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Ethnic minorities in rural Zimbabwe: identities and livelihoods

Another new book from the ever-impressive Unit of Zimbabwe Studies at Rhodes University, led by Kirk Helliker, is now out. It is called Livelihoods of Ethnic Minorities in Rural Zimbabwe and is edited by Kirk Helliker, Patience Chadambuka and Joshua Matanzima with 11 excellent chapters based on in-depth research along with the introduction. It’s (again) horribly expensive, but hopefully you can lay your hands on it via a library.

Despite the dominance of the Shona and Ndebele in popular and political constructions of Zimbabwe, there are many ethnicities within Zimbabwe’s borders. Some have come relatively recently; others have been there for centuries. The ethnicities covered in the book include Chewa, Tonga, Tshwa San, Shangaan, Basotho, Ndau and Hlengwe.

Ethnicity is described in the introduction terms of features such as “common descent, history or national origin; familial ties or kinship relationships; similar cultural and/or spiritual arrangements; and shared linguistic attributes”. And all intersecting with race, class, gender and other dimensions of difference. As the editors argue, an ethnic minority is not one that may be demographically small in size, although this is often the case, instead “the key question entails the relationship between ethnicity and power in a particular nation-state or even within a sub-region of a nation-state…. As a general trend, then, ethnicities excluded from power or incorporated into power in a subordinate manner are minority ethnicities.”

This is certainly the case with all those listed above in relation to the Shona or Ndebele. However, of course, as the book explains the there are multiple sub-categories within the Shona for example, notably, the Manyika, Zezuru, Ndau, Karanga and Korekore. And ‘the Shona’ just as with ‘the Ndebele’ was a construct, reinforced by colonial administration, Christian missionaries and subsequently a nationalist state.

The construction of ethnicity

As the book’s introduction explains, colonial power was exerted through a a divide-and-rule strategy: “This involved the emergence of political programmes, administrative structures and territorial spaces focusing on ethnicity. Hence, colonially constructed ethnic identities were mapped onto fixed territories (initially called the Reserves) and this took place alongside the reinventing of tribal or ethnic polities regulated by way of the dictates of British-inspired indirect rule, overseen by salaried and appointed chiefs.” Christian missionaries reinforced this through the translation of the bible into different sub-dialects of ‘Shona’.

The creation of Shona power has been a feature of nation-building since colonial times. Sometimes refracted through particular identities – most notably Zezuru in the Mugabe era and now perhaps Karanga under Mnangagwa – the assertion of a particular authoritarian ethno-nationalism has sometimes been brutal, most notably the Gukurahundi massacres of (mostly) Ndebele in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

As discussed in the introduction to the book, during the struggle for Independence, the nationalist movement became closely aligned to the revival of ethnic-cultural nationalisms, carefully mixing a nationalist rhetoric with enlisting people into the struggle by drawing on (often reinvented) pre-colonial histories and appeals to cultural and linguistic identities, a theme explored by Ndlovu-Gatsheni in his 2009 book “Do ‘Zimbabweans’ exist?” During the liberation war, as Schmidt explains for the Honde valley in her 2013 book “Colonialism and violence in Zimbabwe’, grievances against the colonial state were expressed in ‘vernacular mode’, not in terms of standard nationalist discourse.

Fluid and transitory ethnic identities

Ethnicities and identities are of course not fixed. Fluidity, transition, reinvention and reinterpretation characterise practices. As the editors explain there is always the “possibility of multiple forms of belonging existing simultaneously.” Indeed, this is almost always the case, as the cases explored in the empirical chapters of the book nicely show. This is not surprising as ethnicity must be negotiated in relation to livelihoods and particular political contexts. This is especially so where ‘minorities’ live, often in more marginal places away from centres of power and frequently on borders, where others with similar ethnic origin may live in a neighbouring state.

For example, in Zimbabwe, the Tonga have close links with Zambia and the Manyika and Ndau with Mozambique. Numerous studies of these borderlands show how ethnicity and livelihood practices are intertwined, as for example in Hughes’ study of Vhimba on the border with Mozambique. Here, a ‘flexible citizenship’ exists because people continuously move across the border. The mixing of different ethnicities has occurred continuously across Zimbabwe, in particular because of labour migration. The movement of many workers to farms and mines during the Federation era resulted in some areas being settled by those whose origins are from Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia. Displacement from the war in Mozambique had similar effects.

In the book, Chadambuka looks at Chewa people, originally from Malawi, who lived and worked on white commercial farms in Zimbabwe since the 1950s. During the land reform many former farmworkers were displaced with some moving to communal areas or others being incorporated into the post-land reform settings. Many had lost all connection with their parents’ or even grandparents’ homes, but did not have true ‘Zimbabwean’ identities. The case study of Bushu communal areas in Shamva District, looks at how ex-farmworkers had to reinvent themselves in these new spaces in struggles over land and resources.

Those who remained on farms or moved to urban areas and remained in larger groups were able to draw on their original cultural identities to support their ‘community’, as Daimon explains for those with Malawian ancestry and who practise their Nyau/GuleWamkulu cultural dances as a form of self-identification and support in harsh times. In the same way, as Mujere explains, the Basotho migrants who were allocated freehold in ‘African Purchase Areas’ had to seek new ways of belonging, becoming integrated in a relatively elite ‘master farmer’ class of Shona farmer in Masvingo, and later becoming involved in nationalist movements with their new compatriots.

Many rural areas across Zimbabwe have had long histories of migration, with Gokwe being a case in point. Here ethnicity becomes crucial as newcomers clash with indigenes over land, religion and cultural practices, while the state tries to impose strict ordering through resettlement and land improvement schemes. In a number of papers, Nyambara, for example, explores how the Shangwe and Madheruka fought over differences in farming and religious practices, with the former following traditional religion and the latter adopting Christianity.

Ethnic conflicts and development

Ethnicised conflicts arise during the implementation of rural development in areas where there are mixes of people. A number of chapters highlight this for wildlife related development – which occurs on the margins of the country where such ethnic diversity is pronounced. The CAMPFIRE programme, for example, has seen many such disputes, for example between the Tshwa San and Kalanga/Ndebele in Bulilimangwe and Binga, as described by a while back by Madzudzo and Dzingirai. In the book, Jani looks at another part of the country – Chapoto Ward in the north of Zimbabwe- where the Doma and Chikunda compete for resources in the context of wildlife use. The Doma are deemed to be subservient because of their ethnic position and lose out. This affects their livelihood opportunities in relation to rural development programmes.

As the editors note, “Just as ethnicity may condition livelihood strategies, changes in livelihood options likely affect ethnic identity”, resulting in shifts and compromises in how people present themselves, at least publicly. As McGregor has shown, in Binga, Tonga people voted en masse for the opposition, as the ZANU-PF rhetoric about land reform did not resonate, as they wanted land back that had been taken for conservation and the flooding of the Kariba dam not white commercial farming, as Matanzima and Marowa explore in the book.

Land reform and ethnic contests

Fast-track land reform was explicitly not aimed restitution but was seen by the state as a national project of redistribution for all Zimbabweans. However, this did not prevent ethnic conflicts arising in parts of the country where resentments arose from the imposition of Shona or Ndebele settlers in ‘their’ land.

As Wolmer explains in his 2007 book, Shangaan people were motivated by ancestral-ethnic claims, and have argued strongly for restitution including in the sugar estates. As Ndhlovu shows in his chapter, the history of the Chisa people is a story of endless displacement but combined with resistance. While benefiting from land through the land reform programme, their claims to ancestral land within the Gonarezhou national park has not disappeared.

