Climate change is generating greater variability within and across seasons. This is requiring new responses among farmers in Masvingo province in Zimbabwe. Today, farmers must adapt, be flexible and agile and respond to uncertain seasons as they unfold. This requires new skills and approaches; not just from farmers, but also from development agencies who are hoping to assist rural people cope with drought.
Shifting responses, changing droughts
There are strong memories of drought (or rather ‘nzara’, see previous blog) among farmers in Masvingo. During our visits earlier in the year many recalled past events. The 1991-92 drought was firmly etched on their memories, while older people recalled the droughts of 1982-84. These days the memories of 1947 (associated with the distribution of ‘Kenya’ yellow maize) are disappearing, but drought is a recurrent phenomenon central to how histories are recalled in rural areas, as we explored in our book Hazards and Opportunities over 25 years ago.
But how people have responded over time and how different ‘droughts’ have been experienced is highly contrasting. Some droughts are recalled as ones affecting cattle, but not people; others are the opposite. Some affected everyone all over the area, meaning real shortages of food and dependence on hand-outs, while others were quite localised and food could be purchased in nearby districts. As discussed in last week’s blog, drought is not a singular phenomenon.
One thing people mentioned again and again was that droughts today are so varied. It is not just a simple failure of ‘the rains’, but the problem of increasing variability. Sometimes there’s very heavy rain, then nothing for weeks. In the ‘old days’ rain – if it came – would be steady and continuous, soaking the land, they say. This is much more effective for crops than the rains today, when heavy rains can destroy crops through waterlogging and wind and rain damage.
As many climatologists have argued, it is not the absolute amount of rain that is changing with climate change, but its variability. This is certainly the experience in our Masvingo study areas.
Land reform and resilience
We were discussing with farmers in our A1 resettlement area study sites across Masvingo province, from the very dry south to the relatively wetter northern parts of the area. One of the common narratives that we heard was that today we don’t suffer from drought as much as we did before. This seemed to run counter to the arguments about climate change and the frequency of events that were recalled. Why was this?
The answer of course was that land reform has created a buffer against the effects of drought by providing more land with better soils and the ability to accumulate assets that can be used to improve agriculture and weather a lean period. Land reform was thus an impressive boost to resilience, although of course not usually discussed in those terms. This applies to nearly everyone as even those who have not managed to accumulate from agriculture significantly are able to gain farm employment from others.
However, even with larger areas of land and accumulated farm assets, smallholder farmers in the land reform areas must still learn to cope with the high levels of rainfall variability in order to avoid ‘nzara’. This requires skill and aptitude and some well-honed practices.
From prediction to performance
In the past, rainfall patterns were more predictable, forecasts for the season were sometimes reasonably good. There was a standard movement of the ‘inter-tropical convergence zone’ southwards and the nightly bulletins on TV would document its position. More broadly, historical analysis of climate records show a cyclical pattern of wetter and drier periods over around seven years over many decades that seem to suggest some type of pattern. This is no longer the case.
In our discussions, farmers pointed to their own forms of prediction that had been used in the past: certain types of bird being present, with certain calls; the flowering of particular trees; the formations of certain clouds; or the strength and direction of wind. These would provide short-term predictions of what might happen in the next days, but even these local prediction mechanisms frequently seem to fail these days.
As we sat in one farmer’s compound, the rain was pouring down only a kilometre away, but right there it was completely dry. This variability means a different response. Farmers were unanimous in their rejection of formal predictions, as being useless today – whether from the met department or from prophets or priests. “This is ‘fake news”, someone proclaimed, continuing, “if you follow it, you can make a serious error.”
What’s the alternative to following predictions? The answer nearly everyone gave was ‘planning’, being ready for any contingency. Having your seeds and fertiliser available, making sure you have a fit span of animals for ploughing, working out how you can divert if the rains failed – say from investing lots of effort in the ‘outfield’ to more focused, intensive gardening, where you can manage the soil, irrigate and so on.
During our discussions, lots of examples were given of how, during a highly variable season like the one being experienced, different strategies were pursued. This required flexibility, and of course resources (labour, inputs and so on) to be able to switch between options. This is the farming ‘performance’ that everyone must follow, where there are diverse scripts and different players.
This is very different to the standard packages or the technocratic solutions of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture. Even when these are useful, they must be adapted. The fertiliser recommendations from the extension workers must be changed to fit the season, even the micro-plot. As discussed in a recent blog, the no-till practice Pfumvudza must equally be changed, bigger or smaller pits, more or less mulch, extra ridges to divert water if there’s too much.
In the uncertain world of today, no one size fits all. Coping with drought and avoiding hunger requires much skill, and careful contingency planning.
As I discussed in a recent book chapter, perhaps these practices – centred on embracing uncertainty, living with and from variability – are the future, not the frequently rigid and standardised forms of humanitarian and social protection responses we see offered by the state or aid agencies. development agencies.
This is the second blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first blog here.
There is a huge government and aid machinery to respond to ‘drought’ in Zimbabwe. Humanitarian relief, cash-plus transfer schemes, shock-responsive aid, anticipatory action, insurance products, climate-smart development and much, much more, with millions of dollars spent. But what is ‘drought’, and how are different responses framed?
For some, drought is just a deficit in rainfall across a season – this is a meteorological framing, which mostly drives the formal responses, and assumes that drought is a defined risk, an event that can be easily understood, resulting in particular interventions (usually some combination of the list above).
But for others – including farmers – drought is much more complex, with interacting and highly context-specific causes, with diverse outcomes and impacts on livelihoods. This requires a much more attuned, flexible response, embracing this complexity.
Multiple causes of ‘drought’
A few weeks back, we were visiting our sites across Masvingo province – from Chikombedzi in the far south to Gutu-Chatsworth further north – and asked about ‘drought’. It was a topical conversation as the season (yet again) had been a strange one, with very uneven rainfall even if the totals were relatively high. This has made it very difficult to manage the season, with the stop-start rainfall. Everyone was hoping for some more rains, as the maize was wilting in the fields after a good start. Since then, some have been lucky, others not and there will be no crop to speak of.
Across our field sites everyone was therefore talking of ‘nzara’. This translates from Shona as ‘drought’, but it’s different to a meteorological definition; it’s more about the consequences, ‘hunger’. This is important, as there are many causes to the outcome of nzara, and this is what we ended up discussing.
