Land use planning is back in vogue in Zimbabwe

Land use planning has a chequered history in Zimbabwe, but despite this it seems to be back in vogue. As the state and its associated technocracy tries to get to grips with the informality unleashed by land reform, creating order through planning is a more and more frequent refrain.

Land use planning was used as a tool of control during the colonial era and, as a result it became a focus for resistance during the liberation war. Managing land and its use is always political, despite the proclamations of a technocratic state that science should prevail. The height of land use planning was of course during the implementation of the notorious 1951 Native Land Husbandry Act. Mike Drinkwater and Jos Alexander among many others have described the consequences, and the implications for people’s livelihoods and also social and political configurations in the countryside. Terry Ranger in particular described the implications for political mobilisation before and during the liberation war.

The plans associated with the Act had precedents in the technical advice of ‘Chief Instructor to the Natives’, E.D. Alvord, dating back to the late 1920s. Indeed the Southern Rhodesian state had a long history of imposition of plans, rules and regulations that influenced and limited how people could live and farm. People were put in settlement lines, contours were dug in particular ways to prevent soil erosion, gardens were banned from within 100 feet of waterways, the pulling of sledges was banned, and so on, and so on. Perhaps the most extreme imposition was destocking that was aimed at bringing livestock populations within a notional ‘carrying capacity’.

All of this was justified by science. There was a science of ‘civilised agriculture’ as described in a paper I co-authored with William Wolmer back in 2000. There were impressive scientists and field practitioners involved in defining the parameters. Alvord himself was of course one, but there were many others. Illtyd Pole Evans was another. He had a major influence on grazing management policy, influencing the 1939 Commission of Enquiry into Natural Resources of the Colony, and extension policy on ‘communal grazing’ ever since (despite my and others’ attempts at a critique from the 1980s onwards!).

There was a scientific rationale justified according to certain assumptions, usually derived from large-scale commercial farming. Thus ‘optimal’ stocking rates were based on beef ranching, and rotation and cropping systems based on extensive commodity production. Thus mixed livestock and cropping systems, and such practices as intercropping were banned. Indigenous systems for soil and water conservation were looked over, and engineering solutions derived from elsewhere (often South Africa or the US) were imposed. Optimal land uses were defined according to ‘suitability’ and  ‘capability’ maps based not on people’s social-cultural and economic needs but on soils, rainfall and vegetation patterns.

The most famous such mapping was conducted by Vincent, Thomas and Staples in 1960 in their agroecological survey of Southern Rhodesia that defined five ‘natural regions’ in Zimbabwe. Even today we still hear cries that particular areas should not be used for cropping, and are only suitable for livestock, even if cropping has been part of livelihood systems for centuries. Again, an industrial, modernist, commercial production imaginary is imposed, in neat, scientized maps and charts that carry with them an authority that has had huge implications.

Today there are calls for a new effort in land use planning. The World Bank is reportedly planning a major exercise. There are some good arguments put forward, not least by Mandi Rukuni, who knows the history well. Through the land reform the use of land has changed dramatically, and without a sense of what is where, sensible planning cannot take place. Some areas need to be protected from encroachment, such as agricultural land near urban areas, and so some form of regulated zoning is required. And with a clearer picture of how land is being used, a land administration system can be developed, allowing registration, the issuing of leases, perhaps land taxation. These are all sound reasons for investing in some efforts.

But the lessons of past attempts should be borne in mind too. The temptations of over-eager technocrats in 2014, just as 60 or more years ago, need to be offset. There is too often a sense that ground level problems will be solved through ordering, control and technocratic imposition. The view from above, from satellite images or air photos, can be misleading. And the urge to draw lines with the chinograph pencil or (more likely these days) the computer cursor that runs roughshod over people’s own constructed and lived-in landscapes is high.

There has been much wringing of hands among Zimbabwe’s planners, as well as many others, about the ‘chaotic’ nature of land reform. Indeed ‘chaotic’ has become the statutory epithet in both academic and media commentary. Yet, as we showed in a paper now over a decade old, there was order in the chaos, and war veterans involved in land invasions often bizarrely followed old planning rules in the early allocation of land and settlement before the formal ‘fast-track’ planning took over. The technocratic impulse is strong, even among those who fought a war that mobilised people against the impositions of Rhodesian planning laws.

Indeed, as we have shown in our work in Masvingo, it was the responsive informality and often the breaking of old rules and regulations that has allowed A1 farms in particular to develop. Unconstrained by particular requirements, they have been able to adapt to circumstances without the strictures of a constraining technocracy. Similar results have been found from across the Limpopo where in South Africa the technocratic impositions on land reform have been highly disabling. Here too it was the informal settlements that prospered most, whereas those that followed the rules and land use plans were almost designed to fail from the start.

While not advocating a completely anarchic approach (there are clearly some regulations around land and its use, perhaps especially around environmental management that make sense), avoiding closing down flexibility and options for change should be avoided at all costs if the current revival of land use planning is to have a benefit. There is an urgent need to develop a more locally-rooted, participatory approach to planning, where external experts become facilitators, rather than imposers of state-defined scientific diktat. This really would be a revolutionary approach to land use planning for Zimbabwe.

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

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Land use planning is back in vogue in Zimbabwe

  1. Stephanie

    Interesting post for the historical perspective. Have you followed what the Association for African Planning Schools is doing? They seem to also be mindful of the need to treat informality differently and to pursue a participatory approach. Vanessa Watson, Philip Harrison, Nancy Odendaal, are a few planning professors/researchers in S. Africa, and the site http://www.africancentreforcities.net/ has some really interesting articles and research.

  2. am

    It is interesting to see this back on the agenda. It may be also more to do with productivity or the lack of it than scientific or local methods of farming The government is complaining about the former aspect of productivity and is reportedly importing 150, 000 tonnes of maize because of production shortfalls. Many fields are idle or poorly producing throughout the country including fast track so it is an expense that need not occur. The government is clearly going to shift the burden of the cost of food production onto the producer in communal or fast track and quite rightly so. People with fields have to produce the food for themselves and the nation not be given food by ngo’s or the government.
    It is clear also that if free food distribution was reduced except to the really needy then there would be more productivity in the fields. Three years ago the ngo did not come to this rural area. It may have been coincidental but the next year there was a substantial increase in ploughing. The dependency syndrome is more widespread and subtil than is reported and it is harming national production and wealth. Europeans caused great harm here in the past but until the nation recognises the harm currently caused by free foreign food – a lot of it from European sources – to national production and wealth then Zimbabwe will never really get free.

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