Tag Archives: drought

How persistent myths distort policy debate on land in Zimbabwe


In 2010 we published the book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities. In the book, we chose 5 recurrent ‘myths’ often relayed about the post-2000 land reform, both in academic and popular commentary. We interrogated them with very detailed data based on a sample of 400 households across 16 sites in Masvingo province. All were found seriously wanting – although as with all ‘myths’, there were grains of truth, complexities and grey areas in each.

Some argued that our argument was contrived; that the myths were just ‘straw men’, easy to shoot down. We begged to differ, and pointed to the repeated articulation of such arguments. This blog was established in 2011 in order to continue the debate, as the myths persisted to colour sensible discussion, and indeed became more entrenched. In 2017 myths about land reform sadly still dominate much discourse, and policy debate (and unfortunately much ‘academic’ work) is sadly mired in ideological positions rather than grounded in field-level, evidence-based realities.

This is why we continue the research work, and I continue with the blog. Our work has now expanded to multiple sites, both in the Highveld (Mvurwi area of Mazowe district) and in Matabeleland (Matobo district), and complemented by many, many other studies (see the map above from a few years back – I am planning to update this, so please send me links to your studies, and the precise location). This other work continues to challenge the standard myths, but extends, expands and nuances the debate in important ways. Research is led by such organisations as the African Institute for Agrarian Studies and the Ruziwo Trust, and the subject of many theses from students registered across Zimbabwe’s universities and indeed the world, and adds up to a substantial corpus of evidence.

But despite the evidence, there remains much misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Zimbabwe’s land reform. I could take many examples but a section on land in what was otherwise quite a good report by a Harare-based campaign NGO, the Research and Advocacy Unit, is a good example. I choose it not because it is especially problematic (there are many much worse), but it comes from a respectable organisation, is purportedly based on research and was highlighted by the press (and in turn sent to me a dozen or more times).

Under the headline ‘Land reform crippled the economy’, The Zimbabwe Independent, reproduced an excerpt. This stated for example that “The transformations brought about by the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP), led directly to the collapse of commercial farming and the manufacturing sector and the consequent displacement of millions of workers and a man-made humanitarian crisis.” It continued: through “violations of property rights”.. “the land invasions signaled contempt for the most fundamental basis for any investment”. The report claims that the reform distributed “multiple holdings to a small political elite, who for the most part have not used them productively. Many of these new farmers have allowed viable farms to become derelict”. In relation to land reform farmers more generally, the report argues that in 2016 “It is certainly doubtful that these farmers will produce any food surplus during the worst drought in 35 years”. It states that “millions of Zimbabweans, both rural and urban, [are] at risk of extreme hunger and even starvation” and that “informalising of the economy has resulted in deepening poverty and with Zimbabweans now existing on greatly reduced income”. You get the picture: lots of bold statements, big figures (millions) and superlatives (many/extreme/greatly) and emotive language (contempt, violating), and plenty of assumptions (such as understandings of viability, informality), yet limited data, qualifications, case material and so on. And as I say this is a mild offender, and there is much in this particular report with which I agree!

Saying that there is a more complex story, and that this sort of ‘research’ analysis does not add up, does not imply (as some continuously argue on social media, in aggressive emails to me, and in newspaper and blog comment strings) that you are necessarily a lackey of the ruling party, complicit in everything that the regime has done. No, it simply urges everyone to look at the facts, and make a rather more balanced assessment.

Four myths that distort policy debate

Seven years on what myths seem to drive and distort policy debate? Here I choose four – all have featured prominently on this blog, and because there are so many the choice was tough. In different guises all feature in the RAU report mentioned earlier, and many, many news reports, research articles, donor consultancies and other commentaries (just google, and you will see!). Some basic interrogation though suggests some new questions, and in what follows and before signing off, I identify some of the debates that I think would be more productive, and highlight some of the issues we are working on and will feature on the blog this year.

Property rights and investment. This one won’t go away, and remains central to the rhetoric of many, across the political spectrum. The argument is simple: without secure (read: private property, freehold title) tenure, land is ‘dead capital’, and so has no or little value. Without title, the argument continues, it lacks collateral value and so it is impossible to raise finance. The model of ‘success’ is the commercial farm sector pre-2000, which had freehold title, and good relationships with the banking sector. The argument is that this needs to be either returned to or replicated now, and that the ‘failure’ of land reform can be explained in these terms. You’ve all heard it – from the likes of Eddie Cross, Ben Freeth, Craig Richardson, and many others. So what’s wrong with the argument, surely secure tenure is important. Yes, absolutely! But there are many routes to tenure security, and elaborate titling is not often the best; a fact widely substantiated by research across the world, notably, perhaps surprisingly, by the World Bank. Permit and leasehold systems may be just as good, and when the institutional and governance arrangements are right, security emerges from communal tenure too, as Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom and others have showed. The ‘dead capital’ argument pushed by Hernando De Soto, and adopted by many free market ideologues has been found wanting. As we have shown, there is much investment going on in some parts of the new resettlement areas, but also a lack of it in others. The variable explaining the differences is not titling or legal form of tenure, but other factors to do with a range of social, political and institutional factors. The relationship between land, collateral and finance is a complex one too. There are many ways of assuring finance institutions that lending money is a safe bet. Land titles are only one route, but there are other forms of collateral, state guarantee schemes, group lending and so on that have all worked well in other places, including in Zimbabwe. There were undoubtedly issues with the original wording of the 99 year leases in Zimbabwe, but there was also intransigence by the finance sector that preferred to lend to larger enterprises and outside agriculture when money was short. Some headway has been made on this, and we must look forward to some innovations in the financing of agriculture into the future. The old model of large-scale commercial agriculture finance is simply not replicable in a more variegated agricultural sector.

