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Methods for agrarian political economy: reflecting on Sam Moyo’s contributions

Some of the articles for a new special issue of Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy commemorating the massively important work of Sam Moyo, who tragically died in a car accident in November 2015, are now out online. As a towering contributor to debates on land and agrarian change in Africa and beyond, Sam had huge influence. Papers by Samir Amin, Tendai Murisa and William Martin are available already – and there are many more to come.

My article focuses on Sam’s methodological contributions (repository version here), which emerge from his training as a geographer, his keen interest in environmental issues and his deep commitment to thorough political economy analysis. Here’s the abstract:

This article focuses on the methodological lessons from Sam Moyo’s scholarship. Sam’s research is characterised by a combination of detailed empirical investigation, deep knowledge of the technical and practical aspects of agricultural production and farming livelihoods, and big-picture political economy analysis and theory. Sam’s method is an insightful contemporary application of the method originally set out in Marx’s Grundrisse. Many contemporary explorations of agrarian political economy fail to sustain the important tension and dialectical debate, between diverse empirical realities and their ‘multiple determinations and relations’ and wider theorisation of the ‘concrete’ features of emergent processes of change. The implications of Sam’s methodological approach for the analysis of Zimbabwe’s land reform are discussed, especially in relation to the land occupations and the politics of agrarian reform since 2000.

Reflecting on Sam’s work, especially on land in Zimbabwe, two methodological themes conclude the paper:

“First, and perhaps most obviously, empirical detail really matters. Whether from surveys or case studies or biographies or deeply immersive ethnographic engagements, the data that highlights the texture, nuance, and variation of what is happening is vital. Using mixed methods, combining quantitative and qualitative insights, is essential. This is not just the formulaic approaches of the standard consultancy, with a rushed survey and a focus group or two providing the data, but requires deeper, engaged work that allows confidence in the material produced. Such work becomes especially powerful if carried out over a long time, to get a sense of temporal dynamics, and over space in multiple locations, to get a sense of spatial variability. Comparative analysis, over time and space, can in turn add to our depth of understanding. Context, contingency, and conjuncture are all vital features of any dynamic situation, and essential for grasping what is happening. Sam’s work, especially with the impressive team at the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, showed all these features of empirical methodology and a commitment to fieldwork in particular places over time, even when funding was very short.

Data that accumulates as solid evidence is essential when confronting contested issues. Having reliable and robust data is the core of a strategy for influencing change. It may not result in a simple narrative, and may add layers of complexity, but it provides the grounding on which challenges to existing policies, or media and academic commentary, can be made. In the period from 2000, when the global media and many academic colleagues too, railed against the land reforms in Zimbabwe, many without having done any recent empirical work, and with scant attention to any that had been produced, having a solid basis to develop arguments and counter misinterpretations was important. In this, the work of a growing group of committed scholars in Zimbabwe, with Sam central to this network, was essential.

Second, without a wider theorisation, it is impossible to make sense of the diversity, variety, and general confusion that much empirical work throws up. Single cases are insufficient, and theorisation must emerge from engagement with diverse sources. Theory that is grounded and robust must engage with the ‘many determinations and relations’, defining the ‘concrete’, while at the same time avoiding a ‘chaotic conception of the whole’. To reiterate Marx’s point in the Grundrisse, ‘the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse’. For Sam, an analysis centred on class, but sensitive to other axes of difference, including gender, was at the core. But empirical contexts meant that static class assignations were inadequate, and a sophisticated, fluid interpretation, appropriate to the southern African context, had to emerge. Thus ‘real relations’ inform what Stuart Hall calls the ‘differentiated unity’ of analytical phenomena, such as class. Linked to a located understanding of class relations and struggle, Sam’s work articulated with wider understandings of finance and capital in the context of globalisation, within an unequal, evolving post-colonial world order. These broader assessments, inspired by the likes of Samir Amin and Giovanni Arrighi, for example, in turn informed more micro-analyses of particular places and processes.

Sam was deeply committed to both these elements of method in political economy, and deployed them effectively in combination, one dialectically informing the other. The key lessons from Sam’s work were to keep both strands of thought and action alive, and in dialogue. For him, both the geographer and the political economist were ever-present. The lesson for us all is: neither to disappear into grand theory, nor into micro-empirical detail, but capture them both, holding them in tension. Sam’s impressive approach combined a sustained commitment to fieldwork, to people and places – a direct result of his training in geography – and his ability to theorise the political economy of land, emerging from his engagement with radical scholars rooted in agrarian struggles around the world. It is a rare skill to observe in one person, and across such an impressive career, but a skill that is essential, and one we can all learn from Sam’s work.

