Here is a letter I sent to the Mail and Guardian commenting on the publishing of unverified figures on land. The same figures were repeated in numerous media outlets, including the UK Guardian and the Zimbabwean. The M and G didn’t publish the letter (perhaps they were embarrassed…), but the Zimbabwean did. I did try and contact the Zim Online team many times to get a copy of their report, but it was not forthcoming. Someone commented to me that they thought it probably didn’t exist!
Accurate land figures matter
Based on a report by ZimOnline, a recent news item ‘Only the elite got rich in Bob’s land grab’ (December 6) claimed that a new elite controls nearly 5m hectares of land, close to half of all land taken through land reform since 2000.
It is of course critical that those holding multiple farms comply with the rules of the land reform programme and it is essential that a thorough and transparent land audit ensures that this happens. Identifying and listing in the public domain such contraventions is certainly a useful contribution. But to make the case that such capture by political-security elites is the dominant pattern of land reform in Zimbabwe is misleading.
Figures matter, but these simply do not add up. For instance, the list of ‘Zimbabwe’s top farm owners’ in the article covers around 150000 ha, only 3% of the 5m hectares of land claimed to be captured by elites. Even accepting that this list is only partial, how the huge headline-grabbing totals were arrived at is anyone’s guess. Equally, the report contains important inaccuracies and inconsistencies in estimates of land areas transferred under the land reform programme, as well as the number of farms involved. I hope that the ‘ZimOnline Investigations Team’ who carried out this study will reveal themselves, and submit their detailed data to more thorough scrutiny. Around such a sensitive issue as land reform it is vital that media reporting is based on solid, verifiable facts.
Our detailed research into land reform in Masvingo province, reported in the recently published book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, shows that those who might be dubbed ‘cronies’ make up about 5% of all beneficiaries. By contrast, the vast majority were ordinary people, with half of all new farmers being asset and income poor families coming from nearby communal areas. In-depth studies from other parts of the country support this broad pattern. Our research does not deny that corruption, abuse and patronage have occurred, nor that land reform rules have been flouted. But our work offers a more balanced, rounded picture than offered by this report.
I hope in future that the Mail and Guardian, together with other respected media outlets, will interrogate their sources more thoroughly in order to encourage an informed debate about the future which is based on solid evidence, rather than spurious extrapolation.
Ian Scoones, Professor, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.