The merits of a planned land reform

By Charles Frizell

IT is now generally accepted that the so-called land reform exercise was no more than a political gambit and had no link whatsoever to genuine agrarian reform. How then should it have been


There is no question that prior to Independence land was allocated on a racial basis under the Land Apportionment Act, and that this fact was deeply resented.

There is also no hiding the fact that after Independence Prime Minister Robert Mugabe asked white commercial farmers to remain in the country.

This was sensible because commercial agriculture was not only the backbone of the economy but also provided a large portion of the staple food of the country. It is not my intention to analyse what went wrong, but rather to suggest what should have been done at this time.

First we need to examine the three major aspects of agricultural production, these being: large-scale commercial, small-scale commercial and subsistence. Because of the ever-growing population new land was becoming increasingly scarce in communal areas. Although people don’t hold title to rural land, each family has “their” land, originally allocated by traditional leaders.

An additional problem is that although an ever-increasing number of people work in the towns, each person expects to have “their” rural home as well.

This is different from countries such as South Africa where a great many urban dwellers now have no link at all to their original rural roots.

The first problem that should have been addressed was the perceived “right” of every person to own, or have use of, some piece of land. This perception is historical and originates from a time when the availability of fresh land was not a problem.

However, a simple calculation will show that this is not sustainable. If we assume that there are approximately 32 million hectares available in the country, and that there are about 12 million people, then every person has a “right” to 2,8 hectares. And as the population grows, that right keeps on shrinking!

This cultural and psychological perception is the first problem that should have been addressed when contemplating agrarian reform. However, given an expanding economy (which a sensible programme would have created) this problem would not have been insurmountable.

At the same time, positive steps should have been taken to get a great many more people into agriculture, and to increase productivity. First, education in modern farming methods should have been a priority. The use of fertiliser (even natural fertilisers such as cow dung and wood ash), the making of compost, how to use pesticides and so on, needed to be taught, as well as basic economics and book-keeping.

It is a truism that nothing received free is ever properly appreciated. Therefore land loans should have been made available so that prospective farmers could buy and own their individual piece of land. These loans could have been given at concessionary rates, and the price of the land could have been heavily subsidised, but land should never have been given for free. If it is given for free, then it is certain that envy and jealousy will arise between those who have and those who have not, and also between the owners of land perceived to have different value, due to soil type, the availability of water and so on.

By contrast, if the land is bought then these differences in value are reflected in price differences.

The above would have seen a great increase in the number of successful small-scale farmers, and a corresponding increase in agricultural production.

Of course, some farmers would have failed, and been unable to repay their loans. This land would then have been bought by the more successful farmers from the owner, or auctioned off by the land bank. Because these farmers would have had title to their land, they would have been able to raise bank loans against the value of their land in order to pay for inputs such as seed, tillage, fertiliser and so on.

Most importantly, this development would not have been a drain on the economy. It would have been self-financing and given a huge boost to the incomes of hundreds of thousands of people.

As time went on, some of these small-scale farmers would become more and more successful, and would buy more land to use. The land bought would be utilised, because there is no sense in buying land and then letting it lie fallow. In addition, the land would generally be well looked after, because it has value and has to be paid for. There is no sense in destroying a valuable asset by over-grazing or letting erosion destroy it.

They would also in all probability provide employment for those who could not succeed on their own.

Government’s role would only have been as a facilitator, training farmers and improving infrastructure such as roads, electricity and dams.

The next question is, where would the land come from? There are a number of sources that could have been used. First, unused land bought from existing farmers. This could have been facilitated by non-confrontational dialogue, and also possibly by taxing unused land. For one reason or another, many white farmers left at the time of Independence. This is the willing buyer, willing seller model that is internationally accepted.

Next, there is a large amount of state land that remains unused and undeveloped.

What should have been avoided is large areas of good agricultural land lying unused or underutilised as is the case in most of the present resettlement areas. That this should presently be the case is totally unacceptable. Land is a limited and finite resource that is a national asset that must not be destroyed. So far, I have made no mention of existing large-scale commercial agriculture. What then of this?

Basically the best would have been to leave well alone, other than to encourage established farmers to assist all those wishing to enter the industry. It is a huge step to go from nothing into large-scale farming with no previous experience or training, but possibly some few individuals could have managed to do so.

Done correctly, and with honest intentions, agrarian reform could have seen the country’s agricultural output increase dramatically. It could also have been achieved at little cost to the nation as it would have been both self-financing and gladly financed by international donors.

Charles Frizell is a Zimbabwean now based in the UK.