Rigour in method arises from keeping these tensions in play, always being reflexive about how evidence is constructed, and for what purposes. Big surveys, micro-case studies and wider political analysis can all come together, but only with a really deep sense of how connections are made, and how each informs each other. This was Sam’s great skill”.

Those committed to a political economy approach can learn much from Sam’s approach. Reflecting the productive tensions described by Marx in the Grundrisse between diverse empirical detail and more concrete structural analysis, his work combined diverse methods, quantitative and qualitative, and engaged rigorous analysis with controversial policy, making research knowledge count. He is very much missed, although his work continues through many colleagues linked to the now renamed Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Underutilised land in Zimbabwe: not a new problem


There has been a long debate in Zimbabwe about whether the nation’s arable land is being properly used. After land reform, this has reached fever pitch, but it has a much longer history.

In the early colonial era, as European farming was being established, there were many complaints about the poor use of land by colonial officials. Methods of cultivation were deemed ‘inefficient’, and there was major concern that too many farmers were going under, supported as they were by substantial loans backed by the government. Protectionist legislation tried to prop up European agriculture, most notably the Maize Control Act, in order to get more land used.

The Colony’s governor, Cecil Hunter-Rodwell, commented in 1930 that European farmers were “at last awakening to the necessity of proper methods of fertility, rotation, and green manuring, but awakening has come too late. Thousands of acres of the best soil in the Colony have been robbed of their productivity and the owners cannot face the expenditure necessary to restore it”. Many farmers he observed “are at the end of their resources and are being carried by the banks” (Letter from Hunter-Rodwell to Thomas, quoted by Robin Palmer in his book, Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia, 1977: 235).

In the economic crisis precipitated by the global depression in the early 1930s, tobacco farming took a hit too. A farmer’s memoir, Rhodesian Mosaic, published in 1934 commented on his journey from Salisbury (Harare) to Umtali (Mutare):

On either side stretched abandoned lands, cultivated and prosperous before the tobacco slump four years before. Here and there among the kopjes stood houses, fallen and decayed, once homes of planters who had left them to the mercy of the elements. No sounds of life could be heard, the gay prattle of native labourers having long since departed those melancholy fields (Rawdon Hoare, quoted again by Robin Palmer, 1977: 234).

So extreme was the problem that in 1936 the Native Commissioner for Insiza rather heretically argued for land reform: “large tracts of land are held by Europeans but nothing is being done with it… It seems to me….that some of the land now held by Europeans should be given to the natives who will use it, whereas the Europeans have held the land for years without making any use of it” (also quoted by Robin Palmer, 1977: 236). As Ian Phimister described in his 1988 book, An Economic and Social History of Rhodesia, a lot of this land was held by large land barons, often as part of land speculation, with a highly skewed distribution emerging amongst ‘white’ commercial farming, ranging from smaller individuals farms to massive estates; a pattern that persisted through the next decades to Independence. As Colin Stoneman pointed out in Zimbabwe’s Inheritance, at Independence in 1980, only 736 farms represented 60 percent of all white-owned land.

Even with the revival of the fortunes of European large-scale agriculture, especially after the Second World War, according to a major survey carried out by the university-based agricultural economist, Dunlop, the area under cultivation was just 17 percent of the total arable area of ‘European’ farms in the higher potential regions of the country (regions I-III) by 1965. This was causing major concern about under-utilisation, as well as about the concentration of land among relatively few owners who could afford to let large land areas lie idle. Dunlop noted that in 1965, 42 percent of the nation’s farm area was concentrated in just 246 farms, including a number of absolutely massive ranches in the south.

With some minor changes at the margins, this pattern persisted. Roger Riddell argued in the 1978 book, The Land Problem in Rhodesia, that only 15 percent of total arable area in large-scale commercial farm areas was being used in 1976. In the early 1980s, following Independence, an important analysis of land-use by Dan Weiner, Sam Moyo and others showed how 10.2% of the area large-scale farms in Mashonaland was cultivated, or 22.9 percent of arable land in 1981-82. This rose to 33.7 percent when a net arable area was calculated, assuming square fields (for mechanised use), conservation-protected areas, roads and settlement. In other words, in the highest potential area of the country two-thirds of prime arable land is not being was not being used for cropping.