Cronyism, patronage and capture. Most land acquired through fast track land reform was under the A1 ‘smallholder’ scheme, where by far the majority of beneficiaries were formerly land and income poor communal area dwellers or those from town with no or precarious jobs. The land occupations certainly involved those with political connections, notably war veterans, but this was not universally the case. As our and other work showed, farm by farm the process was different. Generalisations that the whole land reform was subject to cronyism, patronage and political capture are simply untenable. While some admit that the beneficiaries were often relatively poor, the next argument is that they were necessarily ZANU-PF members. While resettlement areas are unquestionably ZANU-PF strongholds, and the opposition parties have found it difficult to operate there, especially around election times, the electoral picture shows something more mixed. There are many who will ‘perform ZANU-PF’ but have other allegiances, so it is difficult to assess empirically how party affiliation and control affected land access, and subsequent outcomes. Again across our study areas it is extraordinarily variable, and volatile. The A2 resettlement areas show a different story, however. Here there was much more patronage politics at play, and this remains the case, with faction fights playing out in land access disputes. But again, while land was ‘grabbed’ by party and security officials, both at land reform and at subsequent elections, these were high profile and well publicised cases which while significant politically did not necessarily dominate. Again, it depends where you are talking about – for obvious reasons such political dynamics played out more strongly in Mazowe than in Masvingo and Matobo, where other dynamics, sometimes related to long-running chieftaincy allegiances or church affiliations, played a role. Land is always political, no question, but we do need to be more sophisticated in our assessments. As I have argued, we need to look beyond the links to party (or factional) politics to questions of class positions in order to understand the shifting politics of the Zimbabwean countryside. The successful A1 farmers, ‘accumulating from below’, allied with emerging A2 farmers, and successful communal area entrepreneurs are a political force to be reckoned with. They have diverse political commitments, and no clear position (many who I speak to are crying out for an alternative political leadership from whatever source), but no party – whether ZANU-PF or the MDC and now other opposition parties – has a political and policy stance that in any way speaks to their needs, aspirations and motivations, despite the substantial electoral weight that they can apply. ZANU-PF persists with a tired nationalist rhetoric and assumes that resettlement farmers will follow them as they are the rightful leaders of the land revolution, and if they keep them sweet with subsidies. Meanwhile the opposition seems to have no ideas on land and rural policy, beyond a litany of tired rhetoric about investment and entrepreneurship, which could come from a generic World Bank document from the 1990s. I went to a very disappointing speech by Joice Mujuru in London last year – just look at the transcript for a taste – but all the others are the same I am afraid. As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, the political landscape is crying out for a new stance on land, agriculture and rural development, and there is a ready constituency there to respond.

Agricultural production and food security. As I have discussed in a number of blogs over the last years blaming ‘land reform’ for food insecurity is very problematic, as there are so many variables in play. That said, there is no doubt that the restructuring of the agrarian sector has resulted in major changes. While the former commercial farms did not produce as much food in the 1990s as they did in the previous decades, the associated infrastructure, and the capacity to irrigate was important. Recorded maize production declined dramatically after 2000, resulting in increasingly frequent imports. Add to this the impacts of climate change/El Nino, and the picture is mixed, varying by location, type of land use and crop mix (the growth tobacco and the displacement of maize in some of the high potential areas is part of the story of course). Despite dire prognoses though there has not been widespread famine conditions in Zimbabwe, even if there have been areas of severe food insecurity. The standard line of ‘breadbasket to basket case’ is just so much more complex. Today the food economy is totally different to the 1980s and 90s, with many more producers selling through many more market channels, most of which are not regulated and recorded. The fact is we just don’t know how much is being produced and sold where, despite the attempts of the ZimVac and other assessments. I have a persistent worry that we are not getting it right, and that the politics of food, whether driven by the government, the UN agencies or the relief NGOs, is grossly distorting the picture. Our data, now collected over 16 years from many households across the country, does not match the aggregate picture emerging from the national assessments. There is a disconnect that poses important empirical questions about what is going on. I have not yet been able to persuade anyone to commission work to find out, and to engage properly with the new food economy in the post land reform setting, but this seems an urgent priority. This would be an important precursor to a more effective national statistical system for assessing agricultural production, marketing and food security; a prerequisite for any sensible food and agriculture policy, as well as economic policy more generally.

Land reform and economic collapse. Again suggesting a tight causal link to a complex relationship is misguided. There are of course many factors contributing to Zimbabwe’s economic woes. They include massive financial mismanagement (especially in the mid-2000s), rampant corruption (continuing), ‘sanctions’ (aka restrictive measures), withdrawal of international finance and credit lines, lack of business and investment confidence due to poorly articulated policy positions (notably around ‘indigenisation’), the collapse of commodity prices (for mineral exports), drought/climate change/El Nino, the strength of the US dollar, and of course the major restructuring of a core sector through land reform, with knock-on effects in employment and upstream and downstream industries. Choosing one or other these factors is clearly inadequate, and a more sophisticated analysis is needed. Of course the economy as whole hasn’t collapsed, and in some areas it’s booming. This is where, again, the new realities of a more diverse, informal economy need to be taken account of. This is simply not measured in the formal assessments of GDP, for example, yet represents at least 90% of the economy. Untaxed, unregulated and often based on limited returns and opportunities for accumulation, we should avoid glorifying the informal economy, but we should equally not ignore it – and it’s not all bad. For it is from such small-scale entrepreneurial activities – in agriculture and beyond – that many livelihoods are generated, and from which the wider more formalised economy can be revitalised. With a major restructuring expecting the future to be a replica of the past is the continuous mistake of too many commentators. As our work has shown there are huge potentials of new multiplier effects of a vibrant small-scale agriculture sector centred in the (mostly) A1 resettlement areas, linking to small towns across the country which are becoming new centres for economic activity and employment. The spatial pattern of the new economy is different, as are the actors and networks that drive it. Yet policy engagement remains limited. Due to ongoing ‘restrictive measures’, the western donors continue to focus efforts only on the communal areas, where the prospects of growth – and so wider economic linkages – are limited, as we have known for years. And no-one seems to be thinking about how to make the most of the complementarities of small, medium and large-scale agriculture (don’t forget there still is large-scale agriculture, including very substantial estates – such as sugar in the lowveld), and how agriculture across scales is linked to urban centres and market networks, at a district/regional level, as part of new planning and investment.

Land tenure security, class and patronage politics, food insecurity and linking agriculture to economic growth are all massively important policy priorities. I am the first to admit that there are major challenges. But we must ask the right questions if we are to seek a way forward, and this requires solid, research-based empirical information and a balanced assessment that is not distorted by ideological positions, anger and distress, wishful thinking or attempts to recreate pasts that probably never existed. I am often asked, whether I think land reform was good or bad; whether I am for against it. This is impossible to answer, and journalists get furious by the response (and so often misreport). It’s of course more complex. Land reform was undoubtedly necessary, a long overdue response to the violence and inequality of colonialism, but that does not mean it was implemented well, and with all the ideal outcomes. Our research shows this is not the case – far from it. 17 years on though, we do need a more mature, informed debate on policy options, and I hope this blog provides the forum for some of this.

Second generation challenges: some blog themes for 2017

In the coming weeks and months, many of these issues will continue to be debated in depth, with new data, reflections and commentary on news stories. There are emerging, second-generation challenges that our research is throwing up, and these will in particular be subject to more analysis and comment on the blog. Last year, I posted a series on farm labour and the struggles for livelihoods of former farm workers. The relationship between labour and capital is of course a central theme in any study of agrarian change, and I will return to this theme with more results from the field, exploring how the new class of petty commodity producers on the resettlements interact with classes of labour. ‘Accumulation from below’ results in investment on farms, and the building of assets in the rural areas, but it also results in social differentiation and new relations with labouring classes. This dynamic is perhaps especially important as we see the emergence of next generation of ‘youth’, without land but interested in agriculture-related livelihoods in a depressed economy. Generational conflicts, inflected with important gender dynamics, is a theme that we must understand as we envisage what happens post land reform over the next 20 or more years. A key aspect of this of course is the relationship between rural and urban livelihoods, never as separate as many studies suggest. New forms of migration, remittance flows, on- and off-farm investment and employment are emerging that allow us to imagine a new form of economy, not based on the old, dualist ‘settler’ model, but with new interactions and dynamics, requiring radical new thinking in development policy and planning. As we have documented in the past 17 years, the next period will see changing political configurations, as some win and some lose out from these changes, with impacts on the wider political landscapes as rural politics shift with new forms of production and accumulation.

