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Land and tenure in Zimbabwe’s communal areas: why land reform was needed

Access to land is central to the livelihoods of rural people, but in the communal areas this is highly constrained outside the land-extensive Lowveld site of Mwenezi. Even in dryland Chivi average holdings are only 2.1 hectares, while in Gutu North they are as small as 1.4 hectares on average (see table below). The communal areas of course were established as labour reserves in the colonial period, and were never meant to afford the opportunity to accumulate independently. The aim was to provide some level of social security in old age, and a place for women and children to live, while men migrated to town or to the farms and mines to work. This wage labour was then the source of income and agricultural production just complementary subsistence.

  Mwenezi Chivi Gutu West Gutu North
Average land area owned (ha) 6.5 2.1 1.6 1.4
Cultivated in last year (ha) 4.4 2.1 1.5 1.0
Rented in land (%) 4.1 2.0 1.0 0.0
Rented out land (%) 2.1 2.0 4.1 3.6
Households with members with land in A1 resettlements (%) 17.1 5.0 3.1 3.6
Households with livestock in resettlement areas (%) 11 0.4 3.1 `1.8
Women’s independent control of land (%) 48 43 48 21
Gardens near home (%) 35 26 30 6
Gardens away from home (%) 1 57 36 0
Irrigated land (% of households) 2.8 0.5 10.4 0
Trees planted in last 5 years (%) 25 46 41 58
Conservation measures added in last 5 years (%) 25 21 8 25

Some managed to break away from these strictures in the past, and there were always a few communal area agricultural entrepreneurs – the hurudza – who ran large herds or farmed large fields, often through polygamous family labour. But for most, the colonial system of land use kept the reserves poor but surviving, and purposely so. Following Independence this did not change hugely. The post-independence resettlement schemes provided opportunities for a few, but most continued with patterns of circular migration to elsewhere in Zimbabwe or from some areas to South Africa, as part of a demographic cycle. With employment opportunities drying up in the 1990s this changed thanks to structural adjustment, with new patterns of land use emerging in the communal areas including some intensification (see below). Nevertheless, the basic patterns persisted within a dualistic agrarian structure, with the communal areas highly constrained.

Only with the major land reform did this change radically with the significant expansion of opportunities to gain access to land through the ‘fast-track’ land reform programme following 2000. But from our communal sites, despite there being resettlement areas nearby (which was the basis for the choice of study areas), relatively few moved from the households in our sample to the new areas. Even when they did, apart from in Mwenezi, connections between the old homes in the communal areas and the new resettlement areas have declined over time, although there still remains important exchanges of livestock, labour and food that continue. Those lucky enough to get land in the new resettlements are doing much better: having access to land, especially in the higher potential districts of Masvingo and Gutu, makes a big difference, and as our work has shown now over many years, there are opportunities for accumulation and livelihood improvement that are significantly greater than those in the communal areas.

Overall, following land reform the communal areas remained much as they did. There was of course some reduction in population density but not enough to make a big difference. The communal areas remain extremely land constrained, and this conditions the opportunities available. With low yields and limited inputs this is not enough to live from. Since the 1980s there have been loads of projects aimed to improve agricultural production and livelihoods in the communal areas, and these continue under various banners. When living in a communal area in Zvishavane district in the mid-1980s I got involved in some of these. They certainly improved things at the margins, but the historical constraints of these being ‘labour reserves’, not agricultural areas with potential, made opportunities limited. Only with land reform did opportunities increase, and then only for some. As argued in various blogs in this series, questions must be raised about these ‘development’ interventions: do they really make a difference?

Gardens and homefields: new patterns of agriculture in the communal areas

In addition to their main land holdings many people in the communal areas also have gardens. As more intensive areas of production, these have often been the focus for intervention but usually as group efforts rather than individual enterprises. Gardens can be near the home or further away near a suitable water source. Apart from Gutu North, where gardens seem to be (surprisingly) few, between 83% and 36% of households have such gardens. These tend to small, usually less than 0.1 ha, and irrigated mostly by hand, with most vegetables for home consumption (see other blogs). Most are managed by women, and such gardens are an important source of relish year round.

With the exception of Gutu North, where land is especially constrained, about 40-50% of lead women in the households have access to land in their own right. This is not necessarily because of being the household head (because a husband is deceased or they have divorced), as so-called female headed households make around a quarter of the sample, but through household level arrangements as part of the marriage bargain. In most cases, this is in relation to the allocation of certain land – including gardens – to women for sole management. Very often this involves particular crops, including groundnuts, Bambara nuts and so on.

The availability of irrigation plots depends on the proximity of a government scheme or an organised ‘group garden’. Unlike in the resettlement areas, particularly in Masvingo district, people have not invested in small-scale irrigation, but if there is a scheme some from a household may get a 0.1 ha plot. Overall the numbers are small, however, and this is not a big part of land use or production, despite these being dry areas. Irrigation schemes have long been a central pillar of investment in the communal areas, but they have tended to be focused on giving a larger number of irrigators just enough irrigated land, and this is not a driver of accumulation like the small, private initiatives in the resettlement areas, which have taken over the land along rivers, streams and around dams. Schemes are also prone to difficulties, as they are reliant on pumping equipment that often breaks down or ceases when power is not supplied. Many also resent the disciplining effects of scheme requirements, with specified rotations, crop choices and so on, under the control of an irrigation scheme extension officer.

