are fanciful and that of course the Commonwealth has a dodgy imperial past, Zimbabwe re-joining could have some benefits. Together with other small countries that never get a look in at the UN or other global bodies, collectively they can raise important questions of global consequence (think climate change and small island states), and generate solidarities that are otherwise not possible in our polarised world.

As an operation with a very small budget but a big international presence, if imaginative and progressive, the Commonwealth can take some important initiatives, and Zimbabwe should be there to start and steer them.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Picture credit: Meeting between Boris Johnson and Subisiso Moyo, London, from UK FCO Flickr.

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