Debating this endlessly fascinating but still poorly understood agrarian transition following Zimbabwe’s land reform will continue to the focus of this blog. So do come back each Monday, and sign up to get your email or Twitter alerts now! Next week though we must contemplate the momentous events in Washington and the implications of the Trump inauguration.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Does land reform increase resilience to drought?

The Hazards and Opportunities book, reflecting on the impacts of the 1991-92 El Niño drought, had a few things to say about how to boost resilience to drought shocks. Key features included taking account of changing livelihood systems, reducing vulnerabilities through improving assets, and the urgent need for land redistribution, in particular. Commenting on the increasingly challenging livelihoods in the communal areas, the book commented:

“As production has become more constrained due to declining field areas and reduced land quality and local storage levels have become more limited due to shifts in cropping patterns and greater crop sales, farmers in Chivi are increasingly reliant on off-farm income sources, particularly during drought. In examining drought response policies, the role of local markets, the importance of removing burdening restrictions and the significance of trade and exchange should not be underestimated….

Policies that ensure that markets work effectively and exchange entitlements can be realised are vital….social networks, especially those based on the extended family, remain central to coping strategies in Chivi. Access to remittances, opportunities for food sharing and other linkages appear to be key to survival strategies….

[Yet] the pressures of macro-economic reform were being felt particularly acutely during the 1991-92 drought with high inflation resulting in the reduced buying power of money received from trading, piece work or remittances…..[Therefore] external support – from the state, local networks or rural-urban connections – will almost certainly remain key in sustaining livelihoods…..

….The reduction in people’ asset levels over time has increased vulnerability and added to the ratchet effect of poverty…. A more complete understanding of local responses to risk in drought conditions is clearly essential if more effective drought relief, mitigation and proofing strategies are to be designed. Appropriate policies for coping with drought must therefore take the dynamics of local response into account…..”.

Well, much the same could be said 25 years later. But one thing has changed, and that is the distribution of land. In 1996, Hazards and Opportunities commented:

“The pace of resettlement since Independence has been very slow. It has not really had an impact on places like Chivi. Most people resettled from Chivi have been moved to similar drought-prone areas within Masvingo province. Although settlers have larger land areas than they had before, they often do not have sufficient draft power, labour or inputs to invest in ensuring high productivity. The result has been the disappointing performance of most resettlement schemes. The response has been to change the criteria for selection, with more `qualified’ farmers now being favoured. However without good soils and reliable rainfall, agricultural production will continue to be a risky enterprise…. New models for resettlement are urgently needed that are low cost and flexible…

Back then we asked: “What are the policy alternatives to entering a spiral of poverty and dependency in the communal areas?”. And the answer, we offered? “There is no better way to reduce rural vulnerability and ensure the viability of people’s livelihoods than to increase the productive base. Proofing the system against drought (and other risks) means strategic investments….

First, addressing the land redistribution with more flexible and imaginative approaches than in the past is a major priority…..urgent solutions to the problems of land scarcity will have to be sought in the coming decades. It may now be time to explore a wider range of land redistribution opportunities abandoning the strict adherence to a standardised, packaged settlement model and testing other options. If they are to address the fundamental problems of the communal areas, such options must offer new land of reasonably high potential and in sufficient quantities to begin to satisfy land needs. Such areas must be supported, perhaps through innovative credit schemes, but not constrained by excessive planning and intervention from outside. Settlement areas must have tenure arrangements secure enough to encourage investment. If these conditions are satisfied, evidence suggests that a vibrant small-scale sector can offer Zimbabwe a bright future, both satisfying food needs and entering cash crop production for export. However, if the challenges of land redistribution are not met, then the viability of communal area livelihoods will continue to be undermined with the associated costs of food aid, social disquiet and spontaneous migration”.

It was not until 2000 when Zimbabwe’s major land reform took place. It was radical, allowed opportunities in higher potential areas, and was flexible and pragmatic in its implementation. There have been many downsides, but in many respects it responded to the calls we made some years before. But has the land reform increased livelihood resilience and so provided a form of drought proofing, reducing underlying vulnerabilities, and so exposure to drought risks? Is land reform the best form of ‘social protection’ offsetting the need for even more humanitarian aid?

The answers are mixed. Certainly having access to land has improved production for most, particularly in the A1 resettlements. It means people have more assets to fall back on, and have a pattern of higher crop production that for grains has meant significantly higher storage levels prior to the drought than anything we encountered in Chivi back in the 1990s. The aggregate statistics of food production, as discussed a couple of weeks ago, are so inaccurate, we really don’t know how much food is circulating through informal markets and sharing networks within the rural areas. My guess is quite a lot. We know that people have moved livestock to the resettlement areas, as discussed in last week’s blog. But people are moving too, as households in the resettlements take on relatives from communal area who are in difficulty. This form of ‘moral economy’ is vital to drought coping, and usually massively underestimated. We have known for years that resettlement households are exporting food both to urban areas and to the communal areas, but this has accelerated during the drought. With remittance levels way down on those in the 1990s, reliance on local production and economies is much higher these days, although off-farm work, including illegal mining, hunting and other activities, is widespread. So at one level land reform has enhanced drought coping options, and offers a buffer of production in the food economy that we still know too little about. The details of this remain obscure, and we are currently collecting data on what is happening across our sample in Masvingo to find out more, and offer a more complete comparison with the 1991-92 story (watch this space for reports from the field later in the year).

But there have also been downsides of land reform for drought coping. The decline in irrigated production with the transfer of large-scale farms has had impacts on the larger picture. Large-scale commercial farms never produced huge amounts of food in the 1990s, focused as they were on high value export commodities. But irrigated maize (and wheat) were important, both for food and feed, and without these supplies, there is increasing reliance on imports (although as shown in the blog a couple of weeks back, imports of food were massive in 1991-92, contrary to popular views that food grain imports are just a recent phenomenon). With land being far more utilised than in the past, with many more people on the land in multiple small scale farms (again contrary to some popular opinion that emphasises underutilised land – this was a big issue in the 1990s too), there is now less of a buffer. As discussed last week, livestock would often poach graze in underutilised ranches, and this provided an important source of reserve fodder in times of drought. These options no longer exist, and the system has little slack, making shocks like drought more keenly felt. This makes having national strategic reserves, and a contingency planning policy, all the more important. Ever since the structural adjustment programme got rid of grain reserves, arguing that this was an inefficient and costly approach given the availability of cheap food on world markets, there have been limited centralised reserves. This makes coordination and payment of imports essential – something that plagued the 1991-92 response, and has done again today.