A decade on, in 1990/91 the World Bank undertook a major review of agriculture in Zimbabwe and again came to similar conclusions, with a background report by Michael Roth, Analysis of Agrarian Structure and Land Use Patterns in Zimbabwe, arguing that 65 percent of large-scale commercial land was underutilised. Many in the white commercial farming community took umbrage, and assumptions were challenged, and counter-claims presented.  As Angus Selby describes in his excellent thesis on European farming in Mazowe, land productivity varied by scale, with many of the smaller, family-run farms showing greater levels of utilisation, compared to the large farms and estates.  Yet, things varied across the country, and in some parts, as described by Jos Alexander in Manicaland, many moved onto underutilised land as ‘squatters’, often staying there for many years.

Certainly by the 1990s, much large-scale commercial agriculture was more efficient and profitable, but it was not necessarily using large areas. In the context of more globalised markets, and change cost structures and a decline in state subsidies, farmers had to up their game. Profitable horticulture/floriculture enterprises boomed, for example, but these were reliant on small land areas, and very intensive greenhouse production. Other crops were also intensified, with investments in centre-pivot irrigation systems, including maize and tobacco, again boosting yields but also requiring smaller areas. Across the high potential cropping areas of the Highveld, other parts of farms, designated as arable, were left for wildlife (an increasingly lucrative business by the 1990s) and beef ranching (made profitable by the EU preferential trade arrangements). For example, in Mazowe district, a prime agricultural area, only 20 percent of total farm area was being cultivated, based on a survey of 275 farms in 1996-97, although of course much of this very intensively with tobacco and maize (see SMEAD report: p 12).

As the demands for land reform grew through the 1990s, a policy and political focus on land utilisation intensified. In November 1997, the government published a list of 1471 farms targeted for redistribution, based largely on assessments of utilisation. Reflecting the size structure of large-scale farms, inherited from the colonial era, much of the area was concentrated in relatively few farms. About 200 owners had more than two farms, while farming companies, including multinationals, held many farms in consolidated holdings, representing 1.6m hectares, 40 percent of the identified area. As Sam Moyo pointed out in his SAPES/UNDP report on The Land Acquisition Process in Zimbabwe, 1997/98, the government could acquire 60 percent of the proposed five million hectares from less than 300 owners, or three million hectares from only 10 companies and 100 farmers. Indeed, by the time of the 1998 land conference, the Commercial Farmers’ Union, recognising the issue of under-utilisation of land offered, rather belatedly, 1.5 million hectares for redistribution.

The 1997 listing of farms was not surprisingly highly controversial. Debates raged on the economic impacts (via declines in tobacco production), on food production (and production of maize, although much was feed maize for the cattle industry by that time), and as to whether wildlife ranches and conservancies were legitimate use in higher potential areas, for example. There were multiple tussles over what and was not listed, and a process of delisting proceeded, resulting in 625 farms and 1.65m hectares being removed from the proposed acquisition.

Of course the events since 2000 have overturned this attempt at planned transfer and rationalisation of land use to enhance utilisation – as well as spread ownership and reduce multiple holdings. But the issue of land utilisation has not gone away. Some of the descriptions of A2 farms today recall earlier admonishments of the white farming community in the early colonial period. While overall land is being used more extensively today, particularly via the A1 resettlement model, this does not mean that land and agricultural resources, notably irrigable land and water supplies, are being used optimally, especially in the A2 areas. Issues of multiple ownership and underutilisation persist, just as they did in the past.

Today, a significant policy challenge is the provision of incentives to improve use and productivity, while at the same time preventing multiple ownership in line with the law. This debate, as we’ve seen is not new. As Selby argued in relation to the debates in the 1990s, “debates about utilisation and productivity were clouded and misinformed on both sides, squandering opportunities for consensual or practical solutions” (p. 219). Let’s hope such solutions emerge today. This will require a comprehensive audit process, under the newly established Zimbabwe Land Commission, but, discussed next week, this presents some major technical and political challenges.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Beyond the crises: debating Zimbabwe’s future


News from Zimbabwe is dominated by crisis: economic, political, social, environmental and more. But what lies beyond? It is good news that people are thinking about this. A blog/website has been launched, centred on the book edited by Tendai Murisa and Tendai Chikweche, called ‘Beyond the crises: Zimbabwe’s prospect for transformation’. A blog that appeared a few weeks back offered a useful analysis of the current predicament, arguing following Brian Raftopolous, for the need to go beyond the polarised divide between a politics of redistribution and a politics of rights; and that in fact both are needed.