In the same way, Ndau identity was significant for those occupying plantations in the Eastern Highlands or commercial farms in Chipinge as shown in studies by Marongwe and Zamchiya. As Nyachega and Sagonda show, those who took over land – in their case the Aberfoyle/Katiyo tea estates – new livelihoods linked to new identities had to be generated. With tea in decline, they had to generate new options, resulting in the massive ‘banana boom’ in this region, with claims staked on often questionable claims around cultural-ethnic belonging.

In many areas, including our own sites in Masvingo, this reinvention of ethnic origins has fuelled multiple disputes over land and authority, including numerous on-going contests over chieftaincies and headman positions. Claims to land through past residence, the presence of grave sites and so on is often tenuous, but reflective of the power of ethnic histories in current land politics.

Land, livelihoods and ethnic identity

This is an important book as it uncovers the diversity of ethnicities and identities in Zimbabwe, rescuing Zimbabwe’s story from one that focuses only on the contests between the Shona and Ndebele. The ethnic landscape – and senses of belonging, identity and cultural association – is much richer and more contested and fluid. And importantly, this landscape shapes and is shaped by livelihoods and the ways land is used. For those concerned with land and livelihoods this is a crucial issue, and the book is an important resource.

Lead photo of Jacob Mahenehene and family from Chikombedzi

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

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The neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa: two new books

Two important new books have come out on the neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa recently. Both take a radical agrarian political economy stance on the theme, but from different angles. Such analyses have important implications for thinking about agrarian reform, the role of contract farming and the place of land and agriculture in African economies.

Processes of neoliberalisation

The first book Capital Penetration and the Peasantry in Southern and Eastern Africa is edited by Freedom Mazwi, George Mudimu and Kirk Helliker, respectively from the Sam Moyo African Institute of Agrarian Studies, PLAAS at UWC and the Zimbabwe Studies Institute at Rhodes University. The collection has contributions on South Africa, Uganda, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Mozambique and Eswatini, and two on Zimbabwe and makes the case that “the hallmark of the neoliberal agenda, for agrarian spaces, has been the entrenchment of landed property rights and the push for market-led land reforms”.

Neoliberalism, the editors explain, is characterised by “unequal exchange on global markets, large-scale land dispossessions, underfunding of the agricultural (particularly smallholder or peasant) sector, and macro-economic initiatives such as the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).” The contemporary form of financialised, globalised capitalism in particular allows capital to penetrate places that had previously been ignored, resulting in significant extractive profits. This they argue results in marginalisation, impoverishment and increasing differentiation alongside elite capture.

In this book, neoliberalisation is seen as a process, not a singular state – a useful point that gets away from some of the very simplistic and polemical treatises misusing the term. As the introduction to the book explains, the processes of neoliberalisation are variegated, uneven, contradictory and subject to repeated crises and moments of rupture. Interests associated with neoliberalisation are pushed by class interests, which are allied globally with monopoly capital and western powers aligning with national elites in Africa, but there are equally forms of resistance, locally and nationally.

Extractivism

This process seen across Africa and illustrated across the chapters of the book is very much centred on processes of extraction, which serve the needs of metropolitan states. This includes “land concentration and grabbing (by private, domestic and international capital), monopolistic control over natural resources, and new forms of production arrangements (for example, contract farming) involving agrarian capital— in which there is corporate control over flows of commodities, credit and value.”  As Ye Jingzhong and colleagues explain, extractivism has moved from a pattern of single sites of mining, land grabbing to a more generalised process, encompassing whole agrarian systems.

Several case studies in the book (e.g., Sakata, Mhlanga and Bruna) home in on ‘contract’ farming as a globally-driven agricultural production and marketing strategy that, they argue, reduces the autonomy and livelihood opportunities of the peasantry. The result is, they argue, increasing impoverishment and differentiation and a reinforcing of the international division of labour, with value extracted elsewhere.

While there is a much wider debate about contract farming, including some (such as our work) that highlights its immediate benefits for the relatively (but not extremely) poor, situating the growing phenomenon in a wider historical and political frame is definitely useful. It is the contingent political economy that influences whether contract relations ‘upgrade’ and so support local production or ‘capture’ the peasantry through extractive relations, as Kojo Amanor has pointed out.  

Overall, the book argues that sustaining the neoliberal project is in the interests of metropolitan powers and capitalist interests globally, with strong alliances across nations, drawing on ‘theories of imperialism’ as articulated so effectively by Utsa and Prahbat Patnaik. Those countries that challenge the neoliberal tenets are isolated, and sanctions are imposed to get them into line, the book argues.

The case of Zimbabwe’s land reform is of course the example given, but there are others. As they argue, following Sam Moyo, Praveen Jha, Paris Yeros and others, “this raises complex questions about state autonomy vis-à-vis global capital as well as the importance of resolving the national question through pursuing relatively autonomous development paths”, a theme picked up especially in the second book.

An Afrocentric perspective?

The second book for this review is edited by Vusi Gumede and Toendepi Shonhe, respectively from the University of Mpumalanga and formerly of UNISA in Johannesburg, and is called ambitiously “Rethinking the Land and Agrarian Questions in Africa” (available as an e-book and a hard copy), again with a number of case study chapters from across east and southern Africa.

Developing the ideas of the great thinkers of African agrarian studies including Samir Amin, Archie Mafeje and Sam Moyo, the book makes the case for an Afrocentric perspective, where ideas around agrarian change – and land reform in particular – are recast, away from a Eurocentric epistemology. Such standard Eurocentric views “underscore the preoccupation with property rights and thus the need to remain in harmony with global capital, enabling colonial systems to persist.”

Instead, the book argues for an alternative way of thinking about land and its value that decolonises the land and so provides “a basis for creating new platforms for social change and broadened accumulation”.  This focus on constructions of knowledge around land, law, policy, property and so on is a really useful intervention, and opens up new areas of debate not framed in a restrictive way by conventional thinking.

Delinking and autonomous development

In arguing for a radical departure from neoliberal, colonised thought and practice and a liberation of the mind towards ideas that are rooted in African initiative and local economies, the work of Samir Amin on delinking comes to mind (whose work is drawn upon in both books). His 1987 short note on delinking encapsulates many of the ideas being revisited by African scholars of agrarian settings today, inspired of course by the important mentor to many, the late Sam Moyo (who the second book is dedicated to and whose work informs much of the thinking in the first).

“The development of countries at the periphery of the world-capitalist system, consequently, passes through a necessary “break” from this world capitalist system – a “delinking” – that is to say, the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of “globalization”. But the meaning we give to the concept of “delinking” is not at all a synonym for autarky. We mean the organization of a system of criteria for the rationality of economic choices based on a law of value, which has a national foundation and a popular content, independent of the criteria of economic rationality that emerges from the domination of the law of capitalist value that operates a world scale.”

Amin goes on to suggest a model of national and popular auto-centred development, which “does not consist of rejecting all relations with the outside, but in submitting the external relations to the logic of an internal development that is independent from them.” This means accepting trade relations, market exchanges, technologies and aid/external support on different terms, resisting the extractivism of neoliberalism and the imperatives of a particular style of agrarian policy.

In this sense, the vision is different to one of localised, autonomous ‘food sovereignty’, but accepts that a break with hegemonic power (and as Gumede and Shonhe argue, ideas and styles of knowledge-making) allows for liberation, even if ‘western’ technologies, external trade and so on are part of the solution. As Amin and others argue, a key question is who can benefit from such popular, nationally-determined development? Questions of class and the dangers of capture once again come to the fore. As with neoliberalisation, struggles for alternatives must be seen as a process.