Yes, lack of rainfall is important – but as people repeatedly emphasised it’s not the seasonal average but when and where rain falls within the season, as well as how effective it is. Does it simply run off from capped soils or does it soak in? Rainfall effectiveness for crop growth is very different on heavy clay soils as against sandy soils, and also different in valleys and on the uplands. The interaction between rainfall and agronomy, soils, topography and management of land is very specific, and one place (even one part of a farm) can be very different from another. This is why farmers universally rejected weather forecasts as being of any use, as conditions are so variable.
But even if rain falls, farmers explained, there are a range of factors that influence crop production. With the same rain, one farmer can succeed, while others fail. Many referred to ‘planning’, being ready for eventualities and being able to adapt. This requires skill, intelligence and, above all, flexible labour and draft power. Others argued (always about others!) that some farmers were simply ‘lazy’, they didn’t care about their fields, were always at beer parties and did not attend to their farms. Some failed because they were old, without help, or ill or infirm. These social, health and psychological factors contribute to what the effects of ‘drought’ might be, they argued.
Material assets are important too. Those with draft power of their own can plough early and catch the rains; those with tractors are even better off especially in the larger land areas of the new resettlements. Those by contrast who had to hire or borrow or worse dig by hand were unable to respond to rainfall events so effectively. The same applies to fertiliser – those able to purchase fertiliser (now ridiculously expensive) or with access to manure, were able to achieve better yields, even with the same land and labour. Access to inputs of different sorts therefore is crucial to confronting ‘drought’.
The pattern of farming makes a difference too. The small-scalePfumvudza plots that many have invested in – and backed by the government and NGOs as part of ‘drought relief’ and ‘climate-smart agriculture’ – have become an important part of the agricultural system of late. In the resettlement areas, these essentially garden plots are farmed intensively by hand and yield well, but provide in total only small amounts, while the extensive outfields need a different type of investment. Only if you have both can you provide enough food for sale and consumption and avoid ‘nzara’, our informants explained.
Adapting to uncertain contexts
As we discussed many years ago in the book, Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa, in the aftermath of the major 1991-92 drought, all of these factors – biophysical, social, material and more – all affect who wins and loses in a drought. In some instances, lack of rainfall wipes out everything for everyone (what some call a co-variate shock), but this is rare, as there’s usually a much more variegated outcome. There are – in the jargon – more idiosyncratic effects, with quite specific outcomes.
This is important, as the simplistic responses from the state and aid machinery often miss their mark, and why they have to be adapted to uncertain contexts, as we explained in a recent paper. This is why understanding how responses are mobilised by different people in different places is essential. This is the focus of the next blog in this short series.
The conservation of biodiversity in places where people also live and farm is not straightforward. The last three blogs have offered some perspectives on the dilemmas faced in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe, and this blog offers an overview.
The politics of land in this region is much contested and has been for much of the last century. National parks, conservancies, hunting concessions, sugar estates, large-scale farms and small-scale farming and herding all compete for space. Beyond the irrigated estates and farms, it is a dry and hostile place, where carving out a living is difficult. This is made more challenging for those living close to areas where wildlife also live, especially as the exploding population of elephants spills over destroying crops in their wake.
All these land uses will be part of the future of the southeast Lowveld near the Gonarezhou park, but how to make sure that conflicts don’t escalate and livelihoods are not destroyed? This was the focus of the most recently published trio of blogs. Based on our recent discussions in the area, they aimed to offer all sides of the story, including those who are often not heard in conservation debates – poorer farmers and herders living on the margins of the wildlife estate.
Seeking compromises and searching for solutions that involve all parties is essential, whether over controversies about park boundaries and fences or about investments in large-scale farming, as in the Chilonga case. Ignoring local views only creates more conflict and resentment. This was the lesson learned when the CAMPFIRE concept was developed – the importance of sharing benefits so as to have a joint commitment to the future both of wildlife and of livelihoods. As the last blog in this series shows this illustrious Zimbabwean experiment has run into problems, but learning lessons from these is the route to a more effective approach to conservation, rather than reverting to the ‘fortress conservation’ models of the past.
Since this blog series was published during Easter/Ramadan/Passover periods and readers may have missed them, I thought I would have a reprise this week, providing links to all three. Read them together and please feel free to comment on the blogs, whether you agree or disagree. The important point is to have a debate about the future of biodiversity, conservation and livelihoods.
This is a long running discussion, but one that needs more airing across different viewpoints if the ambitions of the action plan on biodiversity to be launched at the forthcoming Biodiversity COP in China are ever to be met.
In case you missed them, here are the three blogs:
The much-lauded book, Why Nations Fail, argued that sustained economic progress only occurs when institutions work. This means enforcement of legal rules, clear secure access to land, regulations that are transparent, bureaucracies that function and of course – emerging out of this – a lack of debilitating corruption. In Zimbabwe, these conditions do not hold.
Like all other domains, this applies to natural resource governance, including the co-management of wildlife. Resource governance in Zimbabwe is largely a decentralised function, with local councils being key players, despite overarching legislation and a national environmental management agency. The functioning of local government is therefore crucial, especially around policies aimed at benefit sharing of wildlife and other natural resources that are on state land.
But with local government failing to deliver and institutions failing, can effective, accountable local management of resources and benefit-sharing with communities function? Can CAMPFIRE – the great Zimbabwean experiment centred on the sustainable use of wildlife – be revived?
CAMPFIRE: sharing the benefits of wildlife resources
The pioneering CAMPFIRE programme (Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) emerged in mid 1980s (formally launched in 1989) as a solution to the classic conflict between environmental protection (through national parks) and human needs and sustainable use. At the centre was a commitment to benefit sharing from the sustainable harvesting of wild animals – through hunting concessions – when they were killed on communal land, so reducing incessant human-wildlife conflict (see photo).
Revenues from hunting were then shared with local communities so that they too benefited from the parks estate and wildlife that spilled over. It was seen as a win-win solution, with community-based approach hailed as the alternative to ‘fortress conservation’. Conventional approaches had repeatedly failed by often violently excluding local people, who built up resentments to national parks and did not buy into conservation efforts.
In Zimbabwe, the CAMPFIRE programme started very much as a community-based enterprise and the state was barely presented. In places like Mahenye on the edge of Gonarezhou, hunters under the direction of a local official would hand out cash to local people and local leaders. This rather paternalistic model later became institutionalised under the Rural District Councils that were established in the late 1980s. Councils would then handle CAMPFIRE revenues, investing them in the area through particular local development programmes.
However, of late, this system has become largely non-functional. There are limited payouts due in part to declines in hunting revenue, but in particular due to embedded corruption in the system. Hunters rarely declare their full income, council officials are in on deals and money gets diverted to other projects and people are not happy. Today CAMPFIRE is an example of a failed institution, reflective of a wider malaise in the Zimbabwean state.
