Reclaiming the Land: Land Reform and Agricultural Development in Zimbabwe: An Interview with Sam Moyo

Amid the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, the agricultural sector continues to struggle.  Although the plunge in agricultural output over the last few years has often been commented on in the Western media, little or no attention is paid to the complex factors contributing to that decline.  Instead, matters are reduced to a simple generalization.  It is rare to be presented with information from someone with direct involvement with the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe.  Sam Moyo has over 25 years of research experience in rural development issues, and his organization has conducted studies and analyses and provided policy recommendations on land policy.  Highly respected in his profession, Moyo is uniquely positioned to offer an evidence-based overview of the situation.

Elich: You are the Executive Director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS).  What is the aim of your organization and what is its role in supporting agricultural development in the continent?

Moyo: The aim of AIAS is to work with key actors throughout Africa to enhance the capacity to develop and implement equitable agrarian policies and to promote sustainable land use in support of marginalized groups by undertaking research, policy analysis, training, and dialogue.

The role is to mediate in the policy making process, so as to enhance rural livelihoods through an improved policy framework.  In its work, the Institute interacts with and provides policy advice and capacity support to various stakeholders, who include governments, regional bodies, universities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) researchers, students, and the donor community.

Elich: Although much has been written in the West about agriculture in your home country of Zimbabwe, reports tend to be heavy on emotion and light on concrete information.  You and your organization continue to play an important role in the study and development of agriculture in Zimbabwe through research, analysis, and policy recommendations.  You are well qualified to fill the information gap for a Western audience, so I would like to focus on that topic for this interview.

Let’s start by discussing land reform.  There was a market-based land reform in place before Zimbabwe embarked upon a more radical program.  Why was this path chosen?  The popular attitude in the West is that the land was best left in the hands of the few white commercial farmers.

Moyo: The market-based approach was sensu stricto the only approach followed between 1980 and 1992, for the following reasons.

The market approach was a result of the Lancaster House constitution, which emphasized that approach, and allowed for expropriation (for specific public purposes) under stringent and costly conditions.  The latter included full market pricing of compensation, and in a forex (foreign exchange) currency of the choice of the landholder.  This constitutional clause could not be altered until 1990.  At the Lancaster negotiation, Western funding of the market-based process was promised by the key brokers of the settlement (UK and USA).  The UK provided significant funds for this (44 million pounds), particularly up to 1989, and this was co-financed with the GoZ (Government of Zimbabwe) to secure 3 million hectares out of the 15 million hectares held by large farmers; but the USA did not fund land.  The policy (concept) of ‘reconciliation’ (racial and political) was assumed to lead to a spirit of land sharing through negotiated transfer.  But racial polarization and land and wealth concentration continued instead.  Some GoZ technocrats believed the market would deliver more land (but this was not to be, as mainly abandoned and marginal land was sold) at reasonable prices (again not to be), and there was limited access to capital for state and private purchase within the broader social reform program.

The radical approach to land reform was initiated in terms of the constitution, land laws, and the policy framework during 1990 and 1992 and was implemented as follows.  A small-scale attempt at land expropriation in 1993 (30 farms) and 1995 (100 farms) was largely defeated by landholder litigations.

These processes fueled an increased hostility between landholders, whites, and business on the one hand, and blacks in general, government, war veterans, and the landless on the other hand.

Antagonism between the UK and Zimbabwe governments over a new phase of funded land reform emerged, with failure to agree to the new program which had been agreed by UK’s John Major.  An effort to get large land holders and government to agree to land transfers through joint identification of land for transfer was started in 1995, but this ended in disagreements, leading to the GoZ producing its own list of 1,700 farms to be designated for expropriation.  There was a refusal by the Blair government in 1997 to honor the Conservative government’s proposal of 1996, and broader confrontations between the GoZ and international donors over the failed ESAP (Economic Structural Adjustment Program) led to failure in 1996 to sign a new ESAP (called ZIMPREST).

Other factors driving the radical approach were internal ‘rebellion’ by war veterans within ZANU-PF demanding compensation for war losses and pensions, as well as impatience over access to 20% of the land to be redistributed; expansion of the indigenous (nationalist) bourgeoisie who also sought land; greater landlessness and urban retrenchees seeking land in rural areas, and their resort to scattered “illegal” land occupations; the designation of 1,471 farms (4 million hectares) for expropriation in 1997, and the ‘defeat’ of this effort  by large farmer litigations in 1997 and 1998; and the mobilization by war veterans, with rural leaders (traditional leaders/chiefs; spirit mediums; other rural war veterans and some landless people) in areas already mobilized over land grievances, towards land occupations in 30 sites throughout Zimbabwe by 1998.