In the Zimbabwean context, the “break” with the West occurred following land reform and the imposition of ‘sanctions’ and the subsequent lack of investment and finance. This perhaps should have offered some of this opportunity. Indeed, in some of the land reform settings we work in a sense of autonomy and independent economic activity on farmers’ own terms is evident. And during the pandemic, due to force of circumstance, this accelerated as people generated resilience and capacities to survive the effects of lockdowns in a collapsing economy. However, as we have discussed many times on this blog, these opportunities remain constrained. This is why Amin argues that delinking is not just autarky, instead a progressive national state needs to support such endeavours and this has been lacking.

Resisting imperial impositions from metropolitan powers and transforming the depredations of neoliberalism requires more than just getting by as farmers in rural Zimbabwe are incredibly good at doing, but requires a mobilisation, across classes and with allies in the state and beyond, for liberation to be realised. These books help us think about this process, but (as ever) there are no easy answers.  

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

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The future of Zimbabwe’s agrarian sector: a new book

A new book on land and agriculture Zimbabwe – The Future of Zimbabwe’s Agrarian Sector – is just out with Routledge and edited by Grasian Mkodzongi. It’s fiendishly expensive, but a paperback version is promised soon. Meanwhile be in touch with authors for copies of chapters or look out on Researchgate or other platforms for pre-print versions, as there’s lots of good material.

The ‘new dispensation’: a failure?

The book takes the post-‘coup’ transition to the ‘new dispensation’ after 2017 under President Mnangagwa as its starting point. It asks, how has the ‘open for business’ rhetoric made a difference to the agrarian sector following the land reform in 2000? The introduction argues that “the post-Mugabe era is characterised by a neoliberal macro-economic agenda which has intensified land grabs and resource thefts to the detriment of peasants and other vulnerable groups.”

It is this shift towards a business-oriented, large-scale farming discourse and away from a peasant-centred one that characterised the Mugabe era that has reframed the debate, the book argues. An alliance with Chinese capital (and others) linked to a ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ class connected to ZANU-PF political and military leadership has resulted in resource grabbing on a large scale, undermining the gains of land reform, Mkodzongi argues. The result is intensified class struggle over land, as political elites ally with international capital and foreign powers to acquire resources, using political influence to remove land from those who are out of favour politically or who cannot resist, as in the case of the notorious Chilonga communal area land dispute.

While many recognise the inequities that persist following land reform, with demands for land from youth, women, former farmworkers, displaced urbanites and others, instead the current government’s focus appears to be on improving production efficiencies in more commercial operations through subsidy and other loan schemes (such as the ‘command agriculture’ programme). This shifts the political dynamics of the post-land reform era away from redistribution, reinforcing the power of those who gained land in the reform in medium-scale A2 farms, and supporting the process of consolidating land holdings through joint ventures.

Diverse outcomes

Chapters cover a broad range of themes, highlighting once again the richness of empirical work on-going in Zimbabwe. The book is dedicated to the late, great Sam Moyo, and he would I am sure be impressed by the breadth of work on-going, represented not only in this book but also others (which I will review soon too).

Felix Murimbarimba and I delve into the politics of A2 (medium-scale) farms based on our survey and interview work in Masvingo and Mazowe, looking at the mixed fate of A2 farmers and the influence of political alliances on rural politics. Meanwhile, others look at patterns of investment, particularly in the A1 areas, notable the chapters by Tom and Chipenda, who looks at joint-ventures.

A focus on particular crops is taken by Ncube, Kamuti and Ncube (tobacco) and Taringana (coffee), who all show how smallholders are now growing what were deemed to large-scale commercial crops. As Ndhlovu speculates new forms of locally based agriculture in A1 farms may offer prospects for ‘food sovereignty’.

The new agrarian dynamic is also creating conflicts, displacements and patterns of exclusion and differentiation, with implications for gendered access to resources as Chiweshe and Bhatsara and Batisai and Chipato show in different cases. As the time from the land reform lapses, questions of and the rights of women are brought to the fore, for example. Overall, as we’ve seen in our work again and again, there is a clear vibrancy in the agrarian sector following land reform, but also many problems.

Structural constraints

What is clear is that the ‘new dispensation’ did not resolve these challenges. Maybe it couldn’t. The structural constraints of lack of finance, sanctions and deep corruption all have contributed to lack of action by the new government. The populist policy rhetoric of being ‘open for business’ was largely empty, as action did not follow beyond the opening of resources for grabbing by elites and others. The result has been increasing tensions and a more tense struggle between classes, with the smallholder A1 beneficiaries of land reform pitted against others.

The business-friendly discourse and the land compensation deal with white farmers did not impress western governments who latched on to a particular human rights discourse around political reforms as their central conditionality, preventing the release of strangulating economic sanctions, as Chipuriro and Mkodzongi explain. Despite various policy initiatives, the corruption by political elites has made even the more sensible ones irrelevant, as rent is extracted at every turn whilst political factions vie for power.

The result has been economic collapse, which has massively constrained growth in the agrarian sector. Attempts to woo the Chinese failed as they too were not fooled, and the mega-projects promised did not materialise. Mkodzongi documents this rather sorry tale both in the introduction and conclusion to the book.  

Ways forward?

So, what to do about it? There is a clear failure of the current political dispensation, but Mkodzongi and others are not optimistic about alternatives either. As he notes, “the new neoliberal policy trajectory is in conflict with the ethos of the fast-track land reform, which sought to restructure agrarian relations in favour of the broader majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens, in particular the peasantry”.

As a consequence, a new agrarian-focused politics is required, something hinted at in our chapter, but requiring alliances between those generating production on the A2 farms (not everyone by any means, given patronage allocations) and the more vibrant and more numerous A1 farmers, who have significant electoral influence. A new progressive political coalition together with those in urban areas also struggling over land and livelihoods – as explained by Mujere and Mwatara – is essential. Perhaps this will deliver the ‘national political consciousness’ and ‘ideological clarity’ that Mkodzongi advocates.

However, to be effective, such an alliance must in turn construct coherent policies, deliver security of tenure, provide support for agriculture, develop rural infrastructure, facilitate markets and address the needs of those left behind by the land reform. At the moment, sadly, this looks far off, with any forthcoming election outcome unlikely to resolve these issues, whatever the result. 

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

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The changing face of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe

Over the last four weeks, the blog has explored the changing face of urban agriculture across our sites in Chikombedzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa, Masvingo, Chatsworth and Mvurwi. We have explored the growth of urban agriculture and its different forms (backyard, open space and titled) and examined the changing relationships between rural and urban production. A photo story captured some of the dynamics, including the patterns of investment that are on-going. The role of urban agriculture in food security in an economy with few other options, currency chaos and rising inflation was also explored.

A number of themes emerge:

  1. Urban agriculture is not just backyard cultivation, but a much more significant endeavour, with often large areas planted, sometimes with significant intensification through irrigation and mechanisation.
  2. Urban/peri-urban production is essential for food security. This was especially so in the pandemic when the trend to urban cultivation accelerated, but is also important in the context of Zimbabwe’s economic situation where inflation is high and other jobs scarce. Self-provisioning not only for ‘relish’ but for staples and selling surplus is a feature of urban agriculture today.
  3. The relationships between the rural and urban are being reconfigured, as production (of some crops) moves to town. This means adjusting marketing practices for rural producers as they cannot compete with those in town. Rural producers must switch to different crops, new forms of transport and new marketing strategies.
  4. For towns in largely rural areas, many have access to plots in both town and in the rural areas. Investment in land and housing in town has been an important feature of investment from the proceeds from agricultural production, especially for those with larger land areas in the land reform areas. Shuttling between rural and urban production sites is important, with equipment and investments being moved between sites.
  5. Access to land and water for urban agriculture is vital, but is unevenly distributed. Political patronage and brokerage plays an important role in governing land access in urban areas. Municipal by-laws and town planning regulations often formally ban urban agriculture, putting officials in an invidious position, where they have to police the laws, while recognising the importance of urban agriculture in straitened circumstances (including for themselves).
  6. Urban farming is important for men and women, rich and poor. But different people gain access to different types of land thanks often to political connections and can invest in different ways, depending on existing resources and access to capital.