When we were in the southeast Lowveld recently, including visiting Gonarezhou national park (see previous two blogs in this series, here and here), talking to hunters, parks officials and local communities, the debate about the future of CAMPFIRE was frequently mentioned. Should it be abandoned, accepting that it doesn’t work, or should there be a concerted investment in rebuilding the institutional mechanisms? Which position is taken very much depends on where people sit in the wider debate and how they interact with the park, hunting concessions and the degree to which they suffer conflicts with wildlife. All agree that CAMPFIRE is not working as it once did.
Those who argue for its abandonment have a vision of a protected park (some would say a return to a ‘fortress’ model) with buffer zones where ‘development’ projects could function. While they claim they are not against hunting, they are not keen on it either and have many complaints against the hunting fraternity in the area. Their view is that local government oversight will never work, as almost inevitably budgets are constrained and, even if not appropriated for private gain, the likelihood of local communities benefiting will be limited as resources will be diverted elsewhere. This was a pattern seen through the 1990s when economic structural adjustment hit state revenues hard and CAMPFIRE payouts dwindled, resulting in much disgruntlement.
Those who are in favour of a revival argue that only with genuine revenues – from hunting, but also tourism – coming to the areas around the parks will the long-term sustainability of the resource be secured. The sort of ‘alternative livelihood’ projects being proposed are not enough, as the benefits are small and uncertain. If communities are seen as genuine ‘shareholders’ in the park and the wider natural resource asset – as the traditional inhabitants of the area – then benefits from high value activities need to be shared for wider development. There are many debates about how this should happen, and a general negativity about the state, including local government, is expressed, but the basic CAMPFIRE principle is one that such actors subscribe to.
Reviving community-based resource management means resuscitating the local state
I want to argue for the revival of CAMPFIRE (or something equivalent), in the name of both conservation and development. Having recently been in Kenya where no such options are available (in part because of the banning of hunting), the alternatives such as ‘community conservancies’ – more the buffer zone community development option – appear to generate conflict and uncertain benefits.
However, before making the case for a CAMPFIRE revival, we first have to look into what went wrong. It means looking at the sorry tale of the decline of the state – and wider institutional capacity – in Zimbabwe over the last decades. In respect of local government, we can see four phases.
At Independence, Zimbabwe inherited the colonial model, with a separation of administration of communal areas (formerly ‘African’ Tribal Trust Lands) from what were the former white, European areas. The focus on communal area development was serious in the early years, with a new cadre of district administrators, many ex-combatants from the liberation war, recently retrained in places like Birmingham in the UK. There was a deep commitment and passion for development and the early ideas around CAMPFIRE emerged in this context. Through a number of experimental initiatives, such as Mahenye, CAMPFIRE gradually grew and became more institutionalised. Commitment, trust, local networks and a sense of doing something different – and proudly Zimbabwean -drove the effort. These were all firm bases for a later institutionalising of a successful model.
The colonial anomaly of rural administration was addressed in 1988 through the formation of Rural District Councils, with jurisdiction over both communal areas and the large-scale farms. This potentially offered a larger tax base, boosting the limited revenue that local councils had beyond the subventions from government – such as beer halls and the like. In the districts where wildlife use was possible, CAMPFIRE became an additional and important revenue stream. With major capacity building efforts occurring with local government (from the UK government and others in places like Gokwe), local government took on a new lease of life and professionalism. This was the hey-day of CAMPFIRE as the system moved from an often informal and highly context specific arrangement to one that was more institutionalised. In this period, institutions of the local state seemed to be (largely) working.
This gradually changed from 1991, when the government agreed the economic structural adjustment programme with the IMF. The restructuring of the state meant that revenues flowing to local government declined dramatically. Just to cover recurrent costs, many councils diverted any revenues – including those from CAMPFIRE. This meant that dividends paid out to communities declined too, with many commenting on how the system was not supporting local commitments to natural resource management. At the same time, of course, resources linked to national parks declined too, and despite the quasi-privatisation and the creation of the National Parks Authority, things barely improved. With limited poaching controls, commercial poaching increased (particularly following de-mining efforts and the end of the hostilities in Mozambique) and local people were able to use the parks for small-scale hunting and grazing. Hunting operations meanwhile flourished, with high-paying customers enjoying the Zimbabwe experience, but the use of such revenues for benefit-sharing among local communities was very patchy.
By the late 1990s, this pattern had become embedded in the functioning of local government. With the economic crisis that has stretched from this period until the present, exacerbated by ‘sanctions’ and continued economic mismanagement by the state (and what some dub the party-military complex), the operation of CAMPFIRE has almost ceased on the ground. The struggle now was not just to cover recurrent costs, but many council officials sought to supplement increasingly unrealistic salaries by corruptly making use of funds. Alleged deals between council officials and hunters on concession terms and bid arrangements have meant that money once destined for CAMPFIRE communities was diverted. Today there is no systematic pattern of payouts and although there may be ‘projects’ funded from government sources, combined with donors and others, these are isolated, not sustained and ineffective. In other words, the core institutional capacities that allowed CAMPFIRE to thrive before have been lost. It is a sorry state of affairs, but a pattern replicated across government.
What are the reasons for this state failure? It is not just greedy venality of government officials – the usual narrative about ‘corruption’ – instead, we have to look deeper, especially if the aim is to revive the state and its functioning. The forced restructuring, the decline of state funds, sanctions affecting aid flows and the lack of accountability and transparency in the system all contribute, and this has accreted now over 30 odd years. There is much petty corruption, widely sanctioned, that is just for survival (you cannot survive off a government salary), but this is small compared to the larger diversion of funds. The problem is that the wider acceptance of taking a little in order to make things happen (and keep people alive) seeps into a broader lack of accountability, allowing the big fish, protected by political patronage, to get away with it.
Rebuilding the state from below
It sounds like a hopeless situation, beyond a solution. Some continue to argue for moving functions of the state to (quasi-)private arrangements hoping for an efficient, technocratic solution. But experience suggests that this does not provide the answer. Rebuilding the state from below will be a slow, difficult process but it is vital, as only the state can provide the forms of accountability and reach that successful resource governance (alongside many other functions) requires. For CAMPFIRE to be revived there has to be capacity to oversee tenders and contracts, offer distributions and regulate wildlife in clear, transparent ways. And this requires trust, representation and accountability mechanisms, alongside broad coverage, which only a state-led system can offer.