There was also a general political radicalization of ZANU-PF and nationalists over reforms in Zimbabwe in view of the resurgence of white farmer and business political mobilization against land reform and in support of a new political opposition party (the MDC).  Heightened political polarization emerged from Western criticism and withholding of loans/aid, while supporting the MDC and embedded NGOs, beginning with the constitutional Reform process (1999-2000) and in subsequent elections.  The failure of the 1998 donor conference to deliver land and/or funding for a market-based reform also contributed.  The radical land reform process was further entrenched during 2000 and 2003, due to intense political conflict and electoral contests over land reform, including further grievances emerging from the imposition of sanctions on and the isolation of Zimbabwe.

As for the Western attitude that the land should have been left to whites, this belief is also held by some in the middle and capitalist classes in Zimbabwe too.  But this has been unfounded and rejected by nationalists and peasants because past policies favored large farmers and support to new farmers was minimal.  Banks and agribusiness were tied into the large farming system and international support to small black farmers was minimal.  Access to good land infrastructure was not balanced to black farmers.  Moreover the white farmers increasingly produced less of the food needs of the majority, while income concentration perpetuated an imbalanced home market and consumption.

Elich: In the context of domestic political polarization, Western interference, and the imposition of sanctions, fast-track land reform could hardly have had more inauspicious circumstances for its launch.  Historically on the world scene, the success of land reform efforts have hinged to a significant degree on the ability to supply sufficient inputs (loans, tools, fertilizer, training) to resettled farmers.  But access to foreign exchange has been severely constrained by Western sanctions.  Zimbabwe has also had unfavorable climatic conditions in recent years.

None of this gets much mention in Western media.  Instead it is pointed out that agricultural output was bountiful when most of the best land was in the hands of white commercial farmers, but since fast-track land reform the government has had to import food to avert starvation.  It is implied that black farmers are incompetent or ineffective and that the land did better when it was held in so-called “capable” hands.

You’ve closely studied agricultural production in Zimbabwe.  What are your thoughts on the reasons for the decline in food production and the Western perception of that?

Moyo: This question is complex and needs a nuanced response.

To begin with, close to 70% of the food consumed by the 80% of Zimbabweans who are the working classes (peasants, formal and informal wage workers, the unemployed) and over 50% of the middle class foods, which comprise mainly grains (maize, sorghum, groundnuts and pulses as oils or for direct eating) and local relish (greens) have always been produced by the peasants and urban residents’ gardens.  Apart from feeding themselves (65% of the population), the peasants sold over 70% of the marketed grain and groundnuts and the little locally produced rice (over 90% of which was always imported).  Secondly, peasants provided most indigenous fruits (Mazhanje, Masawi, etc.), as well as most of the meat and milk consumed in rural areas.

True, large white farmers produced and sold most of the higher protein-value, largely urban-consumed, foods: milk and dairy products; wheat; temperate fruits and jams (apples, oranges, etc.), tea and coffee, sugar, meat (beef, poultry, and pork products), and oils and fats (from soya beans, sunflower, and so forth).  The middle and upper urban-based classes consumed most of this LSCF (Large-Scale Commercial Farm) production.

However, most of the poor urban working class transferred money to peasant producers, who kept some for their family members and supplied them with part of their food.  There was a clear division of production between peasants and large farmers, with the former producing most of the cheaper and bulkier foods, and the latter producing the rest of the foods, much of which was consumed by a few people.

Moreover, by far the largest outputs (in volumes and value) produced by large farmers were destined for exports (tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, horticulture, beef, etc.) and for the local industry (soaps, etc.).  Although their exports were critical for forex (40% of national forex was from agriculture, but peasants produced 80% of the cotton and its attendant forex), they were not the main supplier of the food consumed by most of the population, who could not afford their products.

These are the social and structural facts of the previous unequal income and consumption situation.

However, we must still explain why the bulky low-income foods are in short supply (maize especially)!  Well, it is mainly because of the decline in seed and fertilizer supply, and reduced private and external financing.  During the last eight years the country also experienced four substantial droughts, with signs of climatic change or higher variability in rainfall.  The previous season was one such year, coupled with extremely low input supplies.  This trend has led to reduced rain-fed maize production by the peasantry, as 90% of the irrigation resources were and are still held by large farmers, including the sugar estates.  Peasants have thus experienced a loss of their own seed and cash resources, which has undermined their production cycle.  Various other constraints have been experienced in a context of economic decline and sanctions: fuel shortages and high global prices affected the transport and plowing processes; electricity shortages limiting irrigation and fertilizer production processes; and reduced government revenues limiting state support to peasants, and so forth.  This occurred in the face of limited aid to small farmers largely because of the political standoff at the international level.