In case you missed them, links to the four blogs are below, with the most recent first.

Urban agriculture: surviving in a collapsing economy

Urban agriculture in Zimbabwe: a photo story

Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe

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

Thanks to the team – Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Felix Murimbarimba, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi – who have contributed the research material for this series from across Zimbabwe.

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Urban agriculture: surviving in a collapsing economy

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at urban agriculture in different parts of Zimbabwe; from a city like Masvingo to small towns and growth points like Chikombedzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa, Chatsworth and Mvurwi. In all cases we see the massive growth of urban agriculture. This takes many forms from intensification of backyard plots to open space farming in insecure, but extensive patches to more regularised small farms in urban settings.

Responding to economic chaos

This growth of urban agriculture is a response to the economic chaos that has enveloped Zimbabwe. Rising inflation, diverging exchange rates across multiple currencies and the collapse of the formal sector, with massive lay-offs has put people living in towns in extremely precarious positions.

People have to find ways to survive and nearly everyone has a small plot to provide food, offsetting the escalating costs of purchasing. Small-scale backyard vegetable growing, perhaps with a few mealies, has always been part of urban life, but today urban agriculture is different.

There is greater investment (many new wells, pumps, solar power) and areas planted have expanded massively, outside backyards to nearly every available space, as the photo story last week showed. Competition for urban land is intense and brokers and officials are making money from deals as people struggle to claim plots.

With both intensification and extensification, urban agriculture has become much more commercialised, with people selling to traders, supermarkets and engaging in contracting. This in turn is having an effect on rural agricultural supply and marketing, the traditional source of agricultural products in towns, and so patterns of food security.

New jobs in town

Urban agriculture is also creating jobs in town, both formal and informal. Informal jobs in the hustle economy are known as kukurokoza or kungwahva ngwahva (the latter a 2021 single from Qounfuzed). From providing labour for production to offering agricultural support services, employment is being created. This is especially important for young people who may not have land and who have no jobs.

Piece work employment for production starts from land clearing and preparation through to planting, weeding and harvesting. People may be employed to help with sales and marketing too. Others are employed to build pig sties or fowl runs and then feed and even market pigs or chickens for example.

Growing urban production has resulted in huge demand for transport, whether push carts or vans to move crops to markets. As areas cultivated expand, tillage services are in demand, and those with tractors offer ploughing across the open spaces in town. Pest control services are also being offered, with individuals buying knapsack sprayers and chemicals and moving around offering to spray crops in people’s backyards.

As people intensify, the need for water expands, and those offering well digging or borehole installation services are in high demand. Sellers and installers of irrigation equipment are also experiencing a brisk trade, although such products and services are only available for those with money and are only suitable for those with secure plots.

State involvement and politics

As urban agriculture expands, public services are getting involved. Urban agriculture presents a dilemma for town planners and council officials, as a comment on a recent blog in this series noted. They know it’s important and many may have plots themselves, but outdated by-laws from the colonial era notionally make much of such farming illegal.

Meanwhile, agricultural extension agents are beginning to work more in urban areas, offering advice and support to urban farmers. Farmer-to-farmer exchanges are happening as new urban farmers share experiences. Pfumvudza plots can be found, and those engaging get free inputs. As elections near, such subsidised programmes become more important and urban constituencies become significant for the incumbent party who have lost much support to the opposition over the years.

Economic linkages

As with all agriculture, forward and backward linkages associated with intensifying economic activity become important in generating employment opportunities. Urban agriculture not surprisingly shows many similar characteristics to what we seen in rural areas, where agricultural growth since land reform has had spin-off linkage effects in the wider local economy, including small towns situated in rural areas.

With the growth of agriculture in towns themselves, these linkages are being transformed, often to the detriment of rural production and marketing. Some are shifting operations from rural areas to urban areas, moving irrigation equipment, vehicles, grinding mills and so on to towns. With these changes come new patterns of (mostly informal) employment, and new opportunities especially for young people. As demand for urban land spirals not only for building but also farming, those who control land in and around towns become more and more powerful.

As we have discussed in this short blog series, urban agriculture is the centre of both a new politics and a new economy linked to land and agriculture, as well as a new dynamic of food security, with major implications for how people are able to navigate and survive in a collapsing economy.

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

Thanks to the team Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Felix Murimbarimba, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi working across Zimbabwe.

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Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

Last week’s blog discussed the massive growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe. How is this affecting the wider food system? What are the impacts on traditional sources of production in the rural areas? And what was the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in precipitating these changes?

With transport costs rising and inflation hitting hard again, the incentive to grow locally and self-provision grows. For farmers in rural areas, this has always been possible, which is why they have weathered the compounding storms of economic collapse and the pandemic relatively well. As we have reported a number of times on this blog, the supply of food to towns from the resettlement areas where surpluses are produced fundamentally shifted the food supply system across the country since land reform.

The importance of resettlement areas in food flows

Over the last 20 years, those living in town have become increasingly reliant on food from those producing in the land reform areas. I was talking to a colleague in Zvishavane recently and, as in previous years, the resettlement areas to the north of the town along the Gweru road are supplying maize and other produce to town dwellers, both through informal exchanges between relatives and the market. Where rural food supplies are close and transport is possible – in this case along a major road where buses and other vehicles move frequently – the flow of food to urban areas remains key.

This avoids the costs of the centralised food system of the past where maize and other staples were sold to the Grain Marketing Board and then on to millers and those in town bought processed flour for consumption. This route is now expensive and inefficient. Today there are many more flows of food within the system, most of which are unrecognised and unrecorded – which, as discussed here before, is why the national food security data are so problematic.

However, the high and secure production from the De Beers resettlement farms near Zvishavane does not mean that town residents are not investing in agriculture. The same colleague told me that many are moving mobile grinding mills from the rural areas to town, where crops are being grown in ever larger amounts. This is not just small-scale vegetable gardening to provide ‘relish’, but significant amounts of grain for basic food provisioning. This is an important change, and one that has accelerated during the pandemic.

Pandemic transformations

Through the pandemic, as we have documented many times in our two-year blog series on COVID-19 experiences in rural areas, lockdowns prevented the transportation of agricultural goods to urban areas. Roadblocks, complex permit arrangements and incessant requirements for bribes made normal agricultural market expensive and full of hassle.

Over time, as we have documented, some found ways round these restrictions by moving and selling at night or making deals with the authorities, but it was not easy. This meant that the cost of rural produce increased relative to that produced in town. In the past, because of the limitations of land, the costs of water and labour and so on, this was not the case. Through the pandemic, the comparative advantages of crop production – including of cereals, oil seeds, livestock, as well as the usual vegetables – increased in urban areas. For example, today urban producers can supply a bundle of rape to the market for a dollar, while a bucket of maize from town is US$5-6, while in the rural areas it’s US$7-8. The same goes for broiler chickens, with a rural one costing US$5 compared to one in the rural areas being US$7. This reverses the price differentials of a just few years ago, and this is having major consequences.