The task will not be easy, as the decay has been allowed to persist for so long, but rebuilding state functions is not impossible. Starting small, building on existing relationships, focusing on successful efforts, encouraging participation from the people and rewarding those who make things happen are all requirements. Why not start with the revival of CAMPFIRE, focusing on marginal areas where wildlife resources are rich, such as in the southeast Lowveld near Gonarezhou where it all started? Just maybe this can be an example for the revival of state functioning in Zimbabwe more broadly. Whatever happens in the elections in 2023, this has to be the major challenge for the future.
What are the roles of protected areas in national development? Are parks national, even global, assets preserved for posterity and for protecting biodiversity, or are they part of a shared, local heritage, where nature and human use must be seen as integrated?
These were themes that were central to discussions during our recent visit to the southeast Lowveld in Zimbabwe, including a visit to Gonarezhou National Park at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust, which followed on from our recent exchange after my earlier blog. Thanks to financing through the Frankfurt Zoological Society from a number of philanthropic foundations, the park is undergoing a much-needed rehabilitation. After years of neglect, the basic infrastructure had declined and the management of what are crucially important ecosystems and biodiverse habitats had lapsed.
The Gonarezhou ConservationTrust is a joint venture between the government (through the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority) and the FZS, based on a 20-year agreement from 2017 to manage the huge 5,000 km2 area. Already major changes have happened, including the recruitment and training of many armed guards and rangers, along with the improvement of roads, camping and lodge sites. Although currently the park is receiving significant amounts of external funding as a contribution to its US$3 million per annum running costs, the aim is to break even, boosting pre-COVID income of about $500m per annum through major tourist investments.
Central to the park strategy is the securing of the boundary, especially on the Zimbabwe side. The erection of an electrified veterinary fence along the whole border has been recently completed, together with the employment of guards to patrol. This investment has been facilitated by government, through the Department of Veterinary Services, although where the money originally came from remains obscure. Although the fence is aimed at stopping animals leaving the park and carrying disease to domestic herds outside, the fence is also part of the park strategy to contain animals and maintain a strong, secure boundary.
However, given that the area is endemic with Foot-and-Mouth and not part of an export zone where ‘disease freedom’ is required, the veterinary rationale for the fence is shaky to say the least (see an earlier blog on this theme). And, in any case, given that the fence is not continuous, as animals are allowed to move into hunting areas and can anyway move up rivers where the fence does not cross, buffaloes (the main FMD carrier) can easily move into the farming areas (and do).
Whatever the origins of the fence, it serves the park strategy well. As was explained to us, the aim is to reduce human-animal conflict (although see the previous blog on the ‘trouble with elephants’), as well as encourage more regulated use of park resources by local people, overturning what was seen as a dangerous free-for-all that existed before. Today groups are allowed in to cut grass and to collect non-timber forest products, but livestock are never allowed to graze inside the park boundary, no matter how bad the drought conditions. The aim then is to keep animals in and people out.
While Hugo and colleagues objected to the label of ‘fortress conservation’ in my previous blog, there are clearly many parallels. The increased militarisation of park defences is also a clear trend, again very similar to elsewhere. While from inside the park, it looks like there are assaults from all sides that must be defended against (poachers from Mozambique, villagers seeking grazing from the Zimbabwe side and so on), from the other side of the fence, it looks like a well-defended fortress, and a big change from the more flexible, negotiated (others would say simply unregulated) arrangement that existed before.
The result has been heightened tension with local communities, which have been responded to be a range of outreach and community liaison activities, as well as intensified policing and arrests. The community outreach activities are pursued genuinely and with considerable resources and are led by committed staff from the Trust. There are investments in local infrastructure (roads, a proposed bridge, school rehabilitation), as well as attempts to address human-wildlife conflict (including growing chilli to create ‘cakes’ that can be burned to repel elephants). There is also a commitment to wider dialogue, with platforms created in villages around the park boundary, where grievances can be aired and issues addressed by park officials.
However, there remain problems, as we found when we talked with community members. There is a deep resentment around the change of access, especially for grazing, and multiple complaints that wildlife conflicts are getting worse not better. Many complain that the park does nothing about it. While this is not strictly true, the scale of the challenge is huge. The fence does restrict some animals, but elephants, in particular, don’t have much time for fences even electric ones, and regularly break through. None of the ‘projects’ offered by the park provide a genuine alternative to grazing. With increasing droughts and more pressure on land around the park, the need for relief grazing only gets bigger. While those with big herds (including absentees) are the most affected, it is the smaller livestock owner, who may have just a few cattle and goats, whose livelihoods are especially affected, as they depend on livestock provisioning through drought periods when crops fail.
While community outreach certainly helps open up channels of communication, the local liaison officers are at a bit of loss what to do, as they have no power to address the more fundamental questions around access to land (and crucially grass and water for animals). There is also a slightly naïve approach to ‘community’ involvement, with the assumption that co-opting some chiefs or headmen is sufficient. As was explained to us, sometimes the dialogue meetings are open fights as people rail against the park or – slightly bizarrely – against ‘Hugo’, as the dispute with the new park arrangement has become oddly personalised as if the Trust director owns the place!
The problem is that there are very divided views; different narratives about what the park and the wider landscape are for and the role of people in them. For some, parks are the last vestiges of the wild, natural world, where globally important habitats and species can be protected from human depredation. As part of a core strategy for protecting biodiversity, they are therefore globally important and central to a country’s national assets. Given their wider value as ‘global public goods’, they can also attract funds from outside, including interest from tourists and others able to pay for access. For others, by contrast, parks are part of a wider natural heritage, which has co-evolved together with humans. The landscape is one that has been part of people’s cultural histories, and where grave sites lie and spirits reside. These areas should be protected for use, but humans – through living with and from nature – are the natural guardians of it.
So, what are the ways forward? Clearly the investment in Gonarezhou is much needed and welcome, but has the Trust adopted the right strategy? Is conflict bubbling away and will it explode at some point? Can the separation of wild nature and people really be sustainable?
As we saw in our own study areas neighbouring the park, land is currently highly constrained – particularly better watered grazing and arable land at the end of a dry season or during a drought (as now). Tensions between wildlife and people will always focus on these ‘key resources’. This means shared use, within and outside the park boundaries is essential. People in the communities must find ways of allowing wildlife to co-exist in their areas, while parks managers must find ways of people using key resources in the park (in certain places, at certain times). It has to be a negotiated settlement, and one that benefits both (conflicting) objectives. Without this damaging conflict will persist.