Elich: That brings me to my next question.  What advice are you and the AIAS providing to the government of Zimbabwe in regard to agriculture?  Obviously, a timely and sufficient provision of seed and fertilizer is essential, but there are hindrances.  There is also a shortage of fuel, farming implements, irrigation schemes, and financial assistance.  Under the circumstances, I assume that any recovery plan is going to have relatively modest short-term goals and a more ambitious long-range plan.  And finally, what results would you anticipate from a successful establishment of a government of national unity?

Moyo: We have argued for a greater effort to support small farm producers with subsidized seeds and inputs for food production, and measures to improve their marketing of products as a primary step.  This includes some levels of decontrolling the pricing of staple foods, so that producers get a better price, and to cut out usurious middle persons.  Extension services and information on inputs and related services need to be enhanced through creative measures.  A revised strategy for smallholder farming development, combined with a transformative social protection policy agenda (subsidies for rural health, education, etc.), is required to rebuild the rural economy and national food security.

An agro-industrial sector recovery program is also necessary, contrary to those who seek to use the situation to finish off existing under-utilized capacities through their calls for full-scale de-protection and liberalization as a condition for refinancing the country.  Since local fertilizer production is also hampered by shortages of forex to import raw materials and by electricity shortages, this has had to be imported while capacities still exist but are forex-starved due to shortages.  This applies to the variety of agro-industries (veterinary materials, agricultural chemicals, and machinery and equipment, etc.).  The available forex resources have been spread widely across the economy, rather than prioritized on agro-industry and smallholder food production.  The last droughts reduced small producer incomes, let alone savings, such that effective “demand” for inputs is low and this limits the recovery of agro-industrial production, too.

Moreover, we have always called for humanitarian aid to assist the recovery of small producers, but this has not materialized.  It has certainly not been prioritized by donors, although to some extent the government has not been helpful by limiting the operations of some NGOs.  What is required is less belligerence on both sides and agreement on a constructive and less politicized approach to aid by both sides.  After all most African countries, including those performing well in food production (e.g. Malawi, etc.), receive such aid.

Yes, besides these shorter-term measures, a comprehensive development plan needs to be put in place on the basis of wider national consensus, which the inclusive government could promote.  This will hinge on how to refinance the economy in the medium to long term, including from new sources of state revenue (e.g. from dividends that could be gotten from existing and new mining investments, increased collection of taxes from the now informalized formal sectors whose production is below capacity), from new investments (especially in mining if suitable terms are negotiated), and from concessional loans and credit.  In general the balance of payments deficit means that government has been operating on a restricted cash budget and making ad hoc allocations of forex as pressing needs surface.  Broader international support (e.g. besides the west, including from SADC, China, Venezuela, etc.) could be sought to widen the terms of borrowing and therefore integration into a wider world economy.  The planning should become more coherent and transparent, and thus reduce corruption in the public and private sphere.  For in the inflationary context finance capital has been happier to trade speculatively on money and other imported goods which give them quicker and higher returns, while charging markups of above 100%.

The inclusive government might enable the government to procure long-term concessional loans and credit on better conditions.  However the signs from the International Financial Institutions and donors is that they would wait for certain political guarantees and would want full-scale liberalization to release money.  The inclusive government might also get more humanitarian aid to pay for health, sanitation, HIV-AIDS, and education, thus releasing some resources to pay for agricultural inputs and the maintenance of related infrastructures.

The recovery in the medium term will depend on political “normalization” relating to a new economic situation, which accepts the current land redistribution while reducing some of the remaining and new land holding inequalities, including accommodating some of the former land owners on smaller farms — like their new counterparts, on the principle of equitable land rights and not privilege.  The thrust would be to attempt to build on the new configuration of property relations in agriculture, mining, and industry (including the new small and medium scale enterprises in all these sectors, and the emerging state mining ventures).  This requires the removal of sanctions (which many continue to deny exist, let alone recognize their social effects) and the depolarization/de-demonization of the Zimbabwe “crisis” at the international level.  To the extent that pressure is reduced on forex to import key goods, the speculative economy could be dampened, thus limiting some of the inflationary behavior.  Removing sanctions is also critical to encouraging the investors to revive industries and mines, and to allow “investors” to continue with their plans.

There is no doubt that the issue of compensating former landowners for some degree of their losses for their improvements on the land, in realistic terms, will have to be negotiated in order to put to rest the land transfer process.  The UK would have to be drawn in on this, and other donors might participate.  This is a position that SADC has proposed, and is etched into the recent agreement on the inclusive government signed by the political parties.  We have advised that government takes this issue up and enhances public knowledge on the issues involved, so as to garner broadly based support for any decisions taken.

Sam Moyo is a land policy analyst and Executive Director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies.  He is also chairperson of the ZERO Regional Environment Organization, based in Harare, and a former director of the Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies of the Sapes Trust.  Among his published works are two recent books that he co-edited: Reclaiming the Land: The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and Land and Sustainable Development in Africa.   Gregory Elich is the author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit.