Land reform, indigenization and rural livelihoods.

This article seeks to broaden the debate on the outcomes of Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform and the ongoing indigenization program. These programs are intertwined in terms of how they were conceived and the political dynamics associated with their implementation. Both programs have also attracted widespread criticism globally, in terms of their impact on the wider socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe. The indigenization of especially mining companies across Zimbabwe and the benefits of such a process to rural communities living near mine sites has generated polarized debates across Zimbabwe and the international community. The debate has been undermined by the absence of empirical studies which can provide  a basis for an  informed analyses of its impact. Critics of indigenization have generally claimed that it is a ZANU PF political gimmick which has largely benefited ZANU PF political cronies.  But is this really a true reflection of how indigenization has unfolded across the Zimbabwean countryside?  Given the recent lessons learnt from Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP), absence of empirical data can lead to myths and all forms of generalizations which can be misleading. The absence of empirical evidence in the ongoing indigenization debate has meant that what we know about the program in terms of how it is being implemented and its impact on rural livelihoods across Zimbabwe are media driven generalizations. This article utilizes empirical data gathered in the Mhondoro Ngezi District where the ZIMPLATS mine has recently been ‘indigenized’ to highlight how despite claims of elite corruption, local farmers have benefited from indigenization.

While the indigenization program has been characterized by corruption and conflicts among ZANU PF elites, it has had a positive impact on the livelihoods of newly resettled farmers although this is largely ignored in current debates.  ZANU PF indigenization discourses have had the effect of generating natural resource activism among communities living near mines. In Mhondoro Ngezi, local people have been able to instrumentalize such discourses as a way of leveraging access to the proceeds of indigenization. For example, local people have been able to pressure the ZIMPLATS mine to implement a wide variety of corporate social responsibility schemes which have brought socio-economic benefits to the local area. A large number of local youths from the wider Mhondoro Ngezi area are now employed as wage laborers at the mine as a result of the mine being forced to put in place a policy of employing local people.  Moreover, the company has also supported women empowerment by providing equipment and training for women cooperatives which have uplifted the economic position of rural women. A wide variety of downstream industries associated with the mine such as road repairs, construction of dams and other repair works have also benefited local people through employment of local people thus reversing high levels of unemployment in the local area and boosting local economic growth. The mine’s wider corporate social responsibility programs such as the drilling of boreholes, construction of roads, schools and clinics have made a significant contribution to the local economy at a time when many rural communities are facing socio-economic challenges. Employment opportunities provided by the mine have boosted the ability of newly resettled farmers to utilize their land. Interviews with farmers who are employed by the mine on a part-time basis indicate that income gained from wage labor is vital for further agrarian investments as many of the newly resettled farmers lacked the means to utilize the newly acquired land. This challenges generalized claims that indigenization has largely benefited ZANU PF political elites.

In Mhondoro Ngezi, while land reform allowed people to access better quality land and other off farm opportunities, indigenization has provided sources of income which are vital for further agrarian investments. This nuanced analyses of the dynamics of indigenization which is often absent in ongoing debates, demonstrates that despite claims of elite corruption, indigenization has benefited small-scale farmers who now have sources of income which are vital for future agrarian investments.  This does not in any way mean the indigenization process is perfect, what is argued in this article is that despite claims of corruption local farmers have seized the opportunity to benefit from the process albeit in an indirect way.

Grasian Mkodzongi


Neither new nor informative: response to Richardson on property rights

On 7th March 2013, Craig Richardson – Associate Professor of Economics at Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina – gave a speech to the Mike Campbell Foundation. The speech itself appears to have been pulled from the same “dusty file drawer” in which Richardson’s first “background paper” on Zimbabwe lay for “nearly a decade” (possibly in the same office where he carried out his desk-based “virtual trip of Zimbabwe” via Google Earth). It can best be described as a repetition of what we heard from Richardson in 2005 and again in 2007. While it is understood that speeches are often tailored to suit the audience, we might expect that a professor of economics would at least acknowledge some of the serious criticisms that were levelled against his earlier work; and that, having had almost another decade in which to reflect, he might have attempted to incorporate some of this criticism into his analysis, thus enabling him to see a bit more of what he calls “the unseen”, which includes more than simply the economic linkages that stem from secure property rights.