Creating ‘alternative livelihoods’ in these areas is very difficult, and no matter how many high-end tourist lodges are built this is not going to provide for the vast majority. Such people are not going to be bought off with the odd gardening project or infrastructure investment, no matter how welcome these may be. They need to make a living from the land – and that means livestock grazing and farming. Using aid and philanthropic money to invest in a national park is justified because of its importance for biodiversity protection, but this argument is difficult to sustain if over the fence poverty and even starvation reigns.
Development must emerge in the round – people, wildlife, ecosystems all need to be part of the picture. The alternative to the siloed approach, where nature conservation is separated from wider development (and attracts the big bucks), is to accept that (no matter what fence is put up), boundaries are flexible. A park such as Gonarezhou is a national (even global) asset, but it is also a shared heritage, amongst all those who value this landscape; not least those who lived inside the park for many generations before its establishment less than 50 years ago.
There is a need for what some call an ‘inclusive’ or a ‘convivial’ approach to conservation: shared use, negotiated goals and so less conflictual and violent. In the wider landscape, this must mean biodiversity conservation of critical habitats and species; tourism to allow the widest group of people to enjoy and appreciate these historically and ecologically important areas; hunting, revenue generation and benefit sharing; and shared use of resources, particularly those key resources vital for agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, as well as wildlife. Fences, guns and guards are not the solution, and may even make matters worse.
Elephants are some of the most majestic animals in African savannahs, but they can also be the most destructive. This is witnessed dramatically if you travel to Gonarezhou National Park (appropriately, the ‘place of the elephants’) in the far southeast of Zimbabwe, as we did recently at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust. As we saw, the areas around water sources are completely hammered, with mopane woodlands destroyed. It is a sorry sight, and the elephants must wander further, including outside the park, to find food.
Too many elephants
Elephant populations have increased dramatically in Gonarezhou (as has indeed been the case across Zimbabwe), with the park populations increasing to around 10,000 animals (some say more). This is around three times the maximum number the park can hold sustainably; although as park ecologists argue they spread over much wider areas, including across large areas of Mozambique to the east. Simple ‘carrying capacity’ estimates don’t work well, but you only have to look at the damage in certain parts of the park to see that there is a problem.
Take a look at the three photographs below of mopane trees, taken on our recent trip to the area, and guess where the vegetation is. One is a protected area, part of a massive conservation effort supported by international money; one is a communal (small-scale) African farming area; and one is a resettlement area, settled by small scale farmers following land reform. The full answers are below, but you probably will have guessed already that the most deforested landscape is in the national park. And the reason is elephants.
Overpopulation of elephants can cause multiple problems. Not only is tree cover destroyed but the whole ecosystem is changed, with knock-on effects for other species, from beetles to birds. Blind ‘protection’ of what is supposed to be an endangered species makes little conservation sense. In these areas, elephants are more of a pest than a protected species.
There are so many of them and they are not happy animals – as we found out close-up when they charged our vehicle (twice). They reputedly become more agitated as they return to the safety of the park in Zimbabwe from Mozambique where poaching is intense. Mines from the liberation war existed along the border for a long time, although most have been cleared, but these also caused elephant rage (and death) when stepped on. And the new electric fence that borders the park within Zimbabwe apparently also gets them jumpy, as they break through to find food in the farms beyond.
Elephants destroy crops and livelihoods
As villagers told us in our study areas near Chikombedzi, just a few kilometres from the park, elephants regularly break through the fence (notionally a foot-and-mouth veterinary fence) or come up the dry riverbeds as the fence does not cross or through the small-scale farms nearby where there is no boundary fence with the park.
Elephants love crop fields and will destroy a whole area in hours. The area along the river is where farmers must eke out a living on small fields, farming sorghum and maize or irrigating vegetables. In this extremely dry area, this is the only place where agriculture is feasible, especially when the rains fail as this year. But this is also where elephants (and buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles and other animals) assemble and cause havoc.
Villagers complain that there is no ‘problem animal control’ efforts by the parks authorities these days, and there is no compensation paid in Zimbabwe, as animals in communal areas are the responsibility of the locals, not the parks, as they can be harvested in line with a quota system as part of the now largely defunct CAMPFIRE scheme (as discussed in a forthcoming blog).
We met Mrs KP, who had moved to her fields in this area to protect her crops. Her young children were staying in the village with relatives, but she was alone defending the last of her sorghum from the nightly raids by elephants. After yet another incursion into her field the previous night, there was little left.
She stays in a makeshift shelter and builds fires at night to ward off elephants. She also has a large torch, which she says sometimes worked to frighten them off. It is a lonely and dangerous life, and she was losing the battle. She told us that there were others nearby doing the same, while others had given up, resigning themselves to hunger or hand-outs instead of getting anything from the fields.
Historical estimates of elephant populations in these areas are a bit shaky, but everyone agrees that today’s numbers are the highest ever, at least since records began in 1975 when the park was established. In the past years populations have been growing at 6% per year, although this may be plateauing.
In the past, elephants could move more easily when fences didn’t exist and population densities were lower. The advent of the ‘transfrontier’ conservation ‘peace park’ area between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique was supposed to encourage ‘connectivity’, and so larger ranges for migratory and larger animals, but there have been limits to this ambition due to poaching, settlement barriers and geopolitics.
Restrictions on culling are causing major ecological damage
So why have elephant populations got so out of control? The major reason is that they are no longer managed as they once were through culling or relocation programmes that helped balance populations with resources. Although Mrs KP is not one of them, there is a clamouring global advocacy on behalf of elephants.
Organisations such as ‘Save the Elephants’ – along with all the major conservation outfits – raise very large amounts of money on the back of the argument that African elephants are endangered and must be protected and that culling – and worse, hunting for trophies – is inhumane. If your experience of elephants is mostly derived from wildlife TV programmes watched from the comfort of your living room in London or New York, then you can see why such campaigns exist. But this is far from the experience of those living on the edge of Gonarezhou national park, as we discovered.
The result of such lobbying has been a dramatic decline in the ability of ecologists in parks to manage elephants, with devastating consequences as we saw. Currently CITES – the international body that regulates trade in endangered species – only allows for the culling of 500 elephants per year in the whole of Zimbabwe. For Gonarezhou, the quota is only 25. With trophy hunting imports now banned from the UK and elsewhere, the demand for hunting (made worse by the pandemic) has taken a hit too.
In the past, southern Africa was a major hotspot for hunting. However distasteful the practice, the ecological and economic benefits were significant when attention was paid to the distribution of benefits. Hunting revenues – especially from the trophy fee – were large and were (in theory at least) shared with local communities. With quotas carefully designed, the offtake was sustainable and geared to management of the wider ecosystem for conservation and biodiversity benefits.
