London/Harare — More than 10 years after the chaotic and often violent farm invasions that accompanied Zimbabwe's fast-track land reform programme, a new book argues that the redistribution programme has dramatically improved the lives of thousands of smallholder farmers and their families.
Starting in 2000, the government implemented an initiative to acquire 11 million hectares of white-owned farmland and redistribute it on a massive scale; the programme was often carried out in the form of farm invasions led by frustrated war veterans and supporters of President Robert Mugabe. By its conclusion, only 0.4 percent of farmland remained in the hands of white commercial farmers, and smallholder farmers dominated the agricultural sector.
The land reform programme was followed by years of drought, hyperinflation and an economic meltdown.
Thirteen years later and more than 8,000km away, it still raises strong emotions. At a recent event hosted by London's Chatham House at which authors of the new book, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, defended their work, the hall was packed, and a polite but persistent group of anti-Mugabe protesters occupied the pavement outside.
The book avoids passing judgement on the often violent manner in which the programme was executed. "This is not a book about what might have been, could have been, or should have been," write authors Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart. Instead, it focuses on the results of a study they carried out in Mashonaland, a region of northern Zimbabwe covering three provinces, which found that many of the 'fast-track' farmers are faring much better than has been widely assumed.
Despite receiving very little government assistance, "we saw that these farmers had a real passion for farming. We found that farmers are making investments, building houses and barns... and buying farm implements," said Manjengwa. "They are making the land their own, and they are becoming serious commercial farmers."
When Samson Pfumo, a 52-year-old teacher from Harare, applied for and received a 60-hectare plot in Marondera District through the land redistribution programme, his expectations were low.
"My brother, a war veteran, encouraged me to apply to the government for a piece of land, but I was pessimistic because of the controversy that surrounded the land reform programme," Pfumo told IRIN. "When I got an offer letter for the plot [in 2005], I only set up a small mud-and-dagga [hut] and hardly visited the farm."
When the economy started improving in 2009, after the formation of a coalition government, Pfumo developed a keener interest in farming and started raising pigs. A year later, he had 60 pigs, some of which he sold to buy farming implements and to start growing maize for feed.
Today, he has five large pig pens housing more than 300 pigs, which he periodically slaughters for sale, with each pig fetching an average of US$150. He is also rearing about 500 chicks for sale and is considering venturing into tobacco farming after noting that many resettled farmers have been making good profits from the crop.
"I managed to buy a truck to ferry meat to my clients and a luxury car. My two sons are now studying at reputable universities in South Africa because I can afford it, thanks to the piggery project," said Pfumo, who has left teaching and now lives on the farm with his wife and mother.
Manjengwa and her colleagues found that even the less ambitious among the new farmers surveyed, who mainly received smaller plots of five or six hectares, had greatly improved their standard of living. After being mostly poor, landless and unemployed prior to resettlement, virtually all of them were able to grow enough food for their families, and to sell the surplus to pay for their children's school fees. But many were doing much better than that, producing significant quantities of maize, tobacco and other crops for sale, and building up capital in the form of livestock, farm buildings and equipment. They were also starting to employ labour.
The issue of labour is contentious because so many farm workers lost their jobs and their homes when the old white-owned farms were broken up; some are still homeless and unemployed. However, Hanlon, Manjengwa and Smart estimate that around 550,000 family members and 350,000 paid labourers now work full-time on land that previously employed 170,000 workers.
Charles Taffs, president of Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers' Union, reminded those at the meeting at Chatham House that the workers now being hired are not the same ones who were driven off the commercial farms. He also asserted that the figures presented in the study did not add up.
Zimbabwe's agricultural production experienced a dramatic drop following the upheavals of 2000, but according to the authors, it is now returning to the levels of the 1990s. This is despite the fact that many rely on a much more labour-intensive form of farming than that used by the earlier white commercial farmers.
The authors also point out that, although many of the white-owned commercial farms were efficient and productive, many others were struggling and had far more land than they could use; some of the most fertile land in the country had gone uncultivated. The new smallholders have brought much of that unused land into cultivation.
Manjengwa and her colleagues are not the first to suggest that Zimbabwe's controversial land reform programme has achieved a number of positive results. A 10-year study of land reform in Masvingo Province, led by Ian Scoones from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and published in 2010, challenged a number of the "myths" surrounding fast-track land reform, finding that many of the 400 households sampled were employing labour and expanding their farming operations.
"The suggestion that the fast-track land reform programme was not an unmitigated disaster presents dilemmas about whether to accept this growing body of evidence and risk endorsing the methods used to achieve the asset transfer," commented Admos Chimhowu of Manchester University's Institute for Development Policy and Management, who pointed out that neighbouring South Africa has yet to find a solution to its land reform challenges.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.