Richardson’s argument – now, as it was then – is based on the economic theory that private land title encourages higher levels of investment, better land management practices and greater productivity than is the case with communally owned land. He argues that people will invest in land – by clearing fields and “moving rocks” – as soon as they own the land and the stream of benefits that comes from it. He compares satellite photographs of commercial and communal land and argues that “The barrenness that one sees around [communal] villages in Africa is a result of lack of ownership”. He states that “Without property titles, communal farmers are destined to remain poor and reliant on crude means of farming…There is no collateral, so no way to raise money except through saving the meagre bit of money left over from sales of crops. That is destined to keep these farmers poor”. The theory is not new (which Richardson acknowledges), being more commonly associated with Garrett Hardin, Frank Knight, Douglas North and Hernando De Soto.

It was from this perspective that Richardson argued, in 2005/2007, that the “expropriation” of commercial farmland was the most important contributory factor leading to “the collapse of Zimbabwe”; and that declining food production was a direct result of the loss of secure property rights in the commercial farming sector and had little to do with drought (for which he was heavily criticised by Andersson, and rightly so). It would be hypocritical of me not to mention that I once made the same argument and that, to some extent, I was inspired by Richardson to study Zimbabwe’s land reforms, more closely. And yet, unlike Richardson, my perceptions of Zimbabwe’s fast track land reforms have changed, now informed by a much fuller understanding of the history of land in Zimbabwe and by eighteen months of fieldwork in the country’s communal and resettlement areas (which Richardson treats as one in the same).

There are many areas where his approach and argument fall down; but here I can mention only a few. First of all, it is simply reductionist. Neo-liberal economic theories and models reduce scientific explanation to simple cause and effect scenarios, a ‘one size fits all’ approach, which cannot accurately capture the nuances of the “real” world. It is simply ridiculous to draw a direct comparison between communal land in present-day Zimbabwe and the situation in 15th century England! Communal land degradation cannot be explained simply in terms of a lack of secure property rights but requires a fuller understanding of land and agricultural policy in both colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, as well as an acute agronomical knowledge, both of which Richardson seems to lack. Similarly, post-2000 events in Zimbabwe cannot be explained solely by the violation of property rights. The story is much more complex, as more recent research has shown, but Richardson consistently ignores or downplays all other explanatory factors.

He accuses others of ignoring the importance of property rights, but it is he that ignores the wider development literature which contradicts his argument. Take Kenya, for example, where the formalisation of property rights is failing to benefit the poor. He completely misses the diverse sets of livelihoods that exist at household level in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa, which are not necessarily compatible with formal land titles.

He also refers to communal farming methods as “crude”, ignoring evidence that small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe are often well-educated, capable of adopting new technologies and have a proven ability to respond to market incentives. They are far from the passive victims “destined to remain poor” that Richardson portrays. Instead, many do invest in their land, in housing, in livestock and in assets (both productive and non-productive) despite the lack of private title. How does Richardson explain this? He does not. Again, he completely misses the diverse portfolio of livelihood strategies at household level which generate income for farming, and other needs, in the absence of credit facilities; and it never occurs to him that the thinking on “ownership” of land in Zimbabwe might not subscribe to the same Western notions of private property that he espouses.

His approach and argument are neither new nor informative. Instead, he succeeds only in helping to perpetuate some of the misconceptions about Zimbabwe’s smallholder farmers and the country’s recent land reforms. It is not that property rights do not matter, but that there is much more to the story of land reform in Zimbabwe than Richardson suggests.

by Gareth James

Welcome to ‘Researching Zimbabwe’

welcome pictureWelcome to the blog Researching Zimbabwe which provides researchers with a platform for discussing, debating and disseminating research on issues relating to land, agriculture and livelihoods in Zimbabwe. The blog is edited by Gareth James and Grasian Mkodzongi. Both are doctoral students at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and both have conducted fieldwork in the new resettlement areas of Zimbabwe. If you would like to contribute to the blog, please click on ‘Become an Author’ at the top of the page.