Poorly conceived bans on trophy imports and hunting therefore are having major negative consequences on conservation in Zimbabwe. The result in Gonarezhou is widespread deforestation and loss of biodiversity. This in turn has dire consequences for poor people’s livelihoods, increasing poverty and hunger in highly marginal places, as elephants continue to ravage their limited subsistence crops.
This is not what CITES planned for, nor I am sure what those who spend their hard-earned cash on conservation organisations would want either. But somehow these perspectives – and the real, tragic situation of the likes of Mrs KP – are not heard in the air-brushed, positive spin of conservation lobbying.
New thinking needed
What then is the likely consequence of this strategy of protection at all costs, banning hunting and trophies and restricting culling? It is not pretty. We have seen what can happen before when elephant populations get out of control: when their food runs out, populations crash, with major consequences for the wider ecology. This is what happened in Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the early 1970s when around 5,000 elephants died of starvation over several years. It took decades for the ecosystem to recover. Without management, this may well happen in Zimbabwe too.
The mass starvation of large, intelligent animals is not a pleasant sight, and not a good look for the outcome of ill-thought out global conservation strategies. This is why new thinking about protected areas – and the role of elephants within and beyond them – is urgently needed, a theme picked up in the next blog in this short series.
The answer to the mopane tree quiz (from left to right): A: Communal area near Chikombedzi, with distinct browse line; B: Gonarezhou National Park near Chipinda Pools; C: Edenvale A1 resettlement area. And apologies to regular readers of this blog for the gap in posts. There are quite a few lined up for the next weeks, based on recent fieldwork in Zimbabwe, including two more in this series on dilemmas for conservation policy.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (the first case recorded in Zimbabwe was on 20 March 2020), health professionals in clinics and hospitals have been on the front-line of Zimbabwe’s response. In the last few weeks, while reengaging with our field sites, we have visited a number of health facilities in our rural study areas across Zimbabwe and talked to health workers about their experiences. As our informants explained, the three waves of the pandemic in Zimbabwe have been quite different.
The fear of COVID: the first wave
At the beginning of the first wave from late March 2020, there was a deep fear of the unknown. Health workers were confronting a novel virus without protective equipment and no known treatment or preventive vaccination. People watched TV and saw the scenes from China and then Europe, looking in horror at what might be coming their way. Much commentary saw the parlous state of health systems in Africa and feared the worst. Certainly, our informants reflected on how they were all initially terrified, sometimes avoiding seeing or treating people for fear of contracting the virus, while later they learned how to respond to the disease, but with significant wider challenges.
Across Zimbabwe, the first wave saw limited cases and few deaths, and these were nearly all imported cases with deaths recorded in hospitals in Harare. One nurse, now based in the Lowveld, experienced this first-hand as he was a student the main hospital in Harare at the time. With qualified doctors and nurses on strike, students were asked to attend the COVID wards. Lack of PPE and no knowledge of how to treat patients meant that they had to improvise. The lack of ventilators in the country meant that any escalation of the pandemic would have been disastrous. Luckily, this did not happen. Whether the strict containment measures enforced through a harsh lockdown helped or it was other factors at play, no one knows, but the first wave came and went with only limited impact. In our sites, clinics and hospitals instituted strict screening requirements for entry and with testing facilities emerging, there were requirements for widespread testing, especially of staff. This was initially resisted as everyone feared the virus. Being COVID positive was seen as a potential death sentence, and would result in enforced quarantining.
Tensions between public health measures and public views: dilemmas in the second wave
Vaccines became available from February 2021, but vaccination drives in our rural sites initially saw very limited uptake. Hesitancy emerged for a number of reasons. Low incidence meant that there didn’t seem a need. The misinformation from WhatsApp groups and social media was extreme, with all sorts dangers suggested from vaccination in general and from Chinese vaccines (the only ones initially available in Zimbabwe) in particular. Fears were also held by health workers, who were one of the first groups where vaccination was mandated. Many we interviewed admitted they delayed getting vaccinated until it was clear that the vaccines were safe. This made their role in promoting the vaccination drive somewhat ambivalent; although this changed as vaccines became more widely accepted. By the time of the second wave from mid-2021, when deaths and more serious illness were experienced, the demand for vaccination increased dramatically, as did the effectiveness of delivery and supply in the rural areas.
By this time, health workers across our sites felt more prepared. There was better protective equipment available as well as testing facilities, and they were more accepting of vaccination as a strategy. Health workers had also become more relaxed about regular testing, and saw this now as an important preventive measure, protecting them and their patients. In this wave dominated by the Delta variant, there was however some sickness and death across our sites; although it remained limited COVID was definitely much more present in the rural areas than during the first wave. Reflections from health workers on this period were more about how systems were developed to test, trace and contain the disease. Given the small number of cases, this seemed to be remarkably effective. Who knows if there were other unrecorded cases elsewhere, but it seems that the timing of the wave in the dry season helped limit spread. By this stage, the lockdowns were increasingly being challenged by locals, as they were affecting livelihoods and businesses seriously. Health workers commented on their importance for public health, but recognised the challenge of implementing them when there was actually so little recorded COVID around.
These tensions between public health recommendations – strictly following government (and in turn WHO) regulations – and the negative impacts on everyday life became increasingly evident, as all our informants acknowledged. Lockdowns also had negative effects on wider health care. Transport restrictions (combined with fear of testing and then getting isolated) meant that many didn’t come to clinics or hospitals at all, or only late. This meant that there was an increase in complications around pregnancy and births for example. Those preferring to treat COVID at home with the growing array of indigenous herbal medicines available may equally have risked late treatment of malaria, which COVID was confused with. This likely had fatal consequences. Some informants even suggested that, particularly by the time of the third wave, which came in the malarial wet season, malaria deaths probably far exceeded mortalities from COVID, and may well have been exacerbated by COVID measures as people were late to test and get treatment.
And then there were all the other knock-on consequences of the lockdowns and the disruption of the economy. Mental health was mentioned, including the problem of boredom of young people now unable to go to school. This resulted in increased substance abuse, as well as unwanted pregnancies amongst of very young girls. These wider health consequences of the pandemic (or at least the response to it) were mentioned frequently by health workers and villagers as major impacts (far more than the virus itself).
The emergence of a plural health system: the third wave
The third wave in December 2021-January 2022 was different again. As everyone recalled, Omicron presented as a bad ‘flu, but there were few hospitalisations (all from other conditions) and no directly attributable deaths. During this phase, the local treatments (steaming, herbal teas and other concoctions) had become part of daily life, for both treatment and prevention. These were seen as highly efficacious. Health workers admitted using them at home and with their families. Here the blurring between home life and treatment of health among the family and the official public health role became most apparent. As one nurse observed, I take off my uniform when I get home leave it until I go to work the next morning.