So, as ever, there is not a simple response to the question of whether land reform has improved drought resilience. The important point though is that with land and production reconfigured along with local economies, there is a need to rethink drought response policies, along with the way we monitor food production and livelihood vulnerabilities. With changes in system functioning, resilience has to be constructed in new ways, based on new forms of production, and social and market relations. Resilience planning, has not got to grips with the new situation. Unfortunately in 2016, we have more or less the same (late and poorly targeted) response we had in 1991-92. Partly this is due to lack of capacity, and the form of routinized, sometimes rather panicked responses we are seeing from the state, and partly this is due to the fact that much of the ‘humanitarian’ aid response – by WFP and the western donors – does not really even consider the role of the new resettlement areas, and their integration in the new food and livelihood economy, thanks to the legacy of sanctions. This is hampering sensible thinking and effective responses.

The sooner the post land reform land, livelihood and economic contexts is taken into account in the planning of drought responses, and so-called ‘resilience building’ programmes the better. Currently lessons are not being learned, money is being wasted, and effective responses are lacking.

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


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The El Niño drought hits livestock hard in Zimbabwe

The El Niño drought is hitting hard this year. Livestock in particular are suffering, as grass and water are scarce. Some fear that it could be as bad as 1991-92 when around a million cattle died. To date some 7000 cattle mortalities have been recorded, the majority of which have been in Masvingo province, as well as Matabeleland. Government and aid agencies are encouraging farmers to destock, urging people to buy supplementary feed to save breeding stock. Drought task teams have been established in the affected provinces, and emergency feedlots are being established. It is a very serious situation. As perhaps the most valuable asset that most people have, losing herds can be devastating for livelihoods and recovery takes many years. Some small showers have recently improved grass conditions in some places, but the amount of fodder available is clearly grossly inadequate to see animals through the long dry season across the coming months.

Livestock in the 1991-92 drought

In this blog I again draw on work we carried out in 1991-92 in Chivi communal area, and is reported in the book, Hazards and Opportunities. During 1991-92 overall cattle survival among our sample was only 41%. This was the case for both large and small herd owners, with no significant relationships being shown between pre-drought herd sizes and survival rates. As now, it was a widespread drought, with all areas and all people affected. By the end of the drought 68% of households had no cattle at all, up from 55% before the drought. Drought recovery took years, and it was only by the late 1990s that herds had reached pre drought levels.

Herd composition is also affected by drought, and in turn affects the recovery dynamics. The table below shows the composition in the Chivi sample, pre and post 1991-92 drought. Cows were especially badly affected (particularly those with calves), although heifers survived better, and were the basis of post-drought recovery.


Cattle type Pre-drought (N = 583) % Post-drought (N = 247) %


Bull 8.1 6.5
Oxen 22.5 17.8
Cow 34.5 21.9
Steer 5.7 8.1
Heifer 20.8 37.7
Male Calf 2.7 2.4
Female Calf 5.8 5.7



The pattern of response among Chivi herds during 1991-92 is shown in the Table below. This differentiates between two phases of the drought: the early period before December 1992 and the later phase after this time and before the end of 1992.

RESPONSE Period 1 (N=64) % Period 2 (N=48) %
Illegal grazing 9.7 25.0
Movement out 29.0 35.4
Leasing 14.1 10.4
Commercial feed 16.1 14.6
Pods and hay 3.2 4.2
Cut & carry grass 12.5 4.3
Tree products 100.0 100.0
Crop residues 34.4 2.1

Movement out of the area was a vital strategy. However it took on a different form to earlier droughts. Data from the 1982-84 drought and the impact on cattle survival in Mazvihwa, Zvishavane district collected during my PhD studies (Scoones 1992), show how early movement was crucial to overall survival.



Description of movement % survival N   (herds)
A Out of area (c. November 1982) 40.1 287
B Out of the area in the dry season (Aug-Oct 1993) 22.9 402
C No movement outside area 3.3 181

But by contrast to 1982-84, movement had less of an impact in 1991-92. Cattle were moved from Chivi to a variety of sites during late 1991. In the first part of the drought, 29% of herds were moved out of their home area to another site within the communal lands. By the second part of drought this had risen to over 35%. Illegal grazing outside the communal area (in resettlement areas or commercial farms) represented another type of movement. Nearly 10% of herds had been moved to such sites in the first period of drought and by the second period a quarter of all herds were using illegal grazing. However, the drought’s impact was so extensive and so dramatic that movement within a large radius was pointless. Animals that had been moved earlier got stranded, unable to benefit from the micro-management afforded to cattle resident at home kraals

During 1991-92, the largest cause of mortality was death due to starvation or extreme water shortage (47.7%). A significant number of animals were slaughtered just prior to death through poverty in order to salvage some meat for local consumption or sale (30.3%). Low nutritional status is linked with disease susceptibility and a number of animals died either directly from illness or were slaughtered because of disease (4.5%). Extensive searching for food required animals to wander far. This meant that a number were permanently lost; either they died while out foraging or they were stolen (5.7%). Foraging also had to take place in dangerous places (road edges, mountains, river banks) and a number of cattle died due to accidents (7.2%). Only very few animals (4.5%) were purposefully slaughtered.

The pattern observed during 1991-92 parallels that in previous droughts. Due to the fact that cattle are considerably more valuable live (for draft power, manure, milk etc.) than dead (sale value), there are very strong incentives to try and maintain live stock. Destocking is a risky option as the terms of sale during drought and repurchase following drought are not favourable to the herd owner. The costs of not having animals available to plough in the rainy season (assuming rains came) is so high that most farmers retain their stock as long as possible. No matter how much the government or the NGOs beseeched livestock owners to destock, they didn’t, and the rationale was clear.

The 1991-92 drought mortalities meant that much restocking during the 1990s was with mixed breeds, or animals purchased from commercial ranches. During the land reform, breeds got mixed even more, with the hardy indigenous Shona, Tuli and other breeds being diluted in the nation’s genetic stock. Indigenous breeds are well known to be able to survive off mixed diets of grass and browse and can survive without water for long periods. By contrast the larger, grass-dependent ‘improved’ breeds’ condition quickly deteriorates when grazing and water is scarce. In many respects, Zimbabwe’s cattle herds are less resilient than they were before.

What lessons can be drawn?

