Yale Agrarian Studies

I am just back from a trip to Yale University where a paper on the Zimbabwe work was discussed as part of the Agrarian Studies Colloquium organised by Jim Scott http://www.yale.edu/agrarianstudies/real/colloq2.html – see paper under Dec 2nd session). It’s a fantastic format where the ‘speaker’ is not allowed to say anything until an hour in, and the audience discusses the pre-circulated paper following a commentary from a grad student. There was a great discussion over several hours, which I thought I would give a flavour of here.

The commentator was Sarah Osterhoudt, who is PhD student in the famous joint program between Anthropology and Forestry and Environmental Studies. In opening up the discussion, she highlighted a number of themes, including the need to get a better sense of how material and social-cultural landscapes intersected in the new resettlements; the importance of exploring the implications of the demographic shifts following resettlement; a need to understand how the ‘new farmers’ were constructing identities and communities, as a new cultural group in a new Zimbabwean politics; and with this the need to explore what new visions of the future of farming, environment, landscape and economy were being constructed.

Later discussions focused on the multiple definitions of ‘success’ deployed in the policy debate – at local vs national level, according to external vs local ‘folk’ criteria, between A1 smallholders and A2 medium scale commercial farms and so on. Which criterion makes sense depends on your standpoint, although it was pointed out that even if not just ‘subsistence’, reliance solely on smallholder production, with relatively low yield levels, limited capitalisation/mechanisation, and variable market reach may not be sufficient in the long term. I agree with this, but it is important to avoid evaluating the new farmers and their production by inappropriate standards. While it is possible to produce 10t/ha of maize under Zimbabwean conditions, this requires substantial investment, and economic returns are much less impressive than the yield potential. Getting 2-3t/ha, even 1t/ha, on extensive dryland production with limited inputs and low costs, offers significant returns, and livelihoods for many. Similarly, crop switches, say away from maize to sorghum/millet, is not always a step backwards. It may actually result in better livelihood security, great labour intensity and resilience in the face of drought and climate change. And mixing farming with off-farm income earning, including migration to towns, is again not a sign of failure, but one of diversification in the face of highly variable and uncertain income earning opportunities – a strategy used by ‘farmers’ the world over, including most white farmers who used the land before.

Another theme of discussion was the challenge of managing farming, and other enterprises, in the time of hyperinflation (from c 2005-early 2009), and how bartering, exchange and the role of livestock, grain and labour as forms of currency. The contrasting abilities of A1 farmers, able to rely on local exchange systems, and A2 farmers, reliant on formal markets, credit and so on, was emphasised. I argued that the failure of A2 farmers to get moving in the period from 2000 was in large part due to this necessary articulation with the formal economy, and especially the lack of credit. Post 2009, things have changed, and we discussed at some length the growth of the tobacco, cotton and now sugar sectors in land reform areas, including on the A2 farms. Credit, however, remains a challenge, and an area where some thoughtful policy work is urgently required. Jim McCann from the Pardee Center at Boston University was concerned about Zimbabwe’s reliance on the US dollar as the currency, meaning that much macro-economic policy was outside the national government’s hands. Parallels with the euro-zone were made, yet unlike struggling European economies, Zimbabwe’s GDP is growing rapidly, admittedly from a very low base. The hike in commodity prices, particularly of minerals, is resulting in a new flow of resources into the country. Some of these are being captured, diverted and stolen for sure, but nevertheless these flows mean more funds are now circulating, generating opportunities for investment, business, credit, taxation and in general demand for products and services. Clearly, there is need for some rigorous study of the new macro-economic patterns in Zimbabwe, a subject way beyond my area of expertise.

Another key theme picked up by a number of participants focused on the role of the state in the post-land reform settings. Were new settlers escaping from the formerly dominant gaze of the state bureaucracy and creating their own futures independently, or were they dependent on state support, through political, ideological and material influences? And how did this tension play out with different groups – A1 and A2, men and women, younger and older? This was the focus for a fascinating discussion about the complex and often ambivalent nature of state power and authority in rural Zimbabwe. At one time the state – or at least the political-military elite of ZANU-PF – has enormous influence, and exerts control often through violent means; yet at the same time the state’s ability to control everything is weak, and local processes of innovation and resistance continue, sometimes in negotiation with the state (say around land use planning, boundary disputes and so on) but sometimes wholly independently (say around much service provision, technical advice etc.). Struggles over authority, and who captures the benefits of land reform, are on-going, and wrapped in very local histories, which, as I explained, are different from farm to farm.

Political scientists, including Ato Kwame Onoma, at the session raised the important question about how land reform plays out at the broader national political level. Clearly, land reform has been claimed as an achievement of ZANU-PF, and is central to its electoral positioning in rural areas. The old nationalist rhetoric is often deployed, and visible allegiance to ZANU-PF is often required by new farmers. Yet, at the same time, many new settlers are highly sceptical of ZANU-PF’s posturing. They will play along of course, but are not at all convinced. The failure of the opposition parties (the two MDC formations) to develop a new narrative around land was discussed at some length. I argued, for example, that the emergent ‘class’ of farmers (across A1 and A2 sites) who are doing well in the resettlements and ‘accumulating from below’, engaging in new forms of commodity production and emerging as a ‘middle farmer’ group in the rural areas, are a natural constituency for the MDC. A narrative based on an emergent rural middle class, committed to growth and economic regeneration, would surely go down well. However, the opposition, given its history and networks, has failed to engage with agrarian issues, and remains often confused and contradictory on its positions on land reform, failing to mobilise more than generalised discontent with the status quo in the rural areas. The default, as several contributors in the seminar said, is that ZANU-PF can continue to hold the rural areas to ransom, especially when security of tenure is weak, exerting compliance and begrudging support.

Comparisons with other land reforms were made during the debate. Jim Scott commented that the most successful tend to be ones that start with land invasions, where groups of people with social and economic ties occupy the land, and are subsequently formalised and codified, with property rights given to new land holders by the state. This case, he argued, appears to fit this pattern, with the A1 farms originating in land invasions, and exhibiting a more coherent sense of ‘community’ identity, being the most successful, since these small scale farmers were able to organise, plan and invest on their own terms. However, as others pointed out, it is the A2 farms (and the larger A1 farms) that will be key to the longer term success of Zimbabwe’s land reform, as it is these farms which will produce tradeable surpluses on the scale required for an agrarian economy to move forward.

This presents the big dilemma for agrarian politics in Zimbabwe, an issue that we kept coming back to in the discussion. Will it be the small to medium scale farmers who are able to make their mark, economically and politically? Or will it be those elites who have grabbed large-scale farms who will make the case that the only way to be a ‘successful’ farmer in the longer term is to do this through large-scale, highly capitalised farms, as (some) white farmers did before? Will it be the ‘new whites’ (the black, well-connected political elite, in alliance with white capital and expertise) or the emergent petty commodity production class who will win out? While the new elite with access to large scale farms is not a massive group, they are influential and have (and continue to do so) grabbed farms in the higher potential areas. What happens into the future is of course a matter of speculation, but such political analysis of the changed rural setting is vital if a clearer analysis of options – and associated political strategy – is to unfold.

In sum, it was a fascinating, informed, and stimulating session (and this is only a fraction of it…). And, because in the US, a little more detached, comparative, and analytical than


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