Zimbabwe's land reform ten years on: new study dispels the myths

By Ian Scoones
November 16, 2010
Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, Brighton

A major new study published this week asks what has happened in the ten years since large areas of Zimbabwe's commercial farm land were invaded by land-hungry villagers - and it challenges the view that land reform was an unmitigated disaster.

Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities, by IDS Fellow Ian Scoones together with Zimbabwean colleagues Nelson Marongwe, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba, Jacob Mahenehene and Chrispen Sukume, presents the findings of the first comprehensive study into the controversial policy and its effects.

The book is based on ten years of detailed research across 16 sites in Masvingo province, involving 400 households from both small and medium scale farms.'

While the Masvingo experience is of course different to other parts of the country, it does represent an important, and as yet untold, part of the land reform story,' said Professor Scoones.

A radical change in agrarian structure

Since 2000, land reform has resulted in the transfer of around 8 million hectares of land across 4,500 farms to over 160,000 households, representing 20 per cent of Zimbabwe's total land area, according to official figures. If the 'informal' settlements, outside the official 'fast-track' programme are added, the totals are even larger.

Robin Palmer, former Global Land Adviser to Oxfam GB, said: 'This book provides the first full account of the consequences of these dramatic events. This is an important, exciting and hugely impressive study.'

The book challenges five myths through a detailed examination of field data:

  • Myth 1 - Land reform has been a total failure
  • Myth 2 - The beneficiaries have been largely political 'cronies'
  • Myth 3 - There is no investment in the new resettlements
  • Myth 4 - Agriculture is in complete ruins creating chronic food insecurity
  • Myth 5 - The rural economy has collapsed

Professor Bill Kinsey, of the Ruzivo Trust and the Free University, Amsterdam, commented: 'Whatever you thought about the land issue in Zimbabwe, be prepared to change your mind.'

Professor Scoones explained: 'What comes through from our research is the complexity, the differences in experience, almost farm by farm; there is no single, simple story of the Zimbabwe land reform as sometimes assumed by press reports, political commentators, or indeed much academic study.'

The book is, as Professor Sam Moyo, director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies observed, 'a comprehensive assessment of the nature of agrarian change during the last decade'.

Rural entrepreneurialism

While not downplaying the violence, abuses and patronage that have occurred, the authors argue that a more balanced appraisal of the land reform policy is needed. As Professor Mandivamba Rukuni, founder and executive director of the Wisdom Afrika Leadership Academy and formerly chair of the Commission of Inquiry into Zimbabwe's Land Tenure Systems said: 'The book uses evidence to argue that the land reform programme may well be the foundation needed for broad based economic efficiency and new livelihoods in the fight against poverty.'

For example, the book shows that:

  • While production of wheat, maize, tobacco, coffee and tea has declined, other crops such as small grains, edible beans and cotton have increased or remained steady. Overall it is a very mixed picture.
  • A core group of 'middle farmers' - around half of the population in the Masvingo study areas - are generating surpluses from farming.
  • There is substantial agricultural production on smallholder farms, with the majority producing enough to feed their families and sell to local markets in good rainfall years.
  • Significant investment in the new land has included plots clearing, well digging and home building. In addition, schools have been built, roads cut and dams dug.
  • New market connections are being forged, unleashing a dynamic entrepreneurialism in the rural areas.

Professor Scoones said: 'If the new resettlements are to contribute not only to local livelihoods, but also national food security and broader economic development, they unquestionably require external investment and support - just as was done from the 1950s for white agriculture.

'There are also major future policy challenges for Zimbabwe. These include implementing an effective land administration system to root out abuses and corrupt practice, and investing in smallholder farming to drive economic growth.'

Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities

Comment article on Zimbabwean land reform in The Guardian by Ian Scoones 

Watch Ian Scoones interviewed on BBC News Worldwide 

Related Publications

Related Links

Email: zimbabwecrisis@yahoo.com

Visit: Zimbabwe Watch