Tendai Murisa, currently executive director of Trust Africa, formerly a PhD student at Rhodes, and a researcher at the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, working with the late Sam Moyo, is one of the key drivers. The book and the various blogs are important reading for anyone concerned with the future of Zimbabwe. The book contains chapters on changing policy regimes (Murisa and Nyaguse), microfinance, business and small-scale enterprises (Chikweche and others), agrarian issues (Murisa and Mujyei), including gender dynamics, accumulation and land reform (Mutopo); and biodiversity, climate and environmental change (Ndebele-Murisa, Mubaya, Mutasa). All are worth a read. I however want to concentrate on the beginning and end of the book, and the discussion of the need for a transformation in Zimbabwe. They even offer a manifesto.

What is refreshing about this discussion is that it is non-partisan and barely mentions the internecine wars of party politics. It discusses politics in its broader sense, as the modes of governance required for a successful, prosperous, inclusive society. That Zimbabwe is far from this ideal is very plain, and is discussed across the book. Murisa in particular makes the case that a new politics needs to be built from the ground up, generated from the energies, innovations and solidarities of local communities. Only then will the corrupt, patronage-based politics of the centre – emanating from all sides – be challenged.

This argument picks up from Murisa’s own research that documented the emergence of forms of associational life on new resettlements following land reform. It is an important piece of work that points to the importance of mutualism, social connection and relationship building for any new activity – in this case new forms of production on the land. Extending this argument to wider society, the book makes the case that this has been lost, captured by a venal politics of greed and corruption, and that any transformation must instead emerge from a base, one rooted in solidarity, trust, and mutual cooperation, developing a civic pact that goes beyond shallow, performative participation.

Now of course in the face of the power of the party-business-security state, this may seem somewhat hopeful. But in order to get away from the obsession about leadership succession, pacts and alliances across parties, and how to make an electoral system less open to manipulation, a wider look at politics in its broader sense is important.

In his commentary at the launch of the book, Lloyd Sachikonye made some important points of gentle critique, however. There are dangers in imagining an ideal ‘community’ led response without thinking about class, identity, and power – and the array of differences that divide as well as bring together. He asked: What constellation of classes, groups and alliances should form its vanguard and base?”  Murisa and colleagues, coming from a different generation of scholars less influenced by Marx perhaps, do not throw much light on the intersections of class, capital and the state in their analysis. This is a gap. But it is not incompatible with arguing for a new form of politics in my view.

As Nancy Fraser has long argued, an emancipatory politics that takes democracy seriously must address redistribution (and questions of equity and class difference), recognition (and issues of identity politics) and representation (but not just through occasional elections) together, rethinking the ‘public sphere’, and creating a ‘triple movement’ for an emancipatory politics. A revitalised politics in the face of globalised neoliberal capitalism and nationalist, populist politics (and Zimbabwe has its own particular version, but with striking echoes of what has emerged elsewhere), building new forms of political practice is essential. Whether this is the much-hyped hashtag activism of recent times or a more grounded building of new forms of action in particular places – or ideally interactions of the two through new forms of mobilisation – such moves must focus not just on unsettling existing forms of incumbent power, but also creating alternatives that, following Polanyi, re-embed market relations, socialising production in new ways.

At the same time, a new politics must allow for the recognition of diverse identities, including men, women, different ethnicities, creating a new voice for rural people, many of whom benefited from land reform. How this builds to new forms of representation is the big question, with political parties being so bereft of policy ideas and presenting a narrow, blinkered democratic imagination. As Sachikonye argues, this does not mean rejecting electoral democracy but reshaping it with a more vibrant engagement.

