Land and livelihoods in Zimbabwe

Ian Scoones

The Global Political Agreement one year on

One year on from the signing of the Global Political Agreement, which forms the basis of Zimbabwe's cross-party inclusive government formed in February this year, the country's slow rehabilitation continues. It has not been easy or straightforward. But many signs are good: hyperinflation has been eliminated by the introduction of the US dollar and the South African rand, and the economy is starting to function again. On the political front, wrangles within the inclusive government continue, but progressive factions on all sides realise that the only option is to make the current settlement work, despite the compromises it entails. (See 'Zimbabwe on the Move', a commentary on Zimbabwe's progress.) A key issue remains the question of land, and the challenge of revitalising agriculture and securing rural livelihoods.

Land reform 'success' and 'viability' in Zimbabwe

Over the last four years, IDS researchers have been collaborating with partners in Zimbabwe to examine the experiences of land reform across three countries - Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia - and exploring contrasting notions of 'success' and 'viability' in land reform efforts.

The research programme, Livelihoods After Land Reform asks the very basic question: what happens to people's livelihoods when they get new land? The answers are varied and complex.

The research team recently met in Masvingo, Zimbabwe to review the results and to debate their implications for the politics of land in southern Africa. The debate explored the likelihood of land reform in the future and highlighted lessons from Zimbabwe's experience for Namibia and South Africa.

Listen to the debate.

Myths and realities in Zimbabwe's land reform

The findings of the Zimbabwe research challenge a number of myths about land reform. These myths are repeated regularly in the international media and are reflected in much academic commentary. While no-one denies the problems resulting from the post 2000 land reform - and there are many, particularly in the highly capitalised farming areas of the Highveld near Harare - the more positive stories are often not told.

The Zimbabwe research provides a counter to the dominant storyline. Detailed studies across 16 sites in Masvingo province show, with significant variations across location and households, how those getting new land have successfully established new farms, invested in them and are now producing; sometimes in significant amounts.

As part of the Masvingo workshop, participants visited a number of farmers who are part of the study sample and were amazed to find granaries full and cases of farmers selling over 20 tonnes of maize in the past season (see photos of farming in the new resettlements of Masvingo). While this pattern is of course not universal, it begins to dispel the myth that Zimbabwe's land reform has been a total disaster. Indeed, with good rainfall, the prospects look good. In a series of interviews, members of the Zimbabwe research team, also beneficiaries of land reform in different parts of Masvingo province, explain their experiences, and hopes for the future (see the Audio section further down this web page).

Adding to the evidence base

To complement the Masvingo studies, IDS, together with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, Ruziwo Trust and the Centre for Applied Social Sciences Trust, has recently commissioned a series of short studies from across the country. The Livelihoods after Land Reform Small Grants Award was open to any Zimbabwean who had done recent research for a post-graduate degree on land reform processes. An amazing 76 applicants sent in high quality proposals, and 15 were given awards. These studies, to be published in early 2010, will add to the fast growing evidence base for drawing lessons and charting the way forward.

Policy dialogue: charting the way forward

In terms of defining new policy directions for the post land reform era, there is much to be done, and the team has spent time engaging with policy efforts. For example, a commentary by the team on a major World Bank-supported land policy study highlighted important questions about how policies for 'revitalising' agriculture need to look beyond narrow concerns of economic 'viability' centred on assumptions from large-scale commercial farming. In addition, a short note was prepared on land tenure issues also as a way of generating debate on this topic, highlighting the importance of looking beyond a narrow focus on freehold tenure as the route to solving problems of land insecurity. A well-attended meeting of donors, hosted by the Netherlands Embassy and the multi-donor trust fund, was convened in November 2008 to discuss the controversial 'myths' paper. More recently, the team spent time with Masvingo province's Head of Agricultural Extension, discussing the implications of the project findings for extension support and delivery following land reform.

Solid, research-based evidence must be central in the policymaking process in Zimbabwe. For too long debates have been influenced more by ideological posturing and statements made on the basis of conjecture and assumption than solid, research-based evidence. Increasingly, there is a great opportunity to change this if government, donors, NGOs, consultants and others all draw on the growing body of research on livelihoods after land reform.

The Livelihoods after Land Reform research programme is jointly funded through the the UK's Economic Social Research Council and is co-ordinated by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

The work builds on a decade of IDS research in collaboration with Zimbabwean partners to document the effects the post 2000 land reforms have had on people's livelihoods.

Ian Scoones is Professorial Fellow and joint convenor of the IDS-hosted Future Agricultures Consortium.