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Visual Evidence of the Cost of Destroying Property Rights

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by Craig J. Richardson

Anyone flying over Zimbabwe on a clear day in the year 2000 would have seen huge differences in the farming regions, and perhaps better understood the country’s longstanding issue with land reform. In some areas of the country were large swathes of rich green land punctuated with small spots of bright blue reservoirs. These were the vast tracts of well-irrigated commercial farms. In other regions, one was likely to see a patchwork of brown or gray plots, the dusty and small communal farms crowded together and typically suffering from a lack of water. Given Zimbabwe’s history, it comes as no surprise that some 4,500 whites owned most of the commercial farms, while 840,000 black farmers eked out a living on the communal lands.[1]

In the wake of the post-2000 land reforms, recently produced satellite pictures from Google Earth show this bird’s eye perspective for the first time. These remarkable photos reveal both the differences and changes in Zimbabwe’s agricultural production over the past few years, and highlight the stunning failure of the land reforms’ initiative to have a positive impact on either redistributed commercial land or the communal lands. Both now appear worse off than before.

Guiding most fast-track land reform advocates was research that suggested that communal farmland was inherently inferior to commercial farmland. But without a bird's eye view of the land, one misses a key fact: the fertility of the land wasn't only determined by rainfall or quality of the soil. Although communal lands tended to be in drier areas, many were directly adjacent to commercial farms or in high rainfall areas, providing a living experiment with the two different ways of managing farmland. Yet in nearly all cases, the communal areas are typically dry and scorched, whereas the commercial lands were green and lush.

The more recent set of photos shows the results of the land reforms, which essentially turned all land into communal land, since titles on the commercial properties were revoked. Instead of improving both, the move towards equality has had ironic results: commercial farming sector now increasingly resembles the communal lands.[2] The once irrigated commercial land is brown and scorched, and the reservoirs have dried up due to a lack of parts. There have been widespread ripple effects throughout the entire economy (discussed in more detail in Richardson 2006).

How did this happen? The underlying wealth of the commercial farmland derived from the protection of private property, an institutional centerpiece that has now been abandoned. Likewise, the ongoing desertification of the communal farmland is in large part explained by the lack of property rights. The long-term impact of communal farming resulted in widespread deforestation, erosion and poor crop yields - a classic case of "tragedy of the commons." Since the post-2000 land reforms, commercial agricultural production has dropped up to 75 percent, as individuals have lost initiative to work, collateral no longer exists, and banks have collapsed. Cotton and tobacco once served as important sources of foreign exchange for the farmers as well as the government, which used it to pay for imports such as gasoline, spare parts, and technology. Farmers formerly used collateral from privately-owned land to obtain equity lines from banks, which were used to purchase seeds in advance, farm equipment and other capital improvements. Consequently, an entire economic sub-sector that served the commercial farmers has now virtually disappeared. Ironically, this has spilled over to the original communal farmers, as they once sourced seeds, fertilizer and other resources from local commercial farmers. In many cases, commercial farmers plowed their land as well. As a result, communal production is also down. One can see this in the photos- the communal lands are browner than ever before.

Once well-shielded from drought, the country now lacks hard currency that was previously used to buy spare parts for irrigation pumps. With most pumps now broken, or looted, there has been a rapid drying up of the more than 10,000 reservoirs, as seen in the before and after photos. Previously, this was the most sophisticated water delivery system in Southern Africa (excluding South Africa), creating enough of a water supply to get through severe droughts. These dams, combined with a network of irrigation pipes, minimized the problem of droughts for the commercial farms. The sudden disconnect between rainfall and GDP growth since the land reforms began in 2000 (outlined in detail in Richardson 2005 [pdf]) also points to the potentially long-term effects of the destruction of the commercial agriculture sector.

The underlying story these photos tell is that the commercial farmland was often not innately different than communal lands. Rather, it was developed through the institution of property rights, a strong banking sector, and knowledge of intricate farming practices, all of which created incentives to think longer term about investing and managing the land. These unseen attributes ended up being far more important than the quality of land itself. This knowledge could have allayed some of the "land hunger," as the communal lands covered an area 90 percent as large as Great Britain with only one-fifth the amount of people.[3] In addition, government policies in place that prevented commercial farmers from easily selling off unused land to other interested buyers aggravated the situation.

Future land reform policies must focus on allowing all citizens to gain access to secure property rights, with freedom to buy and sell land without restrictions. By doing so, the land will be properly managed and taken care of, and can serve as collateral for future improvements. Otherwise, Zimbabwe will end up a country subject to droughts, famine and other ills - a fate it once avoided successfully when property rights were secure.


[1] Some of this essay draws from a recent chapter, Richardson, Craig (2006), "Land Reform in Zimbabwe" in De Soto, Hernando and Francis Chevenal, Swiss Human Rights Book, Vol.1: Realizing Property Rights, Berne: Rueffer and Rub, pp. 74-84.
[2] The 2005 photo, according to Google Earth, was taken between 2003-2005. The 2006 photo was taken in the past six months; see "About the Photos".
[3] Robertson Economic Services.