Having an intellectual debate about these issues in a non-partisan forum, based on scholarship from Zimbabwe, is really refreshing, and timely. Only with such input will Zimbabwe ever find a space beyond the seemingly endless crises.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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From ‘ordered estates’ to ‘crooked times’: farmworker welfare in Zimbabwe

farm mvurwi

A new book is just out – Ordered Estates: Welfare, Power and Maternalism on Zimbabwe’s (Once White) Highveld – by Andrew Hartnack, and published by Weaver and UKZN Press. It addresses many of the themes highlighted in the blogs of the past two weeks, and is based on research carried out over the last decade on a number of Highveld farms, as well as with farm worker welfare NGOs. Once you peel away the layering of sometimes unnecessary theory (it was originally an anthropology PhD so that’s the excuse!), the empirical stories shared in the book’s pages have much to offer our emerging understandings of post-land reform Zimbabwe (see also earlier blogs on his work).

The book fills an important gap in the literature, as it offers a nuanced account of the history of farm workers’ rights, as well as a reflection on changing fortunes since 2000. The ‘ordered estates’ of the colonial era have been much described. Blair Rutherford’s classic work from Karoi/Hurungwe told this story well, describing the constrained ‘domestic government’ that disciplined and controlled in the narrow, paternalistic world of white farms. Post-independence this reformed somewhat, and the limited sovereignties of the farms were extended as the state insisted on labour laws and other regulations, and NGOs took up the plight of farmworkers, creating new, more technical-bureaucratic, ‘practices of rule’.

This book deepens this analysis, particularly with a focus on ‘farmers’ wives’ and their role in welfare organisations – hence the reference to ‘maternalism’ in the title. It also shows of course that there was not one single approach to labour in white farming areas; not surprisingly all farms were different, depending on characters and contexts. The post-independence developmental attempts to modernise, civilise and improve resulted in a range of initiatives on the farms from schooling programmes to orphanages, often with heavy involvement of ‘farmers’ wives’. But by ‘rendering technical’ the inequalities of land and labour regimes, such welfare efforts did not address the underlying challenges, and welfare was more sticking plaster rather than fundamental reform. Following land reform in 2000, such NGOs have not found a new role, focusing on displacement, but not on the new lives and livelihoods of their former ‘beneficiaries’.

However, it is in the examination of the post-land reform period that this book cuts new ground. Building on, but also critiquing (as with some other recent literature somewhat gratuitously and inaccurately in my view), the important work of Walter Chambati, Sam Moyo and others, the book paints a detailed ethnographic picture of how farm workers carve out new opportunities in an highly challenging economic, social and political environment. This is the period of ‘crooked times’, where a ‘zig-zag’ approach to the kukiya-kiya economy is vital to survive. This is the world where there are no standard jobs – in the form of regular wage work – and where entrepreneurial informality emerges, with new forms of distribution, dependence and personhood, as James Ferguson describes for South Africa.  Whether in the case of the Harare peri-urban settlement described in Chapter 5 (discussed previously in this blog) or the biographies of former farm workers profiled in Chapter 7, mixing new farm work with urban living, the new precarities of life in the post land reform age are well described. New ‘modes of belonging’ must be generated, very different to the ordered safety, if extreme exploitation, of what went before.

What was missing from the book I felt was more detailed information who moved to what new occupations and where they ended up to provide the bigger-picture context to make sense of the fascinating detail. The book acknowledges the problems with the existing statistics, quoting both the CFU and other sources, and (somewhat bizarrely) just takes an average number, as a ‘middle way’. Getting a national picture may be impossible, but it would have been good to know what happened on those on the farms studied, and get a sense of how outcomes for farm workers were differentiated and why, in order to locate the few, if fascinating, individual cases.

There are hints though at wider patterns. Those few white farms that have persisted have often maintained a network of loyal farm workers, some who provide protection and support through their links, and the book offered an interesting case of this dynamic in Chapter 7. At various points, the book suggests (I think very accurately) that turnover on A2 farms was particularly damaging to farmworkers, as production collapsed and some A2 farmers did not maintain their operations. But it also suggests that ‘successful’ A2 farms nearby took on workers, and so there is often a regional labour economy that is important to understand on the new farms. The book did not however get into any detail on what happened post land reform to groups of farmworkers in farm labour compounds, and especially on the A1 farms (after all the largest areas), as we have been trying to do in Mvurwi. It therefore missed out on the dynamic described in the blogs over the last two weeks, of farmworkers becoming farmers – along with much else – in the new ‘crooked times’ of the last 16 years.