Outside the Lowveld, there has been a shift in allocation in land in the communal areas, which has gendered implications. Very often the total land area is divided between homestead areas, often extensions of the home plot to include land around, and outfields which are the ‘traditional’ fields allocated way back in line with the Native Land Husbandry Act rules, where settlements (lines) and fields were separated in the land use plan. With more people and more land cultivated this separation has broken down and very often the outfields are seen as secondary. They are further away, more difficult to protect and require extensive production, which may not be possible because of lack of draft animals and labour. By contrast the homefields are a focus for more intensive production, using home waste, ash and labour from the home. These are often based on intensive garden production, often with hoes and hand irrigation, in small areas, and very often are the domain of women. Per hectare, productivity is much higher and from these small areas the main production is realised.

This is different to the nearby A1 resettlement areas that, in the villagised sites, have been planned in a similar way to the old ‘reserves’, with settlement separated from grazing. Here there may be small home gardens, but the main farming is done in the now cleared outfields. This is quite a different operation because of the scale, the level of inputs and the outputs expected, with different gender implications. While women are heavily involved in agricultural production, outfield farming is usually led by male heads of household, while women often focus on gardening.

Indeed, because of lack of inputs, notably labour (often because of age and infirmity) the outfields may not even be cultivated. For example, in the land-scarce area of Gutu North, on average 0.4 ha of a total of 1.4 ha, over a quarter, was left fallow across two relatively good rainfall years. In the resettlement areas there is also land left fallow, but this is usually because the land area is too big or it has not been completely cleared for ploughing by oxen or tractor.

These (relatively) new patterns of land utilisation in the communal areas, with the focus on a more garden-like form of production in the home fields, also affect the market in land rentals and sales (notionally illegal). In other parts of the country where production is more reliable because of better rainfall the emergence of ‘vernacular markets’ in land have been widely documented. You might expect that, given land scarcity, even if land exchanges are banned, these would emerge in these sites, with those able to make better use of land either buying up or renting in land.

The data show that this is not happening in the way that would be expected, as few rent out and rent in, and no one admitted to land sales. This may of course be a bias in the data, as people do not like to admit illegal activity, but based on our more qualitative research the data probably reflect the existing situation. Bottom line, as discussed in earlier blogs, people don’t have the resource to make a go of agriculture even on expanded plots, and so the demand for land, except at the margins (and usually around particular better quality patches near homesteads), is not high, and land markets are limited.

While areas are small and production limited, investment in particular areas continues. This is demonstrated by the planting of trees (mostly for fruit, sometimes for shade) and the expansion or rehabilitation of conservation measures (mostly contour ridges to reduce erosion). Tree planting, unsurprisingly, increases along the rainfall gradient from Mwenezi to Gutu North, with the most households recording planting trees where the land is most densely populated and the rainfall higher. Investment in conservation measures was noted by around a quarter of households, with the exception of Gutu West (for reasons that are not clear). This shows that there remains a commitment amongst a significant minority in sustaining production for the long term.

Tenure challenges

Investment, rental markets and so on happens despite these areas being under ‘communal tenure’. Some argue that a reform of tenure systems, and the offering of some form of private tenure will improve tenure security and increase production in the communal areas. I seriously doubt whether this will be the case. Despite this notionally being state land, these areas are held securely with usufruct rights, allocated through local institutions, usually a hybrid arrangement between local state officials (councillors etc.) and ‘traditional’ leaders (headmen, chiefs etc.), with allocation and inheritance processes mediated by close kin networks in extended household arrangements in family based villages. Through such arrangements land rentals are permitted, but sales are seriously frowned upon. This puts a brake on an acceleration of land sales and so land consolidation, although the odd corrupt local leader is not immune of course.

In the communal areas, therefore, a mix of de facto private and common property exists, which is recognised not formalised. A hybrid bricolage of informal and formal institutions supports this, which by and large serves the function of delivering land security to land holders, as well as resolving conflicts and disputes over land. It is not neat – there are no bits of paper to formalise it all – but it (mostly) works. The economists and planners who yearn for formalised systems will I fear be disappointed, as the constraint to production is nothing to do with tenure security, but due to structural constraints of finance, assets and land access. These will not be addressed by an expensive land tenure reform programme, which will, as so many places in Africa, be a wasted effort.

In the nearby A1 resettlement areas, the situation is different. There are fewer, long-standing local institutions and local kin networks to regulate land administration, and more formal systems are often required (although these are always hybrid combining resettlement committees of seven, war veterans, party officials and traditional leaders, sometimes involving the same people), to address land allocation, subdivision and inheritance, particular where there disputes. Unlike in the communal areas, where the land is being held as ‘home’, and production is limited, there are different stakes in the resettlement areas.

Here land is more extensive and valuable, and often significant levels of production are realised. Ensuring security for this is essential. For the A1 areas, this is less of a problem, but for the A2 medium-scale farms of, where finance for investment is vital, having a more formal arrangement so that land can be used as collateral, even through a lease agreement with the state, is important. For A1 areas, ‘offer letters’ or permits to occupy are issued, but their status remains unclear, especially in regard of financing.

The failure to address these land tenure issues comprehensively, but in a nuanced and differentiated manner, post-land reform has been a major policy failing, as discussed before on this blog. The priorities though must be addressing A2 leases, not communal area tenure reorganisation, where lack of land makes opportunities for development extremely limited. Communal areas still act in many respects as ‘the reserves’, but now without the labour in the wider economy. Beyond some marginal improvements, communal area livelihoods are not going to improve without an improvement in the wider economy. The focus for land-based interventions therefore must be elsewhere where the prospects are better.

This post is the third in a series of nine and was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

This field research was led by Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene. Data entry was undertaken by Tafadzwa Mavedzenge

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