We asked about changes through the pandemic in all our field sites, and a rough-and-ready estimate was derived from a number of informants. This is not hard science but reflects the reality that we have all seen. The results are shown below, which show the approximate percentage of residents in different towns in our study areas who are farming in open spaces (meaning beyond just backyard vegetable gardening) in two periods.

SitePrior to COVID (2016-2019) (%)During COVID (2020 to date) (%)
Mvurwi2540
Masvingo3570
Triangle/Hippo Valley4555
Maphisa2050
Chatsworth3055
Chikombedzi2545

Since the onset of COVID-19, many lost their jobs and while some returned to rural areas, others had to make ends meet in town. The lack of transport possibilities during COVID meant that town residents also had assure supply, once offered by exchanges with rural relatives and others. Shops became expensive as the economy declined further and inflation crept up. This was made worse by the unstable local currency (RTGS, Zimbabwe dollars) and many preferred to barter and exchange or produce their own food.

With schools closed and sports, church and other activities cancelled there was a greater supply of labour for agriculture in town. Even urban-based young people shifted attitudes towards farming, seeing it as an option to make a bit of money and help out their families. The array of crops has expanded too. Farming involves producing staple crops, vegetables, but also responding to the demand for COVID-19 treatments (garlic, ginger, chilli, lemons) as well as ornamental trees for the development of new suburbs being invested in.

The result has been a sharp increase in demand for land in urban areas, particularly those where the rural hinterland is further away, as reflected in the higher percentage engaging in farming in the city of Masvingo compared to other small towns, where residents have closer connections to nearby rural areas, with many having access to their own plot.  

Consequences for rural production: permanent or temporary?

This shift towards urban farming was an important adaptive response to the combined challenges of economic meltdown and the pandemic. It is having profound effects on the wider food system and putting pressure on rural producers who now must compete with lower cost urban farming where market access is assured, with urban farmers able to capture markets in timely fashion given their proximity. Rural farmers, particularly those who managed to capture lucrative contracts with supermarkets in town, are complaining bitterly.

With the breaks in supply during the pandemic, contracts were lost and tomatoes, vegetables and other crops sold regularly to urban wholesalers and retailers rotted. Rural producers are having to think of their own solutions, including the drying and processing of vegetables for later sale, when urban production is lower. However, others are leaving land fallow and reducing agricultural output as it’s impossible to sell surpluses, returning to a more subsistence pattern of self-provisioning.

Will this be a permanent change, or is this only a temporary shift responding to particular circumstances? It’s difficult to tell. The prospects for economic renewal in Zimbabwe look bleak, even if the pandemic restrictions have gone for now. The connections between rural and urban in changing patterns of food production – and associated issues of water and land use – will be themes to watch in the coming years. And this nexus definitely must become a key focus of future efforts to assess food insecurity and address vulnerability across the country.

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

Thanks to Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi for their contributions and to Felix Murimbarimba for both researching and coordinating.

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NEW BOOK: Researching Land Reform in Zimbabwe

Researching Land Reform in Zimbabwe is a new book compiling 20 articles our team has published over the last 20 years. All the chapters bar one have appeared as peer-reviewed journal articles, with the material covering the period from early land invasions in 2000 to more recent developments. All the articles are available, many as open access, but there was a demand to have these all in one place.

The book is available for free as a pdf, or via Amazon as and e-book (£0.99) or a print copy (£10.68) if you want it for your shelves and with a nice cover! It’s a bit of a bargain as we charge no royalties and this is just printing/hosting costs! It’s a hefty tome, coming in at nearly 600 pages, and weighing more than a kilo. I know this because at least half my baggage allowance on my flight last week to Harare was taken up by books. These are now being distributed around university and institute libraries across the country. Access to literature remains a challenge in Zimbabwe as elsewhere in Africa, and even open access material cannot necessarily be easily downloaded if internet speeds are slow. So, as with previous books of ours, we are trying to make physical copies available in libraries…. Old fashioned I know, but important in my view!

Most of the chapters are co-authored outputs, based on the work of an incredibly dedicated team. The core team started working together in the late 1980s, under the aegis of the then Farming Systems Research Unit of the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Ministry of Agriculture. Under the leadership of the late BZ Mavedzenge, we kept working together on various topics and, following 2000, focused on land reform experiences, starting in Masvingo. Sadly, BZ passed away prematurely in 2017 and Felix Murimbarimba has since led the team, supported by long-standing team member, Jacob Mahenehene. Jacob Chaumba, Easther Chigumira, Nelson Marongwe, Toendepi Shonhe, Chrispen Sukume and William Wolmer among others have also been part of the research team at different points linked to different projects. Over the years, we have also worked with many field assistants, very often agricultural extension workers based in the field sites, and their inputs have been immensely important for the overall research effort. While this book focuses on the research by our team, the work is complemented by that of many others. For it is this wider corpus of work, conducted in the context of a vibrant research community working land and agriculture in Zimbabwe that continues despite the challenges.  

There are 20 chapters in the book organised across six themes:

  • ‘Experiences of land reform’ presents our overarching data on what happened to people’s livelihoods in different sites in Masvingo province over time.
  • ‘Political contestations’ highlights the changing political dynamics emerging in our sites, resulting from different trajectories of accumulation and so social differentiation.
  • ‘People and places’ looks at particular groups of people – such as young people and farm labour – and locates their experience in the wider land reform story and certain places, including small towns in farming areas.
  • ‘Production and markets’ examines particular commodities – notably livestock, tobacco and sugar – and investigates changes in production systems, including through farmer-led irrigation.
  • ‘Environmental dynamics’ and touches on the contests over land in wildlife areas and the impacts of foot-and-mouth disease in a new agrarian setting.
  • ‘Land reform in the wider context’, touching on broader questions of long-term rural development and what is the meaning of ‘viability’ in the Zimbabwean farming context.

Much of this work has already appeared as blogs on Zimbabweland, where published papers are shared or the ideas tested out before writing an academic article. But the final papers are a more polished product, situated in wider academic debates about agrarian change.

What are some of the overarching conclusions that emerge from all this work? They are difficult to summarise as there are differences across sites, between people and over time, but the listing below, taken from the newly written introduction to the book, offers some headlines.

• Farmers on the new resettlement areas are producing and accumulating from investments in agriculture. Patterns vary widely between farms and across years, but a distinct pattern of ‘accumulation from below’, particularly in the A1 smallholder land reform sites, is seen. However, political and economic conditions over the past 20 years have seriously limited opportunities for most.

• Farmers who gained access to land during the land reform came from many different backgrounds. In the A1 smallholder areas, the majority were previously poor, small-scale farmers from the communal areas or were un(der)employed in nearby towns. In the A2 areas, there was a mix of those who applied through the formal route (mostly civil servants, including teachers and agricultural ministry staff) and those who gained access to land through patronage arrangements,, drawing on close connections with the party and security services. Outside this latter group, which is a small minority, the beneficiaries were not ‘cronies’, nor even necessarily ruling party supporters.

• Many of the new farmers are investing in their farms. First this was focused on land clearance and building new homes, but since this has extended to investing in new technology (notably irrigation pumps), as well as tractors and diverse forms of transport for marketing. Some are able to invest off-farm and there has been a growth in investment in real estate in nearby towns, especially in the tobacco-growing areas.

• Over time, there has been a distinct process of social differentiation, within both smallholder (A1) and medium-scale (A2) farms, with some accumulating, while others struggle. This results in new social relations between farms and between sites, as those who are not surviving from farm-based income must seek employment on other farms or develop off-farm income- earning options.