First, flexible movement is key, and restrictions imposed by veterinary controls can result in major increases in mortality. However illegal movement to underutilised commercial ranches is now not possible, nor is lease grazing on ranches. Most of these areas are now resettled as part of the land reform. Movement to the new resettlements from the communal areas has been a regular feature of the past 15 years, as have new relationships being struck with A2 farms. Relief grazing on state land is also vital, and so making access to state farms, military land and national partks will be important. These strategies will be crucial for herd survival in the coming months, and need to be encouraged and facilitated.

Second, access to water is almost as important as grazing, and in the past many animals perished from thirst rather than starvation (although usually a combination). A focused public works programme that invested in rehabilitating water sources, including pumping from dry rivers, establishment of mifuku, and so on, could be a highly productive investment.

Third, supplementary feeding is vital, especially for maintaining a core breeding herd. In the early 1990s there were not so many agrodealers, and certainly very few out in the rural areas. This has changed, and means that the purchase of blocks and other supplementary feeds has become much easier. People also have experience of using such sources of feed now, and will likely make much more use of them this year than in the past. Ensuring market supply, and offering subsidised options, may be a good investment.

Fourth, encouraging people to sell animals early as part of a destocking campaign has been a failure in the past, and is likely to be so again. While some richer A2 and A1 farmers, with other sources of income, and no reliance on draft animals for ploughing, may opt for destocking sales, most will only sell when animals are already virtually dead. Those with access to land, water and feed may take advantage of such poverty sales and buy up animals for rehabilitation and later fattening. Here the role of A2 farmers may become important, compared to the past.

The costs of losing herds is devastating as we saw in the early 1990s. The impacts are felt for years, undermining agricultural production and livelihoods. Ensuring that mortalities are reduced, and that animals survive is essential, but it seems the efforts being invested now are too little, too late; and sadly making the same mistakes of the past.

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


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Drought politics in southern Africa

Why is it that droughts always seem to surprise, despite the warnings? The current El Niño drought is no exception, and the patterns of response (and lack of response) are remarkably familiar when looking back at the 1991-92 El Niño drought. There is a scary sense of déjà vu 25 years on, with important political implications, both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In 1991-92 I was working with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Farming Systems Research Unit on a project on risk, livelihoods and dryland farming in Chivi district. We had the opportunity of studying the drought up close. The findings are reported in the book Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa. Lessons from Zimbabwe. It’s now out of print, but you can still find copies second hand. In the coming three weeks, I will share some of the findings from back then, but also reflect on what’s changed since.

Here is an extract from chapter 10. Sound familiar?

“The national Early Warning Unit first sounded the alarm about impending food shortages in July 1991. At that time they alerted the government that food stocks would run out in early 1992. This proved to be ominously accurate…..[A SADC Food Security Bulletin dated July 1991 noted} “An overall cereal shortfall of 189,000 tonnes is anticipated… Although the country has no exportable maize surplus, the GMB has an export commitment of 228000 tonnes… Imports of 383000 tonnes will be needed. So far, however, no import plans for maize have been formulated”.

Through 1991, the multiple warnings were basically ignored. As we discuss in the book:

”Indeed, no-one appeared to trust them. Even when the situation was obviously critical the government insisted on commissioning its own monitoring exercise to investigate the food situation in the country. Similarly the United Nations World Food Programme and Food and Agricultural Organisation sent their own mission to confirm the results emerging from the early warning system, before committing themselves to food relief activities….

….It was only when the failure of the 1991-92 rains became very clear and the national press started to highlight the issue,that government started to act. In April 1992, The Herald reported the concerns of Syndey Malunga MP: “The government must ensure that its promises to the nation to make food available during the drought are met, otherwise the rift between the Government and the people will cause the failure of the economic reform programme” (Herald, 8.4.92). Stories of how people were driven to extreme lengths by the failures of the relief effort were common. For instance, The Herald reported how Mberengwa villagers forced a train driver to stop and stole over 300 bags of maize and how Masvingo residents were scavenging for food in dustbins (Herald, 5.10.92).

In February 1992 the government announced significant increases in producer prices for white maize… However such incentives were too late to provide the necessary maize for the year. By February the GMB only expected 250,000 tonnes of maize to be delivered from Zimbabwean producers, but demand was likely to rise during the year to around 150,000 tonnes per month because of the near complete failure of the communal area crop. The Chairman of the GMB suggested….that Zimbabwe would have to import up to 2 million tonnes of maize to meet local demand.. (Herald, 21.2.92). A columnist in the Financial Gazette commented:

“This predicament need never have arisen. The primary cause of the problem has been the totally impractical maize price. Droughts do come but the nation has had three reasonable seasons…Stockpiles are a necessity. It is now evident that at least one year’s supply should always be retained rather than selling maize for foreign currency” (Financial Gazette, 13.2.92).

The food import programme started during December 1991. The arrival of food aid in the country was plagued by logistical problems, made worse by the widespread nature of the drought in the region. Hazards and Opportunities recalls:

“Road and rail transport was commandeered in order to bring American grain from South Africa and Mozambique. By March 1992 the country had effectively run out of reserves and people waited expectantly for supplies. By the end of March the President had appointed eight ministers to oversee food relief in the provinces. The first American maize arrived at the ports at the end of March, but by the first week of April there was still none inside the country, although six maize trains a day supplemented by road transport were expected (Herald, 7.4.92). The government committed itself to the feeding of some 4-5 million people during the drought requiring the eventual importation of around 1.7million tonnes. The initial monthly ration allocation of 10kg per person was later reduced to 5kg as supplies became uncertain and costs escalated…

…..However by mid-1992, public and political pressure mounted sufficiently and by most accounts a highly effective and efficient drought relief and food distribution campaign was launched. By this time, the cost of relief was around Z$30 million per month, much of which was paid for by government. During 1992 in Masvingo Province, around 250,000 children were being given regular supplementary feeding rations and around one million people (practically the whole communal area population) were receiving food relief. Churches and NGOs also played an important role in providing distribution facilities. The total costs of the drought relief operation were estimated to be around 2.7% of GDP in 1991-92 and 4.5% of GDP in 1992-93, requiring a significant increase in government borrowing”.

Drought and politics

Those who remember the situation in 1991-92 in Zimbabwe, will recall how things were increasingly desperate. Government seemed unable to respond, and donors were equally silent. But the drought soon became political. In the book, we wrote:

“For a time during 1992 the government had lost control; its food security policy was completely discredited, its maize pricing policy was suddenly drastically revised, the Minister for Agriculture was hurriedly shifted and the highly unpopular economic structural adjustment policy looked to be going off course. The rumblings of discontent had reached even the remotest rural areas, usually the stalwarts of support for the ZANU-PF party and government….

….Politicians did not trust the information emanating from their own civil servants, nor from international sources. Despite the claims of scientific certitude of the early warning bulletins, the government failed to act early on. It was only through a wider political process of lobbying and petitioning, by government officials in the districts, by the press and by churches, NGOs and others that forced action…. Uncertainty over what to do about the drought had resulted in a certain helplessness and a loss of political control and power.”