At home, health workers just like everyone else were engaging with a wider, plural health system, involving herbalists, healers, prophets, pastors, spirit mediums and traditional doctors, alongside their own medical training. In the context of the uncertainty of a new disease – and one that seemed to be so different in each wave – this made absolute sense, and none of our informants found this contradictory or problematic. To protect themselves and their families they would follow whatever worked, usually hedging bets given prevailing uncertainty. In the clinics and hospitals, the protocols had not changed much from the first wave. At the clinics, paracetamol was administered along with antibiotic injections for severe cases to reduce co-infections, but for Omicron a different regime was required, and local remedies served the purpose well.
All the health workers we talked to had worked incredibly hard during the pandemic. Unlike in other parts of the world they did not have to deal with the horrors of massive sickness burdens and death, but they had to follow a set of complex measures of testing, masking, distancing and so on that made their jobs more difficult. And, with limited facilities and initially barely any protective equipment, the fear and stress that the initial concerns about how the pandemic would play out took its toll. They had to deal with the dilemmas of advocating testing and vaccines that initially they had their own concerns about. And they had to convince a public to follow a whole panoply of public health regulations associated with the pandemic, while still coming to clinics or hospitals with regular diseases. Masking became widespread but restricting gatherings, particularly of churches and political gatherings was more difficult. And as time went on, especially in the hot season, masks became an additional garment hung around the chin, and quickly put up over the nose and mouth if a police officer was near or a roadblock was approached. Lockdowns as containment measures for a disease that was only sporadically present and at very low levels presented a dilemma for many we discussed with. While accepted at the beginning in the face of deep uncertainty, later many were more circumspect of their value. Lockdowns, for example, meant that patients presented late if at all, increasing the acuteness of conditions and resulting in different health burdens and more challenges for health care.
Everyone we talked to agreed that, with the pandemic changing in form and severity, opportunities to ‘live with virus’ were increasing and the costs of some of the remaining public health measures probably exceeded their current value. Many lessons have been learned about how to respond to a pandemic in a rural setting, and importantly how public health has to be balanced with livelihood and economic needs, while being supported by local approaches to health care and treatment as part of a plural system. These will be important as health systems prepare for the inevitable next pandemic.
This is the 20th blog in a series on the COVID-19 pandemic. Search COVID-19 for other posts. A full compilation and overview will be avialble soon. Thanks to the team from Chikombedzi, Wondedzo and Chatsworth and the doctors, nurses and environmental health technicians in the clinics/hospitals for sparing time to speak with us.
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.
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.
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.
Contract farming in different forms has become increasingly common in farming systems across the world, not least in Zimbabwe, but does it benefit smallholder farmers or exploit them?
Contract farming rose to prominence globally as a proposed solution to ‘market failures’ in the extension of commercial agriculture. Farmers offered their land and labour while contract companies, more often than not linked to multinational capital, provided credit, extension advice and other inputs, as well as direct access to markets. In contexts where finance was short and markets difficult to link to, contract farming seemed like the win-win neoliberal solution to extending capitalist agriculture, without relying on land dispossession to create estates and plantations.
Twenty-five years ago an important book was published – Living under Contract: Contract Farming and Agrarian Transformation in sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Peter Little and Mike Watts. It offered a much more critical political economy perspective on contract farming based on case studies from across Africa (including Zimbabwe, with the chapter written by Jeremy Jackson and Angela Cheater). It proved an enormously influential book, as it countered the simplistic win-win narrative of contract farming advocates. The book argued that contract farming necessarily was embedded in political and social relations, which were often deeply unequal. While providing opportunities for some (mostly relatively wealthy smallholders), the result was the creation of a ‘disguised proletarianisation’ of the countryside, whereby farmers effectively laboured on behalf of the contracting companies on very unequal terms.
The current state of play: insights from a new special issue
With increasing integration into global value chains, smallholder agriculture in Africa and elsewhere has increasingly become reliant on contract farming for a range of commodities. Contract farming is strongly advocated by aid agencies, development banks and private companies as part of an ‘inclusive’, ‘pro-poor’ business agenda for agriculture. The win-win narrative is very much alive, 25 years on.
So what is the current state of play? Has contract farming lived up to the expectations of its advocates or has it resulted in the problems predicted by its critics? A great new special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change edited by Mark Vicol, Niels Fold, Caroline Hambloch, Sudha Narayanan and Helena Pérez Niño offers some answers. The issue includes diverse cases from China to India, Indonesia, Laos, Mozambique, the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
What is striking is the diversity of contract farming arrangements – sometimes large schemes, some very informal, some with very direct state involvement, some without, and across a whole range of crops and livestock. No simple story emerges; the response to both the advocates and critics is that the outcomes are not totally clear-cut. Contract farming clearly generates new relations of power, new labour regimes and very often accelerates existing processes of differentiation. But is this all bad? The answer of course is, it depends, and particularly on the social, economic, political and historical contexts for contracts.
State and private-led contracting in Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwe contribution to the issue – Private and state-led contract farming in Zimbabwe: accumulation, social differentiation and rural politics – by Toendepi Shonhe and myself draws on extensive household surveys in Mazowe and Hwedza districts and looks at private and state-led contract farming, respectively for tobacco and maize. The consequences for social differentiation, accumulation and rural politics are in turn examined. As with other recent studies of contract farming in Zimbabwe by Freedom Mazwi and colleagues (also here and here) and our earlier study from Mvurwi, a complex story emerges. Our new paper clearly shows how contract farming adds to existing patterns of differentiation, building off unequal power relationships – and that a political economy analysis is essential to understanding outcomes.
So in private tobacco contracting, it is those who are neither rich (and can finance and sell their tobacco independently) nor poor (who cannot afford the risk of loans and dependence on a contract) who are involved. And it’s mostly men who have the contracts. Across both sites, and particularly in the A1 resettlement farms, these farmers are benefiting from contracting, and accumulating significantly; but perhaps not as much as their richer counterparts who can go it alone. Poorer farmers are left out, and must engage in tobacco farming through joining others on their contracts, often on very poor terms, while women either join their husbands or opt for other farming activities.
While tobacco contracting clearly fulfils a need for agricultural financing (which is spread beyond tobacco to other crops) in the absence of any bank finance for smallholders, it also reinforces existing patterns of differentiation. Contracting farmers are not completely dependent on the company as in some other schemes, and many wish they could contract more area than the one hectare usually offered for tobacco. On the other areas of the farm, other family members lead the growing of other crops and so overall there is a more diversified approach both to production and market engagement than the vision of ‘labouring for the company’ sometimes portrayed.