Despite shortcomings (this was after all a single researcher doing a research degree, so no blame there), this is a most valuable contribution, and coming from a white Zimbabwean (as he admits not from a farming background) perhaps especially powerful. When you next hear misinformed statements about Zimbabwe’s former farmworkers, please turn to this book for an informed, nuanced account that sets an important agenda for future research and policy debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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A tribute to Sam Moyo – a giant of agrarian studies

Professor Sam Moyo, director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, and a giant of agrarian studies has died tragically as a result of a car accident in New Delhi. This is a terrible loss for Zimbabwe, Africa and the world. Sam had a massive intellect and a deep knowledge of agrarian issues, especially in Zimbabwe. He argued strongly for land reform throughout his career and was always an advocate for radical alternatives that challenged oppression and exploitation in whatever form.


I first got to know Sam in the 1980s, when he was working at the Zimbabwe Institute for Development Studies, then a think tank linked to the President’s office. As a PhD student interested in similar themes, he was always welcoming and encouraging, as he has been to so many others since (see this from Alex Magaisa posted over the weekend). Over the years we have had many, many conversations: always challenging, always inspiring. We did not always agree, but I have always massively respected his commitment, integrity and intellectual depth.

Certainly in the last 15 years, as the debate around Zimbabwe’s controversial land reform has continued, Sam’s contributions – and those of his colleagues at AIAS – have been essential. Their district level study published in 2009 preceded our book, and set the stage for a more mature, empirically-informed debate that (sometimes) has followed. Sam has often been inaccurately pigeon-holed as being on one ‘side’ or another. But his scholarship is far more sophisticated than this. In Zimbabwe’s land debate nearly everyone at different times disagreed with him, but they all listened. Whether inside the state and party, among opposition groups or with the World Bank and other donors, no one could ignore what Sam had to say. And his influence in seeking a more sensible line has been enormous.

But Sam’s scholar activism was not just focused on Zimbabwe. He was frequently invited by governments, social movements and others around the world, and particularly in southern Africa. His experiences in Nigeria, teaching at Calabar and Port Harcourt universities, were influential too, giving him a wider perspective than many. His on-going contributions to South Africa’s land debates have been important also, as he shared Zimbabwe’s lessons. More broadly still, he was central to a wider engagement with agrarian studies from the global South, offering a challenge to those who argued that the classical agrarian question is dead. From the perspective of peasants, social movements and struggles across the global South, it certainly is not. Together with Paris Yeros in Brazil and Praveen Jha in India, and as part of a wider collective of Southern scholars linked to the journal Agrarian South, he has made the case for a revived agrarian studies, in the context of land grabs and intensifying capitalist exploitation across rural areas.

Sam’s intellectual leadership has inspired many. He was recently president of Codesria, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, and was a director of the Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies (SARIPS) for a period. Since being established in 2002, AIAS in Harare has become a centre for training and research, with the annual summer schools attracting researchers, activists and others from across Africa. Earlier he was involved with ZERO, the Harare-based regional environment organisation, together with Yemi Katerere; another organisation that attracted young researchers who established their careers under Sam’s guidance. Like all the organisations he has been involved with, ZERO was ahead of the game, set up when few were thinking about the connections between environment and development. And, as with AIAS, Codesria, SARIPS and ZIDS, it mixed solid research, with a deep political commitment to social justice and equality.

With the passing of Sam we have lost a giant. I will miss our intense conversations on his veranda in Borrowdale, as we tested out our ideas and findings on each other, and he smoked furiously. I was always a few steps behind Sam, and it took me days to digest the content of our lengthy exchanges. But they have always been important and formative, even when we disagreed. This is a terribly sad moment and this tribute has been difficult to write. Professor Issa Shivji summed up many people’s feelings well in a post on Sunday: “We have lost one of our great comrades: utterly committed, a most unassuming scholar and an absolutely decent human being”. So thanks Sam for your friendship, inspiration and commitment. You will be very sorely missed.

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



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Land tenure dilemmas in Zimbabwe

A key question for policymakers today is what tenure system makes sense for the new configuration of land, livelihoods and production after land reform? What tenure and land administration arrangements will assure tenure security, encourage investment and boost production?

Unfortunately, much of the debate on this issue starts from ideological assumptions about what is claimed to be the ideal tenure type, rather than the basic principles which should guide the choice of administrative and legal arrangement for ensuring tenure security. Instead it’s better to start from defining key principles and move towards a pragmatic assessment of options and trade-offs.