Indeed it was not until well into 1992, that the state took control of the situation. Indeed President Mugabe himself intervened. The book comments:

“Not until the launch of the food aid programme and the country-wide tours by President Mugabe was some confidence restored. Only then was it realised by rural people that Mugabe and the ZANU-PF government had not broken their post-independence bargain and would not let the people of Zimbabwe starve….”.

Indeed it was this political intervention, and not the early warning statistics, and the dire warnings from the districts, that meant that the 1991-92 drought was not the disaster it might have been (although it was pretty bad). Drought is inevitably political. And failure to act as people are suffering is not looked at kindly. While Mugabe’s intervention was welcome, it was also seen as too little and too late. We commented:

“The politicians did not know what to do. They refused to believe the science of prediction and would not listen, at least initially, to their constituents. The uncertainty surrounding drought resulted in a perilous loss of control and an unnerving loss of power. Power and control were only regained by firm action later on, when political and social processes, and not rational scientific argument, provided the impetus for action…”

Lessons for southern Africa?

Uncertainties around climate always exist. Climate models never can predict exactly, and even shorter-run weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable (how many times have the Met Office predicted imminent rains this year?). This is compounded with our lack of knowledge – and associated poor statistics – on Zimbabwe’s food economy. We simply don’t know how much food is being produced by whom and where, and how much is being sold in local markets, shared through local networks, or being transported to different areas, including towns. As I have mentioned before on this blog, the post 2000 land reform has radically changed the food system, and we don’t down its implications. My best guess, based on the mismatches between our local data and the aggregate statistics, is that the official stats are way off, but I don’t know by how much, and how this varies across the country.

Getting to grips with this, and improving the statistical basis for responses to drought is essential. At the moment huge efforts are based on massive guesswork. So it’s not surprising there’s large dispute about the statistics – some calling an impending catastrophe, others arguing things are not as bad as we thought. Bottom line is we just don’t know, and this is a dangerous situation.

It is dangerous practically, but it is also dangerous politically. We saw from 1991-92 how a late response in Zimbabwe was only salvaged by later decisive action. Famine was averted, and although many hardships were suffered, and a devastation of the livestock population occurred, a major humanitarian disaster did not unfold, despite huge economic losses. This of course was in a setting where politics looked very different. Today with fragmented authority and endless battles for political supremacy and a President who is 25 years older, decisive leadership are not qualities often seen. The government has however declared the drought a ‘national disaster’, although ministerial ineptitude and bungling has been widely condemned, with the opposition highlighting the confusion

It is interesting to contrast Zimbabwe’s experience with that of South Africa. In 1991-92 in South Africa, the drought response was impressive and coordinated, and drew on the incipient state structures of the ANC, impressively led by the Land and Agriculture Desk of the ANC’s Department of Economic Planning. As Coleen Vogel reminded me in a paper presented at a recent workshop, the decentralised network of Drought Forums provided the basis for a focused and effective response, and these in turn became the foundation for the post-1994 development committees, and the basis of the short-lived but radical Reconstruction and Development Programme effort. Fast forward to 2016, the ANC has been unable to respond effectively to the ravaging drought, with President Zuma failing to present a coherent policy, and getting heckled in parliament by opposition groups.

Wherever you are in southern Africa, politics and drought are intimately connected. And in 2016, the conditions for an effective response both in Zimbabwe and South Africa look worse than 25 years ago. And this despite huge amounts of effort invested in drought proofing, livelihood programmes, resilience building and so on in the intervening period; and yet more projects expected on the back of climate adaptation finance.

What has gone wrong?

Why is drought response as bad today, or often worse than before? Several things strike me.

First, despite all the hype about climate change and resilience building, very few such programmes look at the underlying patterns of vulnerability and how these have changed. Vulnerabilities arise very often from social and political factors, and so are less amenable to technical, donor-led interventions. Just adding sticking plaster in the name of climate ‘adaptation’ or ‘resilience’ is not enough. As we argued long back in our Hazards and Opportunities book, responses require tackling the root causes of vulnerability – including as I will show in a blog in a couple of weeks addressing inequalities, including of land.

Second, uncertainties cannot be planned for. By definition we don’t know the probability of the outcome, and very often we don’t know what outcome will result, meaning we are in the realm of ignorance. For administrative, bureaucratic and financing systems to respond in such settings is tough. Such systems are conventionally geared towards certainties, or at least predictable risks. This is why they so often fail. Predictions (based on risk assumptions) very often turn out not to be the case, and so trust is undermined. And administrators may argue for more funds or food reserves, only to be rebuffed. Dealing with what Emery Roe calls ‘mess’ in order to generate reliability in system response is essential, but it requires a radical overhaul of approaches. Governments, UN agencies, NGOs, district administrations and others are just not geared up, and they almost inevitably fail, as they are doing now.

Third, we have to remember drought is always political. The basic ‘contract’ between the state and people has to be renegotiated in drought periods, meaning engaging with rural people. For far too long elite politics in Zimbabwe (and of course in South Africa) has often ignored rural areas. The implicit deal is that rural votes for a ruling party are secured by making basic support available, including food in times of drought. But this dependency relationship cannot persist. People want more, and that means proper investment and support, not just palliative forms of development. As Zimbabwe’s (and South Africa’s) politics fragments, and the liberation parties struggle to maintain power, then people are going to look to others. This makes addressing drought firmly and effectively even more important, yet both ZANU-PF and the ANC are currently failing, as other political issues dominate.

Ignoring the drought, however, may well have long-term political consequences if the current failures continue. Watch out for some big impacts of drought on politics across southern Africa.

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


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Climate negotiations open in Paris: a perspective from southern Africa

Today COP 21 opens in Paris. Over two weeks a new climate deal will hopefully be agreed. It is a critical juncture for humanity. As high level officials discuss options in these negotiations, many people around the world are already living with climate change and uncertainty.

In Southern Africa, the effects of what is expected to be a massive El Niño event are being felt. El Niño is a natural climatic event when the equatorial waters in the eastern Pacific ocean warm. It occurs every few years, but this one is expected to be the most extreme ever. El Niño disrupts regular weather patterns, increasing the risk of droughts in some areas and heavy rainfall and floods in others. The consequences can be severe food shortages, as well as heightened risk of floods, disease and forest fires.

The UN is offering dire warnings, and contingency and emergency plans are being drawn up. Although El Niño is not due to anthropogenic climate change, climate scientists argue that the effects can be exacerbated. Are we witnessing the future of climate uncertainty under climate change?