• There are major contrasts between A1 and A2 farms in all of our sites. A1 smallholder farms have performed relatively well, often producing surpluses, with investment flowing back to the farms or supporting relatives in other areas, including the communal areas and towns.

• A2 farms have by contrast struggled. As larger medium-scale operations, they require finance and capital investment, and this has been difficult to secure due to lack of bank finance or government support. Beyond a few years when the economy stabilised, the economic conditions over the past 20 years have not been conducive to successful farm business investment. That said, some have managed, and again there is substantial differentiation among A2 farms.

• The spatial restructuring of rural economies through land reform has resulted in new patterns of economic activity, with the sharing of labour, equipment and other resources across A1, A2 and communal areas. The concentration of locally-based economic growth driven by agriculture has had important effects on small towns, and many of these have grown significantly.

• During the land reform, resident farm labour on farms, especially in the high-potential areas, largely lost out on the allocation of new land. Farm labour has had to reincorporate in a new agricultural economy and has faced many challenges. Gaining access to even small pieces of land is crucial for survival, as the demand for labour varies and the working conditions are poor.

• Now over twenty years on from land reform, there is a next generation of young people who are seeking out agriculture-based opportunities. They may benefit from subdivision of their parents’ land, but many must survive on small patches. Investment in small-scale irrigation through the purchase of small pumps and, linked to horticulture production, is a favoured activity.

• Finance for agriculture is extremely limited, constraining opportunities for small- and medium-scale resettlement farmers alike. Banks have so far rejected either permits to occupy in the A1 areas and leases in the A2 areas as a basis for lending. State investments have been limited, and are often misdirected and subject to corruption. Western donors have not supported land reform areas as these are deemed ‘contested areas’ and so are effectively subject to ‘sanctions’.

• The dynamics of agriculture is highly dependent on the type of crop. Some crops, such as tobacco and sugar, are linked to contract finance arrangements, supported by private companies. This allows farmers to invest in their production and some have been highly successful, although the terms of the contracts are not always favourable. Other crops, including grain crops and most horticulture, require self-financing  or reliance on very selective government schemes, and so are more challenging business propositions; although again there are important successes, notably around small-scale irrigated horticulture.

• The contrasts between A1 and A2 areas and the differentiation of farmers within each mean that there is a highly heterogeneous farming population. There are different classes of farmer emerging, ranging from emergent rural capitalists to petty commodity producers to diverse classes of labour, only partly reliant on agriculture. This results in a new politics of the countryside, with quite volatile political affiliations.

• The new agrarian structure, centred on a smallholder-based agriculture and complemented by medium-scale farms, requires a very different policy approach to agriculture, with new forms of support, including a revamped and revived agricultural administration system to encourage investment. Economic and political instability, combined with wider sanctions, has massively restricted the potential of land reform farmers to drive rural economic growth, but the potentials are clearly apparent, along with many, on-going challenges.

I hope you enjoying reading the articles  – or even reading them again. Do let those who might find the material useful know about where to buy the book or download it.

ORIGINAL SOURCES

The following lists the original sources of each of the chapters in the six sections of the book after the introduction. Those articles that are published open access are reproduced under Creative Commons licenses, while others are either author submitted versions or are reproduced with permission.

Experiences of land reform (chapters 2-5)

Scoones, I., N. Marongwe, B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, J. Mahenehene, and C. Sukume. 2011. Zimbabwe’s land reform: challenging the myths. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(5), 967–993.

Scoones, I. 2016. Land reform, livelihoods and the politics of agrarian change in Zimbabwe. In: Pallotti, A., Tornimbeni, C. (eds.), State, Land and Democracy in Southern Africa, 127–149. London: Routledge.

Scoones, I., N. Marongwe, B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, J. Mahenehene, and C. Sukume. 2012. Livelihoods after land reform in Zimbabwe: understanding processes of rural differentiation. Journal of Agrarian Change, 12(4), 503–527.

Shonhe, T., I. Scoones, and F. Murimbarimba. 2020. Medium-scale commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe: The experience of A2 resettlement farms. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 58(4), 601–626.

Political contestations (chapters 6-8)

Chaumba, J., I. Scoones, and W. Wolmer. 2003. From jambanja to planning: the reassertion of technocracy in land reform in south-eastern Zimbabwe? Journal of Modern African Studies, 41(4), 533–554.

Scoones, I. 2015. Zimbabwe’s land reform: new political dynamics in the countryside. Review of African Political Economy, 42(144), 190–205.

Scoones, I., J. Chaumba, B. Mavedzenge, and W. Wolmer. 2012. The new politics of Zimbabwe’s Lowveld: struggles over land at the margins. African Affairs, 111(445), 527–550.

People and places (chapters 9-11)

Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, and C. Sukume. 2019. Labour after land reform: The precarious livelihoods of former farmworkers in Zimbabwe. Development and Change, 50(3), 805–835.

Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, and F. Murimbarimba. 2019. Young people and land in Zimbabwe: livelihood challenges after land reform. Review of African Political Economy, 46(159), 117–134.

Scoones, I. and F. Murimbarimba. 2020. Small towns and land reform in Zimbabwe. The European Journal of Development Research, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-020-00343-3.

Production and markets (chapters 12-15)

Mavedzenge, B.Z., J. Mahenehene, F. Murimbarimba, I. Scoones, and W. Wolmer. 2008. The dynamics of real markets: cattle in southern Zimbabwe following land reform. Development and Change, 39(4), 613–639.

Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, and C. Sukume. 2018. Tobacco, contract farming, and agrarian change in Zimbabwe. Journal of Agrarian Change, 18(1), 22–42.

Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, and F. Murimbarimba. 2017. Sugar, People and Politics in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld. Journal of Southern African Studies, 43(3), 567–584.

Scoones, I., F. Murimbarimba, and J. Mahenehene. 2019. Irrigating Zimbabwe after land reform: The potential of farmer-led systems. Water Alternatives, 12(1), 88–106.

Environmental dynamics (chapters 16-17)

Wolmer, W., J. Chaumba, and I. Scoones. 2004. Wildlife management and land reform in south-eastern Zimbabwe: a compatible pairing or a contradiction in terms? Geoforum, 35(1), 87–98.

Scoones, I. and W. Wolmer. 2007. Land, landscapes and disease: the case of foot and mouth in southern Zimbabwe. South African Historical Journal, 58(1), 42–64.

Land reform in the wider context (chapters 18-20)

Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, and F. Murimbarimba. 2018. Medium-scale commercial farms in Africa: the experience of the ‘native purchase areas’ in Zimbabwe. Africa, 88(3), 597–619.

Mushongah, J. and I. Scoones. 2012. Livelihood change in rural Zimbabwe over 20 years. Journal of Development Studies, 48(9), 1241–1257.

Cousins, B. and I. Scoones. 2010. Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africa. Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(1), 31–66.

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

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Zimbabweland is ten years old!

It’s (more or less) the tenth anniversary of Zimbabweland. I had no intention of carrying this on for a decade, but by now there are rather amazingly 433 posts, representing nearly half a million words and cumulatively 450,000 views from all over the world.

Not surprisingly, most of the readership is from Zimbabwe and South Africa, but the US and the UK are also spots where there are many regular readers. But, in addition to these four, there are a remarkable number other countries too with Zimbabweland readers, as well as all those who read and share via Twitter and other social media platforms. The blog is also republished on quite a few other media platforms, including The Zimbabwean, The Standard, The Chronicle, The Herald and others.

Across the political spectrum therefore there’s much interest and, as long as the original source is credited, I am more than happy for the blog to be republished (although sometimes it’s odd to be designated a ‘correspondent’ on a government newspaper when I haven’t been in touch with anyone!).  I am also pleased that others make use of the material and share it. I noticed recently that the Commercial Farmers’ Union is reposting, and my own institution, the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex always shares to a wider ‘development’ audience.

