‘Reforming’ land reform greatly needed

Four months ago, a new book was released in the United Kingdom, entitled Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. It had three collaborating authors, Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart.

Report by Eric Bloch

Overall, they enthuse about the success of Zimbabwe’s land reform, although they acknowledge that it “has not been neat”, and that “huge problems remain”. However, they imply that the benefits reaped from Zimbabwean land reform are considerable, and far outweigh the problems and the attendant negatives. They suggest that notwithstanding the remaining problems, the favourable counterbalance is that “245 000 new farmers have received land, and most of them are farming it. These peope have raised their own standard of living; have already reached the production levels of their former white farmers; and, with a bit of support, are ready to substantially increase that production”.

The authors support their positive stance by stating: “Agrarian reform is a slow process and it takes a generation for new farmers to be fully productive”, and suggest that over the years since the land reform programme was vigorously pursued, “Zimbabwe’s agricultural production has largely returned to the 1990s level”.

They reinforce that contention by alleging that “small-scale black farmers together now produce almost as much tobacco as the big white farmers once did.” They re-emphasise that contention by stating that “driving into the old white farm compound of a particularly named farm – “Craigengower Farm”- one arrives at a hub of activity.

There are several buildings – grain and machinery stores, houses for some farmers, and a house for the agricultural extension officer who serves this and two other farms.

Although the authors undoubtedly formed their opinions and expressed them in good faith and they are well-intentioned, those opinions and conclusions are regrettably at pronounced variance with the realities. Tragically, the actualities of the land reform are very markedly different due to the outcomes to date of the actions of expropriation and reallocation of farmlands. One of the foremost harsh facts is the magnitude of decline in agricultural production.

It must be acknowledged that slowly, but progressively, tobacco production has significantly recovered, having been as great as 237 million kg in 2001, and over subsequent years declining to as low as 45 million kg. It has subsequently improved to an estimated 150 million kg in the latest season, but nevertheless, this production is still considerably below previous attainment. The major factor that enabled a rise in the dismal volumes grown after land reform commenced has been that over recent years, several of the larger tobacco companies have provided essential funding to contract farmers.

However, similar transformation from production decline has tragically not materialised in respect of other crops and agricultural output. Prior to land reform, Zimbabwe was known as the region’s breadbasket, producing not only sufficient maize, wheat, and other grains for the populace, but a surplus exported to neighbouring countries. However, since land reform there has been a critical dependence on imports. Approximately 1 800 000 tonnes of maize are required annually to meet the country’s needs against the current national yield of a little more than 300 000 tonnes per annum. Government seeks to justify the appallingly low yields to adverse climatic conditions, but even in years of ideal conditions, the crop outputs have been low.

In like manner, volumes of cotton, sugar, diverse vegetables, and many other crops are lower than attained in pre-land reform days, and the national livestock herd is now estimated to be only 36% of that of 2000. The awful decline of almost all fields of agricultural production has been occasioned by diverse factors. The foremost contributor to agriculture’s massive decline is that the majority of the new farmers did not have the capital necessary to fund operations and could not access such funding. By peremptorily, in disregard of international law and property rights, expropriating all farmlands, claiming absolute title thereto, and only making the farms available to new farmers by way of leases, the state denied those farmers collateral security necessary to access the working capital required for viable farming operations.

Moreover, many of those granted farm leases had very limited experience in substantive agricultural production and grievously lacked the necessary equipment to achieve that production. To make matters worse, there have been minimal opportunities for farmers to sell their produce at viable and realistic prices, not those prices being determined by government parastatals such as the Grain marketing Board (GMB). Repeatedly, government also failed to assure timeous availability of essential agricultural inputs, and to effectively initiate national irrigation resources. Such resources as exist are all too frequently unavailable because of recurrent disruptions in energy supplies.

Now, very belatedly, and unduly slowly, the state is beginning to address some of the innumerable constraints on substantive agricultural production. The new constitution, overwhelmingly voted for in the recent national referendum, has provided for state-controlled farmland leases to be accorded negotiability and transferability (which in part restores features which are attributable to title deeds). However, the constitution is yet to be approved by parliament, let alone receive presidential assent. New farmers can anticipate possessing some collateral security to source funding. However, that will only be effective once the leases have actually been issued, for to date, the majority of new farmers have only received offer letters, but not comprehensive leases.

Furthermore, access to funding will remain very limited until such time as significant money market liquidity is restored, which can only occur once Zimbabwe has considerable, consistent, and recurrent economic stability and growth, as well as ready access to international loan funding and foreign direct investment.

One reason the book’s authors justify their contentions of success of the Zimbabwean land reform is that, as a result of that reform, 245 000 new farmers exist, giving them enhanced prospects of improved livelihood. However, that alleged counter to poverty disregards that in excess of 350 000 farm workers lost employment, and therefore their source of income, primarily because most of the new farmers could not employ them. On a basis that each of the former farm workers supported themselves and an average of at least five other family and dependants, almost two million Zimbabweans were reduced to extreme poverty.

The economy has also been cataclysmically ruined by the expropriation of the lands without compensation, and in very many instances, in disregard for Zimbabwe’s obligations under numerous Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (Bippas), as a result of which many potential foreign direct investors have been deterred and discouraged from investing in Zimbabwe. This has been severely prejudicial to the economy as a whole, and therefore to a great majority of Zimbabweans.

The bottom line is that, in contrast to the conclusions of the book’s authors, which are very considerably aligned with those of the initiators of land reform, and that of the programme’s continuing advocates, its benefits are grossly exceeded by its negative consequences.