There have been a number of El Niño events in southern Africa over the years, upsetting the older pattern of regular cycles of higher and lower rainfall. In the early 1990s, we studied the consequences in our book on dryland agriculture in Zimbabwe. Massive livestock deaths were recorded as grazing ran out, and people were plunged into deep insecurity. The economy lost 8 per cent of GDP, with ramifications across sectors. Our book ‘Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa – Lessons from Zimbabwe’ (sadly out of print, but you can still get it second-hand) was not especially framed by climate change debates, but reading it again now, it is highly relevant. Back then, we were indeed investigating what would now be called ‘climate adaptation’ responses in the context of extreme drought.

In Zimbabwe, the rains are certainly late and the prognosis from the Met Department is not good. The Zimvac assessment, echoed in recent press releases by UN agencies, warn of up to 1.5 million people being food insecure at the end of the season. As commented before, these estimates have to be qualified, but there is little doubt that the situation is severe. As ever, food security numbers are being used as a political football, and a spokesperson for Tendai Biti’s new PDP party, Jacob Mafume, clearly couldn’t resist making up a completely random number, claiming that 3.5 million people were in need of food aid.

This sort of irresponsible numbers game helps no-one, but disputes over figures should not detract from the serious business of responding to potential major drought impacts. Contingency planning is an essential task when disasters are potentially in the offing. Donor funds are flowing into Zimbabwe, but the lack of state capacity, and the continued hesitance of donors, NGOs and government working together, is hampering preparations.

But for the longer term, building local resilience to respond to climate uncertainty is essential. This inevitably must be central to any development option for the future in the context of living with climate change. No matter what happens in Paris, we will all have to live with the consequences of several degrees of global temperature rise.

This means more droughts, more floods, and less certainty for rainfed agricultural production and livestock keeping in particular. Resilience building has become a favoured buzzword, but it must start with what people already do, and build on local solutions and knowledge. This means storing more water, shifting to more drought resilient crops, creating livestock systems that can be buffered against climate shifts and more.

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



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Millions at risk of food insecurity in Zimbabwe? Or not? How the dire predictions were confounded by a good harvest

Last September I critiqued the assumptions behind the prediction that 2.2 million people would be needing food aid. In order to raise funds and galvanise attention, international agencies, local lobby groups and the media were using an extreme worst case scenario figure, based on a variety of assumptions, many of them highly questionable.

As it turned out, the rains arrived and a good season has followed (with some exceptions of course). In the section below, I offer some extracts from the most recent USAID-funded FEWSNET update on the food security situation in Zimbabwe. Good rains have boosted production and the current food security projections to September are largely very positive.

It is amazing what a change in the weather can do. But it also adds to my earlier plea to be cautious about headline figures and assumptions in forward projections. There is no harm in being cautious – this must be the sensible stance – but overblown figures and dramatic proclamations that serve particular interests should be guarded against.

Unlike the portrayals of imminent doom, the relatively good news about a reasonable harvest does not hit the headlines, or raise aid money, and the bad news stories from Zimbabwe persist. So for a change, and in case you are not regular readers of FEWSNET bulletins, I thought you would like an update on a good harvest and a reasonably positive food security situation

Here is a summary edited from from the May update:

The majority of very poor households across the country including the traditionally food insecure southwestern districts, will experience Minimal (IPC Phase 1) acute food insecurity outcomes between May and June owing to the projected above average 2013/14 harvest. Similar outcomes will continue from July through September as most households will still be consuming cereals from own production.

Markets will continue functioning but most of the cereal supplies are likely to be locally procured with a few imports by private traders. As households begin to access cereal from their own production there have been significant reductions in monthly maize grain price trends. Since March, national maize grain prices have dropped by 11 percent, but in comparison to national averages during the same period last year the prices are still 16 percent higher. For maize meal the national average stands at $0.66 and has decreased by 2 percent in comparison to the same time the previous month, but remains 4 percent higher than the national average for same time last year. Month-on-month maize grain prices fell by 26 and 16 percent in Manicaland and Masvingo Provinces, respectively.

Casual labor opportunities are projected to increase by up to 20 percent throughout the outlook period as a result of ongoing harvesting activities. Additional incomes, particularly in the northern areas, will be earned through tobacco preparation, sales and casual labor for poor households. However given cash constraints, most casual labor will likely be paid by in-kind.

The first round results of the Ministry’s crop and livestock assessment indicate that there are increased chances of an above average harvest, especially for maize, millet, and sorghum. This assumption is based on an estimated 16 percent increase in cropped area for cereals this season in comparison to the 2012/13 season. Maize alone this season accounts for approximately 1.6 million hectares, which is an 18 percent increase from the previous season. This increase in area planted for cereals is due to fairly well distributed rainfall patterns this season.

Ongoing tobacco curing and sales are boosting household income, particularly in the northern areas, where production levels are projected to have significantly increased. Based on the first round assessment, this year’s production levels has surpassed the 2012-13 season by about 21 percent. At the household level, higher than average tobacco production will increase farmer income levels and opportunities for casual labor opportunities (i.e. curing, processing, transportation) for poor households. Households benefiting from this labor will therefore receive additional income for food purchases and other livelihood needs.

Cotton production this season is 16 percent below last year’s levels. The processing of cotton is ongoing in cotton growing areas but incomes are likely to remain low. The reduction in the area under cotton is due to marketing price uncertainty given the low marketing prices offered during the previous season.

The increase in the availability of water due to the good rainfall this season will increase gardening activities from May through September. Vegetable production will provide both food and cash to very poor households.

Livestock body conditions in areas including Matebeleland South and Masvingo Provinces have significantly improved and are in good shape. Despite the improved pasture and water access for cattle, the calving rate included in the recent first round crop and livestock assessment report remains low at 49 percent, and only 2 percent higher than last season.


The FEWSNET report provides the assumptions it uses in this analysis, along with some useful graphics. The second assessment report is due shortly and this will update the situation. Certainly the tobacco harvest looks promising, and reports from many parts of the country shows grain production is good.

So, thankfully 2.2 million people in Zimbabwe didn’t need food relief assistance, and the agricultural production has prospered in a good season. This however should be no reason for complacency. Droughts strike hard in a system where irrigation is not widespread, and improving resilience to such shocks must be a key part of future investments.

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


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Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector goes from ‘bread basket to basket case’? Or is it (again) a bit more complicated?

 With tedious regularity we hear the narrative that Zimbabwe has turned from ‘breadbasket’, producing sufficient food for the population and even exporting it, to ‘basket case’, with near permanent reliance on imports, even from Zambia of all places. The reason forwarded is the ‘chaotic’ land reform that undermined the basis of food production in the country – the large-scale commercial sector (try these from Foreign Policy, The Economist and the UK Daily Mail from the international press for starters – just google for many more!).

Endless repetition often results in such narratives being accepted as fact. I have heard this argument from multiple sources, including those who frankly should know better. It’s a nice media sound-bite, and it serves particular interests.