Usually this time of year, I do a festive top-20 hits of the year, but I thought I would do the top-20 of all time on this occasion. The results are at the end of the blog. Of course biased towards older posts, it’s the ones on livestock and agricultural entrepreneurship that continue to be top hits, reflecting the strong readership from those involved in farming in Zimbabwe.

Looking back, looking forward

Looking back, the blogs have changed quite a bit over time. They are longer these days, with more hyperlinks and now have lots of photos. Over the past few years, I have done a few popular series on themes that we’ve been working on – such as small towns, young people, pfumvudza, irrigation, soils, and agricultural entrepreneurs (among others) – as well as summarising our longitudinal studies across our sites. Most recently, the sequence of blogs on COVID-19 responses (now over 20 since March 2020) has been an important experiment in real-time reflection on an unfolding story. With the Omicron variant sweeping the world and dramatically affecting Zimbabwe already, we will have a further update before Christmas.

Although I mostly pen the blogs, they are more often than not a collective endeavour, emerging out of discussions with the brilliant team, ably led now by Felix Murimbarimba who took over after Blasio Mavedzenge’s untimely death. This sort of research-based writing is very useful as a precursor to more in-depth, elaborated academic pieces. A lighter style and more immediate publishing means that the results of our work get shared and, although there are not many direct comments on the blog, the feedback we get is incredibly useful as we craft other academic publications or define new research directions.

The blog was originally established to provide context and response for our book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, which came out with James Currey and Weaver Press in 2010. By 2011, I was so depressed (and annoyed) about how people seemed to dismiss the findings out of hand, without any engagement with the data. The BBC did what was generally a very good piece in the ‘Crossing Continents’ series reflecting on our work, but had to ‘balance’ it with completely unsupported and misleading commentary, not grounded in research data. Such biases were not confined to the British press, who have been notoriously bad at reporting on Zimbabwe. Sadly, it also included fellow researchers, who seemed not to have read the book and wanted to make political rather than properly researched academic points.

Building on empirical engagements, encouraging debate

The febrile atmosphere of that time has thankfully subsided and there is a more engaged commentary on the good and bad of land reform (as there are of course both). Much more research has emerged since, importantly from Zimbabwean researchers. They had to confront, as had we, how land reform had transformed the agrarian landscape. This body of research is now substantial, and I am pleased to learn that many up-and-coming researchers find the blog and its now extensive archive useful (many blog views are to my surprise of old pieces that come up in searches apparently; the search facility on the blog works pretty well too). I equally try and offer occasional summaries of new published material on the blog, giving profile to this important new empirically grounded work. Researching Zimbabwe’s land and agrarian setting should always be a collective, collaborative effort, and it is one feature of working in Zimbabwe that is immensely rewarding.

I hope that the blog continues to provide insights that are relevant to civil servants, policy makers, NGOs, donors, diplomats, academics, students, as well as farmers in our sites and beyond, offering a different, but more grounded, perspective to the mainstream. I know donors subscribe and discuss it, but often don’t follow through, so ingrained are the biases and prior assumptions about Zimbabwe. The same applies to Zimbabwean government officials, but for different reasons. But at least there’s a more informed debate, and I hope readers will continue to share and discuss the blogs published here, even if they disagree.

I am not sure how long it will carry on as it’s quite a lot of work and not officially part of my day job, but there’s always something new to stay on Zimbabwe’s agrarian challenges – and occasionally other themes impinging on Zimbabwe’s fast-changing context. And, post pandemic (hopefully), we are hoping to re-energise our field research once again during 2022. So expect more results and commentary from the field.

Zimbabweland’s top 20 hits (by number of downloads since 2011)

1 Policies for land, agriculture and rural development: some suggestions for Zimbabwe
2 Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs I: pig production
3 Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs II: Poultry
4 Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector goes from ‘bread basket to basket case’? Or is it (again) a bit more complicated?
5 Zimbabwe’s beef industry
6 Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs III: irrigators
7 Panic, privilege and politics: South Africa’s land expropriation debate
8 Zimbabwe’s poultry industry: rapid recovery, but major challenges
9 Reconfigured agrarian relations following land reform
10 Abbatoirs and the Zimbabwe meat trade
11 Rural cattle marketing in Zimbabwe
12 A hot commercial success: growing chilli in the eastern highlands
13 What role for large-scale commercial agriculture in post-land reform Zimbabwe: Africa’s experience of alternative models
14 Command agriculture and the politics of subsidies
15 Farming under contract
16 Irrigating Zimbabwe: time for some new thinking
17 Gender relations and land reform in Zimbabwe
18 Tractors, power and development. Mechanising Zimbabwean agriculture
19 Land tenure dilemmas in Zimbabwe
20 The Politics of Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement

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

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

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Challenging simplistic land degradation and restoration narratives in Zimbabwe

In the last blog, I reviewed the results of our land use analysis using a combination of Landsat satellite imagery, document/archival analysis and field interviews from Mvurwi area in northern Zimbabwe from 1984 to 2018, now out as an APRA Working Paper.

A number of themes emerged. The research showed how in this miombo savannah environment there were cyclical shifts in land use between woodland, grazing areas and arable fields depending on a set of intersecting factors. These including demographic pressure, but also included economic, social and political dimensions. Shifts occurred often quite dramatically at particular moments, when a confluence of factors combined. Such factors were often uncertain and contingent, with the result that linear, secular change in land use and the environment was not seen.

Instead, there were often cycles, a waxing and waning of different land use combinations, depending on the context. This was the case in the post-land reform period, where the land is dominated by a mix of smallholders and medium-scale farms. Today there is only one large estate remaining, contrasting with the pre-land reform period when the Mvurwi area was dominated by white-owned large-scale commercial farms.

There are some important wider implications that emerge from such an analysis that gets to grips with longitudinal environmental and land use change and its intersecting drivers. In the following sections, I identify four themes.

Non-linear, dynamic change

Unlike as is so often assumed, environmental change is non-linear and dynamic. This has important implications for how we understand ‘land degradation’, or ‘desertification’.

Degradation is often assumed to a be a negative shift from an assumed pristine (or wild) state. But what if this state doesn’t exist, and in dynamic ecologies there are more variations – whether from herbivory, fire or human intervention? Assessing degradation depends on defining an ideal state that is departed from, but the ideal may be something that is already transformed: like farmland or grazing areas – which expand and contract depending on a range of variables.

In this sense, the linear notion of degradation (and its equivalent, desertification) has little meaning in such variable environments.

Intersecting drivers

Environmental change is usually the result of intersecting drivers. As we saw in Mvurwi, change is not the consequence of a single, secular pressure, as in the Malthusian narrative so often imposed on environmental and land use debates.

Demographic factors intersect with economic, political, social and other dimensions too. And this means that change is not inexorably in one direction. There are key moments when changes happen – conjunctures when an array of factors combine, which are inevitably contingent and always uncertain.

Predicting environmental change is not an exact science, and the doomsday narratives that forecast environmental disaster may often be widely off the mark. Trees may increase, but also decline. It all depends on complex, intersecting and dynamic drivers of change, which have to be understood.

Beyond the closed forest obsession

Land use analysts have an obsession with closed forests. They are easy to see from space (large blocks of red on the satellite interpretations) and they fit the popular focus on deforestation as the major indicator of environmental damage.

