WHILE stories on Zimbabwe's controversial land reform programme have virtually disappeared from the mainstream media, save for tangential references, a heated debate is raging among scholars on the issue, especially following the publication of the contentious book, Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities, by Professor Ian Scoones, an agricultural ecologist in the UK, and his local co-authors.
The exercise emerged as a highly contested reform process both nationally and internationally.
Scoones and colleagues claim to have come up with new, in-depth and much-needed empirical research showing the process provides the greatest scope for improving Zimbabwe's agriculture and development.
However, some researchers such as Zimbabwe's Dr Dale Doré, former Oxford scholar and agricultural economist, vehemently disagree.
Ian Scoones and his co-authors caused a splash with the publication last year of their controversial book Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities.
Accompanying the book were a series of eight videos, Voices from the Field, as well as downloadable summaries, YouTube debates, blogs and interviews with BBC World TV.
Articles were serialised in The Zimbabwean newspaper and a website was set up, replete with congratulatory sound-bites from distinguished professorial colleagues.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This review therefore assesses the evidence behind this mass of publicity for the study's findings.
It begins with a synopsis of the book as told by its lead author. It then examines some of the book's main themes.
The first is the authors' insistence that their study is based on solid empirical evidence that is used to analyse the complexities of resettlement.
Second, it reviews the study's research methods, especially the analysis used to dismiss the so-called "investment myth". Third, it looks into the book's assumptions, objectives and narrative to explain the gaps in their story of resettlement.
Finally, the conclusion discusses whether there is any substance to the hype, and it compares two visions of land policy in Zimbabwe.
The Scoones story
Scoones has told his story to many different audiences, but always in the same well-practiced and carefully scripted way. In essence, he claims that the realities on the ground reveal a far more positive picture of resettlement than the negative images or "myths" portrayed by the media.
He begins his story by noting that the issues surrounding resettlement are complex and nuanced. He then disarms his audience with certain caveats by admitting, with hand on heart, that the story of resettlement is mixed.
Yes, he says, the process was deeply problematic. Violence, abuse and patronage certainly did occur, and Masvingo province's experiences (research region) were of course different to other parts of the country.
But these contentious issues are quickly shelved as he deftly steers the debate towards the study's main objective, which is to find out how the livelihoods of those who were resettled had been transformed. "To be honest," says Scoones in all sincerity, "we were surprised. We had a whole set of unexpected results."
Contrary to the myths that there was no investment in resettlement areas and that a rural economy had collapsed, their research revealed an important and as yet untold story of land reform. They found that new patterns of mixed small-scale farming based on crops and livestock had transformed the dual agrarian economy. He tells how resettlement has benefitted a broad set of people: the land-hungry from nearby communal areas, townspeople making a go for farming and civil servants investing their skills.
One of his main claims was that two-thirds of the settlers were just ordinary people. Only a few were cronies. In sum: they found hardworking and entrepreneurial new farmers who made significant investments to create a vibrant and dynamic rural economy.
But he goes further. Just as commercial farmers were assisted in the 1950s, and smallholders supported in the 1980s, newly-settled farmers deserve external support and investment to build on their entrepreneurial dynamism. Given this opportunity, he claims, new farmers will rise to the occasion by contributing to local livelihoods, national food security and broader economic development.
Empirical evidence and complexity
There are two key facets of their study that the authors emphasise.
The first is the strong empirical foundations of their work. Their research, they say, was based on detailed, solid evidence bought to light by real, on-the-ground facts involving 400 households across 16 survey sites over a 10-year period.
Moreover, they aver that their study was both objective and balanced because they were "agnostic to the diversity of theoretical positions".
The second facet they emphasise is the complexity of resettlement issues. One of their stated aims was to challenge simplistic generalisation (or myths) with solid data on complex realities.
For Scoones, it was therefore indefensible for the BBC to treat his "mountains of research evidence (reality)" as if they were equivalent to an "unsubstantiated commentary" by the Commercial Farmers Union (myths).
But is Scoones claiming too much for this study? Is it plausible for a study to be both detailed, empirical and objective as well as also being capable of analysing complex systems?
Noam Chomsky recently said: "As you deal with more and more complex systems, it becomes harder and harder to find deep and interesting properties." He believes that research needs to confine itself to simple questions to find credible and convincing answers.
Not surprisingly, Scoones struggles hard to sustain the contradiction between analytical rigour and complexity. Good examples of this difficulty are the book's chapters on labour markets (Chapter 6) and "real" markets (Chapter 7).