But what’s the truth behind these claims? As ever ‘myths’ of this sort have some element of reality embedded in them. The graph below shows the pattern of maize imports since Independence in 1980. There is no doubt that maize imports have become more regular since 2000. In the coming year, we will likely have another high figure.

Graph 1: Maize imports, 1980-2011 (tonnes)


But the argument that Zimbabwe never had to import food before is simply untrue. The major drought of 1992 resulted in the highest ever import requirements, exceeding even the most dramatic predictions for this year. And there were other occasions too in the period from Independence to the 2000 land reform – in 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and earlier in 1980 and 1984. Each of these was associated with production collapses, due to multiple causes usually precipitated by drought.

If we look at the total production of maize and the pattern of rainfall (an averaged figure for the country as a whole) we see more interesting patterns. Since 1961, production has fluctuated dramatically, with the contribution of small-scale and large-scale production varying over time. The levels of variability have also increased over time, with grain (maize and small grains) production being much more tightly correlated with rainfall in recent years, and highly affected by climatic events. With longer-term climate change impacts likely to result in greater rainfall variability, this is concerning, and suggests the need for more drought proofing policies.

Graph 2: Maize production, 1961-2012 (tonnes)


Graph 3: Maize and small grain production and rainfall, 1980-2012 (thanks to Blessing Butaumocho for this graph)


The import figures are from FAOSTAT, with all the cautions and qualifications that go with that. They are therefore only official, recorded figures, and do not take account of informal cross-border trade. As we found out in Masvingo province during the 2000s, this is significant, involving all sorts of exchanges, with food flowing in often large quantities in both ways to Mozambique and South Africa. The grain production figures too are limited by the sampling approaches used, and are biased towards communal area production. Since 2000 sampling biases have meant that production from the A1 farms has not been accounted for sufficiently, although this is being corrected.

Bearing all these many limitations in mind, what should make of it all? Is the ‘basket case’ narrative justified? The data show that since Independence there have been three broad phases that have affected the overall food economy. Identifying these helps to focus attention on what needs to be done now, rather than harking back to an assumed golden era past.

In the immediate post-Independence period, there was much emphasis on food production. Government initiatives supported communal area farmers in particular through credit, loans and extension support. This was the much hailed phase of Zimbabwe’s ‘green revolution’. At the same time, large-scale commercial farmers continued to produce food, often through irrigation, as they had pre-Independence under the UDI sanctions regime.

Towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, especially following ESAP (the economic structural adjustment programme) from 1991, subsidies and other government support for communal area agriculture declined, and the nascent ‘green revolution’ collapsed. At the same time globally driven market incentives encouraged shifts of the commercial sector away from maize to higher value and often less land intensive production. This included livestock (with a big move of beef production to the Highveld), wildlife and game farming (for eco-tourism and hunting, including in the high rainfall areas), horticulture and floriculture (linked to supermarket value chains) and an expansion of tobacco. All of this meant that less maize was produced, although there was still a core irrigated production, increasingly of feed, that remained important. The impact of these changes on food production levels and methods was severely felt of course in the 1992 drought, but also in other years in the 1990s, resulting in an increasing frequency of imports.

After 2000, things changed again with land reform, and the maize production under irrigation more or less disappeared, with the exception of a few A2 farms being revitalised in recent years. Communal area production remained depressed, and increasing land competition meant that surpluses were rare. Season to season storage was limited as small grains that store well were replaced by maize. It has taken some years for A1 farms to gain momentum due to establishment challenges, but for much of the 2000s, the economic crisis affected production dramatically. After 2009, and the stabilisation of the economy, things improved, but droughts affected production for several years, including the last season. Without irrigation on any significant scale focused on food production, output has become more variable and imports have been necessary.

Thirteen years on, we would expect that the (no longer) ‘new farmers’ would be established. Most reflections on resettlement identify a decade as the minimum period for establishment and transition, but this assumes sustained support and investment. This has been starkly absent, both from government and donors who have shied away from development interventions in so-called ‘contested areas’. The result has been a slower improvement than hoped for.

In our study areas in Masvingo, we see a progressive increase in the proportion of households producing more than their household food needs through the 2000s, with 30-40% regularly selling some surplus maize. However, the rate of growth has tailed off over time, as longer term challenges – of soil fertility and inputs, of infrastructure, of markets and so on – have hit. But overall production and levels of food security in the A1 farms remain significantly higher than in nearby communal areas. Unfortunately, as discussed last week, this dynamic is poorly represented in national figures on food production, as production from new resettlement areas often goes unrecorded, and increasingly such output, especially of maize, is channelled via informal channels, and so is difficult to capture in standard surveys.

Production of maize from the new resettlements is however highly vulnerable to rainfall variation given the lack of irrigation. In addition, price and market incentives will probably continue to see a drift towards contracted crops, such as tobacco and cotton, away from food production, meaning that overall food deficits and import requirements will persist, even if across all commodities aggregate agricultural production and income increases.

Since the 1980s, first large scale commercial farmers and now resettlement farmers have shifted from growing maize to other higher value commodities, for the same perfectly sound reasons. Since the 2000s, food production is even less resilient than it was in the 1990s, due to the lack of last-resort irrigation, either on state or private large-scale farms. The maize surplus era of the 1980s, when both communal and commercial farmers were growing large quantities, backed by government support, has long gone. But this does not mean that Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector is a ‘basket case’. It has restructured, and is confronted by new problems, requiring new solutions. Dreaming of the 1980s will not help.

What should we conclude? Here are four thoughts to end on:

  1. Zimbabwe has often imported food, and will continue to do so. This is not a bad thing if the prices are reasonable, and trade is efficient. However in times of regional drought, this is risky, and an emphasis on local production, and strategic reserves, is needed. As argued a decade ago by Thom Jayne and Mandi Rukuni, a simplistic policy approach to national food self-sufficiency does not make sense. Expensive, overflowing grain silos may not be the best indicator of a sound food economy, but instead there is a need for a resilient system that involves managed imports in times of drought combined with improvements in local production.
  2. Drought proofing such production is needed as a core policy to improve the resilience of the system. This includes improving storage systems, so that people can tide over from one season to the next; encouraging switching to drought resistant crops such as small grains, and continuing to invest in drought tolerant maize varieties; improving irrigation systems, including very small scale water harvesting systems, as well as ‘schemes’; and focusing on livestock as an important asset for exchange in times of drought.
  3. Price and market incentives need to ensure that it pays to grow food crops, and there is a balance between maize and tobacco production overall. This includes extending contracting systems to food crops, and improving input supply and other support to ensure that food crops are profitable. Efficient grain markets are essential to avoid distortions.
  4. Investment should be focused on areas where surplus production is possible, and this must include first and foremost the A1 resettlement areas. Ensuring effective market links so that such surpluses can be exchanged locally and regionally will be important. This will mean investment in roads, transport and so on, and avoid any restrictions on movement of grain and agricultural commodities.

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


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