But most forested areas are not closed forests (as in the Amazon for example), but open forests and woodlands, savannahs and parklands, where trees may dominate but are interspersed with different types of vegetation, including open grassland. This is the ‘natural’ landscape of much of Africa, although of course maintained over millennia by grazers, fire and human activity.

Classifying such landscapes is tricky on satellite images. Is it forest…or is it bush, or grassland or cropped land, or a mix? Trees are in all of these classificatory ‘types’ and often in significant numbers, but often are not spotted in the push to decide on a classification across the forest/not forest binary.

The sooner the grip of the standard, closed-forest image of ideal landscape gives way to a more variegated, patchy, complex understanding of temporally and spatially variable savannah ecosystems the better. We need more savannah ecologists and fewer foresters (or those obsessed with a particular type of forest) in this line of work.

Meaningless baselines in carbon assessments

The focus on ‘forests’ (or more particularly closed forests) has implications for how we assess baselines in environmental assessments for carbon markets, and increasingly popular approach to mitigating climate change through ‘offsetting’ and land ‘restoration’.

Gaining benefits from the carbon market through protecting forests to fix carbon assumes that there is a baseline of protected forest. Carbon premiums are then paid on this basis, paying out to protect the forest from damage that would otherwise occur. This all assumes that a closed forest is the ideal, and that protecting such areas (or when ‘degraded’ reafforesting through tree planting) will be beneficial.

But, in open ecosystems like savannahs, the dynamics of carbon sequestration are such that grasslands combined with woodland give the highest benefits, and the idea that a successional endpoint of a closed forest is somehow best is mistaken. The idea of a ‘baseline’, so central to carbon forestry schemes (like REDD+), simply doesn’t make sense, as we saw in studies in Hurungwe.

Again, it is the linear view of environmental change, the obsession with the idea of a closed forest and a lack of understanding of land use change dynamics that such schemes are premised on – and which a large and growing carbon market is defined by. These are shaky foundations for environmental protection, and it’s no wonder that so many such carbon forestry schemes don’t work despite the hype. 

Dispelling simplistic linear ideas of environmental change

All this is why the sort of fairly basic but cross-disciplinary perspective that we pursued in our study in Mvurwi, now published as an APRA Working Paper, is so important to dispel simplistic ideas about linear environmental change and usher in more sophisticated and appropriate measures for environmental protection and land use management for such dynamic settings.

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

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

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

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

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

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Dynamic drivers of land use change in Zimbabwe

What are the drivers of land use change and how do they interact over time? Are the changes, uni-directional and linear, or are the dynamics more complex? This is the question we posed for our study site in Mvurwi in northern Zimbabwe for the period 1984 to 2018, now published as an APRA Working Paper.

Using Landsat satellite imagery we looked at land cover change across the area over 34 years, including former large-scale farms (now resettlement farms, both small-scale and medium-scale) and one ward in the nearby Chiweshe communal area. This broad assessment was complemented by an in-depth look at a particular site, focusing on one ward. The satellite analysis was combined with field interviews with those who had lived through these changes, together with a wider analysis of changes in demography, agricultural policy, economic contexts and politics. What emerged was an interesting story.

Open forests: a dynamic environment

Mvurwi is a high potential region receiving on average about 750 mm of rainfall annually. There are sandy loam soils and a diverse miombo savannah woodland. These are open forests, with mixed patches of denser woodland with patches of grassland in between. In the past grassland areas were created and maintained by the actions of elephants and other large herbivores, or exist in places such as wetlands where trees will not grow.

Today, such patches are created through land clearance combined with grazing by domestic animals. As William Bond from UCT explains is in his excellent book – Open Ecosystems: Ecology and Evolution Beyond the Forest Edge – open forest environments are very common across Africa and are the dominant ecosystem in southern Africa’s savannah environments. These are not the classic closed forests of the foresters’ and satellite image analysts’ imagination, but a mixed, variegated environment, maintained by herbivory and human action.  

This has implications for how we understand land use change in such environments. It is not a binary forest/not forest choice, perhaps with the intermediate option of ‘scrub’, but a much more dynamic landscape that shifts through different pressures as forest areas increase and decrease and grassland (or cropped) patches change.

Land use change: cyclical not linear

What happens to land use when you redistribute land to multiple new land holders? Well, forest cover declines and a more open landscape emerges with woodlands and farms interspersed. This much is obvious – although the number of papers I see condemning Zimbabwe’s land reform for destruction of trees is amazing, such is the strength of the negative narrative.

However, this is the least interesting part of the story. Our analysis indeed showed that land reform did of course result in a decline in forest cover through clearance of lands on what were large, underutilised large-scale farms, often used for very extensive grazing. This occurred especially between 2000 and 2004, following the land reform of 2000. But this was not a permanent state as so often assumed. After 2004, woodland cover increased again (2004-09), before decreasing in the most recent period (2009-18).

Cyclical patterns were equally repeated in earlier periods when the land was under different ownership. The past was not a presumed ideal of continuous forest cover, undisturbed by the horrors of small-scale farming. Although we did not have satellite imagery earlier and did not look at the old aerial photographs, I am sure that in the earlier periods, when tobacco farming was expanding and profitable on the large-scale farms, there were similar dynamics as seen today as settlers cleared the land.

What explained all these changes? It was not a standard Malthusian story of inexorable rises in population pressure resulting in deforestation – the story told in so many of those doom-and-gloom papers I mentioned earlier. Instead, there were cycles – periods of woodland expansion then retreat, and then repeats, as conditions changed. These cycles were driven by a combination of factors, not just population growth; although this is of course part of the story.

In the early 1980s, both large-scale and communal farming was recovering from the impact of major droughts, with vegetation cover bouncing back.  Wider economic and political conditions had a clear effect. For example, the structural adjustment period from the early 1990s saw large-scale farmers contract their operations to small, high value production of horticulture, floriculture and so on, with some switching to wildlife. This resulted in an expansion of woodland as bush expanded to previously farmed fields. In the communal areas, structural adjustment saw the withdrawal of state support and subsidies, and so a contraction of farming activity is seen.

By contrast, in more recent years there has been a decline of forest cover due to agricultural expansion. The 2000 land reform was a key moment, with major land clearing happening in the period after 2000. But after 2004, the trend was temporarily reversed due to the economic consequences of economic chaos and hyperinflation on agriculture, particularly tobacco. This changed again after 2009, when a boom in tobacco production had a big impact, with the expansion of tobacco production (and also demand for wood for curing), resulting in significant declines in woodland area. After 2009, with the Government of National Unity and the dollarisation of the economy, there was a level of stability that saw incentives for agriculture return, and especially tobacco production in this area.

A more sophisticated approach to land use change analysis is needed

The APRA Working Paper gives much more detail of the fascinating twists and turns of a complex tale. It is best read alongside a longer history of agriculture in the area, appearing in another APRA Working Paper in the same series (see an earlier blog). Our study suggests the need for land use analysis to investigate complex patterns through multiple lenses. A simple analysis of satellite images is not enough to unpack the full story, and such patterns seen from space need interpretation from diverse sources, including from those living in the area.

Satellite-based analysis of land use change is all the rage these days, as it’s (relatively) easy, is now cheap and can be subject to multiple quant analyses through widely available software that impress journal editors and reviewers (well often not me!). But it’s not enough. Our satellite analysis was basic (Landsat after all was the earliest of the public satellites and so the imagery is not sophisticated), but it was long term (over 34 years) and so allows changes and cycles to be revealed. And most importantly, we didn’t stop there, but went to the field, studied accounts in the archives and reviewed the policy debates to explore what were the drivers behind the changes.

In the next blog, I look at some of the wider implications of taking such an approach.

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

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