This blog lays out the argument for a multiform tenure approach for Zimbabwe. This is not a new argument at all. Professor Mandi Rukuni and the Presidential Land Tenure Commission of 1994 presented a similar case. Five years ago I prepared a briefing note on land tenure dilemmas in response to the on-going confusion on this topic, drawing on discussions with Sam Moyo, Prosper Matondi and others. I have linked to this in previous blogs. This blog presents a version of it again, as the debate on land tenure continues today with a similar lack of clarity.

Seven key principles

What should be the key features of a new tenure regime? Here are seven principles, drawn from the wider international discussion on the topic:

Democratic accountability to allow for state intervention to shift the configuration of tenure in line with national economic and development goals, in the face of dynamic change in technology or economic conditions and when market mechanisms are insufficient (for example, to facilitate a shift to a large-scale freehold system under conditions of full industrialisation and urbanisation in order to assure national food security)

A flexible market in land – including sales, rentals and leases – to allow trading up and down in land size in line with investment and production capacity and skill (although with regulation by the state – see 4 and 5, below).

Facilitation of credit and investment through the provision of land as mortgaged collateral and the provision of bank credit guaranteed against land, combined with other credit guarantee mechanisms (for example, linked to farm equipment, livestock, buildings, urban assets etc.)

Regulation against capture by elites or speculative investors to avoid inefficient and inequitable consolidation of land holdings and land disenfranchisement, especially of the poor and women (for example, the danger of mass sales and rapid speculative land accumulation by local or foreign elites/companies in times of economic hardship, and the reversal of redistributive gains).

Guarantees of women’s access to land, as independent, legally-recognised land holders, with the ability to bequeath, inherit, sell, rent and lease land (for example through requirements for joint recognition of land holdings in leases, permits and titles, as well as administrative mechanisms to ensure equitable treatment of land issues).

A low administrative burden – both in terms of technical complexity and overall cost – of cadastral surveys, land registration and land administration more broadly.

Revenues through survey, title, lease and permit fees and setting incentives to discourage underutilisation through land taxation is an important condition for an effective land tenure regime.

There is broad agreement on the desirability of each of these seven principles, and a wider recognition from international experience of their importance. However, there are more questions about their practicality and feasibility, and the pragmatic trade-offs between each given administrative and technical capacities in land administration.

In Zimbabwe existing legislation allows for a wide range of potential tenure types, ranging from freehold title to regulated leases to permits to communal tenure under ‘traditional’ systems. All have their pros and cons. Any one or combination can offer a guarantee of secure property rights under particular conditions. There is thus no ‘gold standard’ or assumed ‘evolution’ towards an ideal, as is sometimes suggested. Instead, the debate about the appropriate tenure regime must start from principles in context, and draw conclusions about the best way forward from an analysis of the trade-offs between options under the particular circumstances currently pertaining.

For example, policymakers must ask, given the available resources and capacity for land administration, can the appropriate level of tenure security be achieved through lower cost means? Or, given the dangers of rapid land appropriation, what minimal safeguards need to be deployed which do not undermine the capacity of credit and land markets to function? Or, what other legal or financial assurances and coordination mechanisms must be added to ensure that private credit markets function effectively? These are very real dilemmas and are encountered the world over, especially in relatively resource poor settings where capacity is underdeveloped. A debate that is constructed around the false promise of an ideal may actually act to undermine opportunities and stall agricultural growth.

Tenure trade-offs

How do different tenure arrangements perform against these key principles? Table 1 offers a preliminary assessment, based on both Zimbabwean and international experience.

Table 1: Trade-offs in tenure design principles

  Freehold title Regulated leasehold Permit system Communal/traditional tenure
Democratic accountability to state None Yes Yes Limited
Flexible land markets Yes Yes Yes Informal only
Credit and collateral Yes Yes Requires additional instruments for collateral guarantee Requires alternative credit/micro-finance support mechanisms
Regulation against capture No, although potentials for statutory restrictions on sales Yes Yes Limited regulatory reach
Preferential women’s access None Potential lease condition Potential permit condition None: traditional patriarchal biases
Administrative cost Very high High Low None
Revenues and incentives Survey, land registration, title fees/Land tax Lease fees/land tax Permit fee/land tax Limited potentials


Depending on the legal and administrative regime or the interpretation and practice of ‘customary’ or ‘traditional’ tenure, for example, there are of course large variations in the reality of different tenure types in practice. But despite such variation there are some common features. Freehold tenure for example is always administratively cumbersome, expensive to implement and reliant on market forces with limited opportunities (assuming the rule of law is adhered to) for state intervention to limit consolidation or shape market incentives. On the other hand, communal, customary or traditional systems have advantages of decentralised operation and low cost, but there are limits on the ability to assure security of tenure through legislative means and a limited regulatory reach of the state.

Of course any tenure regime is only a legal/administrative procedure, and must function in a wider political-social-economic context. The lessons of the past decade show vividly that tenure insecurity does not necessarily derive from the nature of the regime, but from the wider political setting, the capacity to administrate land and the ability to assure a rule of law. When these very basic governance conditions are not in place, then no tenure regime can assure security. Indeed, in 2000 was those with freehold tenure that have been the least secure, and those with communal tenure that have been the most secure.

Ways forward

The new Constitution commits to a reestablishment of transparent administrative procedures, the stamping out of corrupt practices and mechanisms for compensation, all in a secure legal framework. With this essential precondition in place, the discussion on land tenure options can take place more effectively – and in relation to a set of clear principles of the sort outlined earlier.

The big question now, is what makes sense given the current situation, and given available administrative resources and capacity constraints? What tenure regime will help get agriculture moving and investment flowing, and support the new agrarian structure?

With the appropriate regulatory conditions attached as part of revisions of legislation and with a land administration streamlined system developed (neither of which exist to date), the above table suggests that the leasehold and permit systems offer considerable promise for the Zimbabwe situation for the A2 and A1 areas respectively. This would allow for the issuing of leases on surveyed A2 farms (perhaps with varying lengths and conditions to incentivise investment and production) and upgrading ‘offer letters’ in the A1 areas as part of a comprehensive, area-based land registration exercise.

Indeed such solutions reflect international thinking on this issue, where low cost land registration and administration approaches based on leases and permits have been shown to be highly effective in relation to the range of principles identified above. This does not mean that freehold tenure is not an option in some instances, particularly in urban/peri-urban settings. But full freehold does not seem to offer the right combination of features for the present situation for most rural agricultural settings. Such a solution to current tenure dilemmas also does not preclude a reform of communal tenure, perhaps extending versions of the approach developed for the A1 areas to the communal lands over time. As the 1994 Land Tenure Commission argued, hybrid approaches that offer the best of customary, communal tenure arrangements, but with new forms of tenure security offered through legally binding arrangements may be of great importance in such areas.

For now, though, the priority must be the A1 and A2 areas. This represents a substantial area of land, and a considerable number of people/land units, and a core national land asset in need of regularisation. Assuring tenure security in these areas must be the first priority (although the prior step remains addressing the compensation issue of course). This must be driven by a discussion based on clear principles, rather an ideological positioning, and an eye to rapid, effective implementation, rather than inappropriate ‘gold standard’ ideals.

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


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Al Jazeera on Zimbabwe’s land reform

Al Jazeera recently aired a discussion on Zimbabwe’s land reform in their South2North slot. The video is below.

The panel included Professor Sam Moyo, the leading land scholar in Zimbabwe who has worked on these issues extensively over 30 years, and recently edited an important new book; Teresa Smart, one of the co-authors of the now well known book Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, a popular review of research on the post 2000 land reform period; and Charlene Matonsi, a female ‘commercial farmer’ whose parents had acquired a farm in the 1980s.

Compared to most media coverage of the issue, it was a good discussion, where a range of issues were aired. The questioning was sensible, but probing, and the responses all clear and illuminating. Professor Moyo in particular pointed to some of the political processes and contradictions of the land reform, highlighting the importance of the alliance between what he termed the middle classes and land poor peasants, while equally highlighting that the land reform’s impacts have to be viewed in a larger context, as the end of monopoly settler capitalism, but clearly not a transition to socialism. It was not completely clear why Ms Mathonsi was on the programme, as her farm was not part of the new ‘middle class’ accommodation in A2 farms post 2000, but part of an earlier era of incorporation of black players into capitalist farming. She did however offer an enthusiastic endorsement of farming as a business, and certainly challenged the stereotypes of Zimbabwean ‘commerical farming’.

As I commented before, maybe there is a change in styles and foci of reporting on Zimbabwe at last. Al Jazeera are usually ahead of the curve, with their finger more firmly on the pulse than most.

Do watch the programme here:

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



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