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Land audits: a tricky technical and political challenge

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A major task of Zimbabwe’s new Land Commission will be to undertake periodic audits of land and its use nationwide. This is a tricky technical and political challenge.

While there have been a number of formal and informal audits since 2000, none have resulted in much change. Under the Zimbabwe Land Commission bill, audits are supposed to ascertain what is ‘proper use’ that is ‘in the national interest’.

While it is obvious that some areas of designated A2 land are underutilised, should this warrant expropriation and transfer to others, the incentivisation of increased rates of use through land taxation, or transfer to A1 schemes through subdivision? Decisions must rest not only on the land’s status, but also a wider strategic consideration of the appropriate mix of land tenure types and uses in a given area, as well as demand for land. Ensuring criteria and processes are clear, transparent, non-political and effective is vitally important.

Theoretically a land tax should be the most straightforward approach to increase the efficiency of use. This was instituted last year, with payments required since 2007 at US$5 per hectare for A2 farms. This has resulted in many being unable to pay, and an outcry about retrospective payments and the gearing of tax according to agroecological potential, and available infrastructure. The neat theory of land taxation has perhaps inevitably proven more complex in practice.

Over many years, there has been a debate about what are appropriate land sizes for ‘viable’ farming in Zimbabwe. This originally emerged in the colonial era for allocation of farms for whites. It was based on technological norms (seed varieties, application of inputs, mechanisation and irrigation) and an ‘acceptable’ minimum level of income for a (white) farmer, pegged then at the salary of a Permanent Secretary in government.

Some elements of these earlier land size recommendations have persisted, but it is now more recognised that farms represent one part of a portfolio of income from many. The idea of the full-time farmer has long been a myth, but one that has been perpetuated in the folklore. Government land officials and surveyors must accept a variety of sizes, influenced by local pressures on land, the demands for redistribution, and the accommodation of different class interests, including the need to create plots for former farm workers within farms. There is now a huge range of farm sizes across and within natural regions, and a clear minimum or maximum, as notionally stipulated, is not evident.

As discussed last week, what is deemed as ‘utilised land’ is also a contentious area. Major surveys undertaken in the 1980s and 90s took the simple criterion of cropped area for dryland farms, and did not assess the value of the crop. There was a provision for fallow, slope and an acceptance that some farms had large areas of non-arable land, but a simple ratio of cropped area to available arable land provided a consistent indicator. These surveys found that considerable areas of land were not being used, as arable production intensified in smaller areas, and often quite large tracts of land were used for free-ranging cattle as farmers made use of EU subsidies and market access for beef production.

Earlier assessments, however, did not take account of yield levels. In the past, even if underutilised in terms of area, large-scale farms were showing high yields in those areas that were cultivated (e.g. an average of five tonnes per ha for maize), compared to an average of around one tonne per ha for maize in the context of twice as much more land under maize today. Utilisation therefore cannot just use area as a metric, but must also look at intensification. This relates of course also to irrigation capacity.

A key aspect of increasing land productivity is water use, and many A2 farms have under-utilised irrigation infrastructure. Any audit will have to address this. A significant proportion of large-scale irrigation infrastructure outside the estates is in a state of disrepair and is not being used effectively. Some claim that it is not economic to rehabilitate, as the financial costs of rehabilitating and running such irrigation facilities are too high, under the existing credit regime, while the unreliable electricity supply disrupts operations. Also, the type of infrastructure was developed for a different scale of production, and so may not be appropriate today. Assessment of ‘under-use’ of irrigation, while a vital part of any audit, must take into account the economics of irrigation and the need to build resilience in the face of climate change.

There are a number of technical and political challenges for the audit process therefore. Currently, the law is interpreted flexibly in practice, and without rigid land use and farm size guidelines. Subdivision and downsizing is occurring in some places as a response to poor use. A local approach has advantages in providing the possibilities of pragmatic, attuned, context-specific responses; however it has downsides given the potential for corruption and political pressure on flexible administrative processes. Any audit will have to address these dilemmas head on. This cannot be resolved simply by recourse to supposed technical farm size/use regulations or land taxation, but has to accommodate local demands and perceptions. For this reason a local district and provincial implementation process is needed, where lessons are learned as audits proceed.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Zimbabwe exports agricultural skills and entrepreneurship to South Africa

Recent reports have celebrated five Zimbabweans who have taken over 15 ha of land, part of a farm in Malmesbury near Cape Town in South Africa. The N7 farmers as they call themselves were allowed to use the land – initially 3 ha now expanding – by the farmer. This was initially for free so they could get established, although now they pay a rent of $80 per hectare. The land was not being used intensively – apparently it had a fodder crop, lupins, planted over winter – and the farmer was happy for others to have a go.

Much to the surprise of many South Africans, and now praised by former President Thabo Mbeki, the Zimbabweans were able to transform the land into a vibrant horticultural enterprise, growing spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes and maize. The irrigation equipment on the land was put to work, and they applied manure to the land to improve the quality of the soil. The vegetables are sold at Cape Town’s Epping market.

For many in the media, it was the background of the Zimbabweans that was surprising too. They are all in full time jobs, and are highly qualified. One has a PhD apparently in agriculture, others have degrees in physics, science, engineering and languages. They now have 6 employees, one a Zimbabwean, while others are South African and a Malawian farm manager.

While there have been disputes about the details of the ‘good news’ story, and clearly a bit of a backlash from the South African farming community, the basic take-homes were clear. Zimbabweans – including highly qualified people – can farm, while South Africans had not taken the initiative to use this, or other similar, parcels of land in the same way.

This was rubbed in with Mbeki’s commentary. He linked this to land reform, complaining about the South African land reform and restitution programmes where South Africans preferred to take money rather than invest in actively farming the land. By contrast, he suggested, Zimbabweans were committed to the land and could make good use of it, as he hinted many had done in Zimbabwe’s land reform programme.

The contrasts between Zimbabwe and South Africa’s agricultural sector and land reform efforts have been widely commented upon. South Africa of course does not have the same type of agrarian economy as Zimbabwe, and many people have not had recent experiences of farming, even if living in rural areas. South Africa’s land reform has focused on attempting to emulate ‘commercial’ farming, with inappropriate visions of ‘viability’, often through cooperative group arrangements, and has often failed.

Yet the Malmesbury experience may offer some insights for South African land policy. The opportunities for ‘smallholder’ production does exist, especially when linked to certain value chains, and expecting land reform only to emulate large-scale commercial farming just on a smaller scale is, as so many studies have shown, is bound to fail. But equally this is not simply a land to the people story – as the heightened rhetoric of the Economic Freedom Front and Julius Malema suggests – but an example of where small-scale agriculture can work under certain conditions. And these conditions are quite specific – the N7 farmers have the skills, the market connections and the infrastructure in place to make things work.

South Africa’s land reform debate remains stuck between the government’s formal focus on planned redistribution using inappropriate commercial models and a naïve populist response of handing land out without thinking about how to embed it in a reformed agrarian economy. Malmesbury – and others places around the country from Limpopo to KZN – offer glimpses of what might be if the two false extremes were dropped in favour of something more realistic and appropriate. Maybe Zimbabwe’s lessons from land reform, and the N7 farmers, can indeed export some good ideas and practices to south of the Limpopo.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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