By contrast, state-led contracting (supported by the military) under the ‘command agriculture’ programme, targets the already well-off, very often in the larger A2 farms; again nearly all relatively older men. The programme aims to boost cereal production in particular, including on irrigated plots. Far fewer farmers in our sample were recipients of such loan financing, and those who gained access were often well-connected politically. Recipients certainly produced more and were able to accumulate, benefiting from the very favourable terms, with loans often not paid back. Those who are less well-connected also have benefited, but often from partial packages and many were disgruntled with the programme. Again, while benefiting production, contracting added to patterns of differentiation – including along gender and age lines – and reinforced political differences and allegiances.
In both cases, we see how contract farming is not a simple ‘win-win’ solving ‘market failures’, but it is the wider socio-political context that affects outcomes. Contracting is not just a route to the selective penetration of private capital, but also a route to leveraging state presence and forms of political patronage. Contracting is thus very much bound up with rural politics and the post-land reform landscape of politicised negotiation over resource access. With both tobacco and maize being crucial ‘political’ crops, the state has a keen interest in the terms of contracts and in the case of command agriculture intervenes directly to favour certain producers and political ‘clients’ over others. As we note in the paper, this is not so different to how the Rhodesian government intervened to influence contract terms in favour of (certain) white farmers in the colonial era, but today allegiances to the ruling party become crucial in defining state-led contracting.
Political economies matter
Just as Living under Contract argued 25 years ago, understanding contract farming requires attention to political economy, including gender and age differences, as well as history. While the outcomes of contract farming may not all be negative, and a simple argument for forced but disguised proletarianisation and simple exploitation by capital doesn’t hold up, at least in the Zimbabwe case, the terms of negotiation around contracts are always uneven, power-laden and intensely political.
The Omicron wave peaked in Zimbabwe just before Christmas. With people moving about for the festive season and large numbers coming back from South Africa and elsewhere for the holidays, the fear was that the spread would be dramatic, with devastating consequences. Border restrictions were maintained, curfews imposed and the lockdown was extended.
As we reported in our last blog on 20 December, many had already reported that the infection was proving relatively mild, a finding subsequently supported by hospital evidence from South Africa, the UK and Denmark. And, just as the spread of Omicron was dramatic and fast, its decline has similarly been sudden, although cases still persist. Across our sites in the last few weeks, multiple cases have been reported, but way down on the situation a few weeks back. No deaths have been recorded in our sites in the past weeks. A few of our agricultural extension colleagues went down with Omicron around Christmas, but they all isolated and quickly recovered.
A festive mood
Although Omicron presented more uncertainties to contend with for the holidays, people across our study areas reported that they were not going to be put off. People were in a festive mood, relatives had returned after a long gap and there were parties to be had. Many large gatherings were reported, including the return of large church services. In towns and business centres large crowds gathered, bars were open and there seemed to be little social distancing, there was reduced mask wearing and people were sharing calabashes in communal drinking sessions.
The now familiar ‘bakosi’ markets were in full swing across our study sites, especially in locations further south. These sprawling open air markets usually operate once a week and sell everything from food to clothes to hardware and more. Huge numbers attend, perhaps several thousand at times, and of course are potentially major infection hot spots. But they also serve important economic and social functions: they are places to gather, to meet people, to exchange ideas and goods, and are now an essential part of rural economic life, and no matter what the potential risks people were not keeping away over the holidays.
Open air market Guwini, Chikombedzi
Despite the caution of the public health authorities, the people were not going to let the virus get in the way of a holiday mood or the need for business. Fear had receded of COVID, perhaps because of the experiences with Omicron in the previous weeks of relatives and others both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Changing remedies and home treatments
As we have reported many times before, local remedies and home treatments have become the way people have coped. People fear quarantining and forced isolation now more than the disease. Because Omicron presents differently – more ‘flu-like symptoms, with a combination of nose and throat congestion and a dry cough, rather than the impact on breathing and the chest as in previous waves – the treatments have changed.
The most recent, circulating widely on family Whatsapp groups, is a concoction of Coca-Cola and chilli, which is supposed to work wonders. Others reported include a mix of lemon, cooking oil and onion. And of course the full array of other herbal treatments we have discussed on this blog before. The important point is though that with an effectively new disease in Omicron, with different symptoms, people have experimented, learned and shared new remedies – literally in a matter of weeks.
Nurses in clinics across our sites reported that it was a busy time over the holidays, but many were not coming to the clinics if they thought they had COVID as they feared quarantine. They would prefer to treat themselves at home, while self-isolating. Having a variety of treatments to hand people argue, is a more effective response. It seemed that the nurses (informally) agreed as they noted the problems in the public clinics.
A plural health system: fostering resilience
Meanwhile, public health interventions continue focusing on vaccines. There was a big spike in vaccine take-up in the rural areas over the holiday period. This was apparently due to people coming home from town, and choosing mobile rural clinics over the urban ones where they normally live. The rural alternatives were quicker, easier and more accessible it seems. Even diaspora relatives took up the opportunity, and many younger workers from town were persuading their parents and others to join them at the clinics.
During the pandemic a network of health professionals has emerged to support rural people’s response to the disease. These include of course the doctors, nurses, vaccinators and village health workers, part of the public health system, but the wider health system also includes herbalists (those with specialist knowledge of particular herbs), n’angas (spirit mediums with treatment powers), and family based health specialists (often individuals within a wider family recognised as especially knowledgeable). And supporting them there are the wide range of collectors of herbal products, those who process them and the vendors who sell them, often with street advice on how to prepare presses, teas or other concoctions.
A plural health system has therefore emerged, partly out of necessity as the public system is inadequate, but partly out of the need to respond in a diversified way, recognising that many people have expertise in a fast-changing pandemic setting, and there is no one right way, especially as the virus changes. With such a plural system, innovation, learning and sharing can happen quickly and effectively. Some of the remedies may not work that well, but others might, and people will respond accordingly.
In March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, in the first contribution of this now long series on COVID responses in rural Zimbabwe, we argued that rural Zimbabwe might offer some level of resilience, having been able to manage turbulence and uncertainty of different sorts for many years, despite the obvious ‘fragility’ of the state. Resilience is not a single property; it is relational based on how people, individually and together, respond to unfolding events. This requires flexibility, responsiveness and collective sharing. As we have seen now over nearly two years, these are all features that have been central to rural Zimbabwe’s (largely informal) pandemic response.
Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog.