Zimbabwe's Two Land Tragedies That Must be Resolved

by Todd Moss

These dramatic photos reveal two different tragedies of land in Zimbabwe, both of which will have to be addressed if the country is going to recover and prosper in the future.

The first tragedy is the creation -- and continuation -- of a dual land tenure system that denies small-scale African farmers the full potential of their property. During the colonial period the best farming land in then-Rhodesia was taken by white settlers and turned into large commercial farms and ranches. Black farmers were mostly pushed onto lower-quality 'tribal trust lands,' similar to the reservations used in North America. While these confiscations were a gross historical injustice and land was perhaps the most salient rallying cry of the liberation war, the ZANU-PF government did little to change it after independence in 1980. Reallocation of commercial land to indigenous farmers (even after the 10-year 'willing buyer, willing seller' clause expired) was painfully slow and riven by corruption. But perhaps just as damaging, there were no steps taken to give property rights to farmers in the tribal trust (now called 'communal') areas. Instead, the old system, whereby the land is nationalized and land use is determined by local chiefs, perpetuated a cycle of underinvestment and low productivity. This is why the photos show such distinct lines between commercial and communal lands. In other words, even where the soil is of similar quality, the results are so dramatically different because the farmers own the land on only one side of the line.

The second tragedy is that the huge investment in commercial farms has mostly been lost. It was the infrastructure -- dams, irrigation systems, roads, and the like which were mostly financed through the banking sector using land as collateral -- that allowed Zimbabwe to weather highly erratic rains and become an agricultural powerhouse. The country had at one point, for example, more than 10,000 man-made water reservoirs, many of which were still visible by satellite a few years ago. But the recent violent seizure of farms unleashed by the government has not only forced 85% of the commercial farmers off the land, but also appears to have destroyed the physical farming systems that had been constructed. The same area viewed this year (and after above average rains) shows the water basins almost all gone. It is thus no surprise that agricultural output in the country has collapsed.

One interesting observation from the photos is that the communal areas have also been adversely affected. Even though Zimbabwe's rains were greater than normal in 2005, the current photo shows even more deterioration (more brown, less green) on the communal side. This is likely because there was cross-use between the two farming areas; communal farmers sometimes used commercial tractors or had access to fertilizer and seed. More importantly, the whole economy has gone into freefall, which hurts the small communal farmers, who are mainly low income and with few options to absorb shocks, most of all.

Despite the growing evidence that the "land reform" program is the main source of hardship, the government has refused to budge from its claim that the benefits are imminent. In his July 2000 address to parliament, President Robert Mugabe claimed that "The land resettlement program is being accelerated…This should result in increased agricultural production and promotion of economic indigenization." But agriculture has instead plummeted; commercial production of maize (the main staple food) and tobacco (the main farm export) have each declined by about three-quarters since 2000. Agriculture, of course, had been the mainstay of the economy and its collapse is the driving force behind a 40% shrinkage in real GDP over the past six years -- a decline that has pushed the average Zimbabwean's purchasing power back to levels last seen in the late 1940s. Nevertheless Zimbabwe's ambassador in the US, as recently as April, was publicly sticking to the story that the long-promised bounty from land reform was right around the corner.

When it does admit there might be a problem (e.g., when inflation hits 1,200% as it did in May or when up to a third of its people need UN food to survive) the government blames anyone other than itself: the IMF, the British, or some plot cooked up in the increasingly paranoid mind of President Mugabe. One of ZANU-PF's favorite scapegoats is still the weather. Some relief organizations, and even the UN, have bought into this 'drought myth'. But the evidence suggests that neither donors, nor sanctions, nor lack of rain explains the economic crisis. These satellite photos are further verification that responsibility lies to a large degree with misguided land policy. (Irrational economic policy and cruel despotism are two other reasons that come to mind.)

When the inevitable transition comes to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, both of these land tragedies must be resolved. The country will need to re-attract large high-tech agribusiness to feed its urban population and to get its export markets humming again. And small farmers still toiling in the communal lands must be brought into modern agriculture through real extension services, public investment in infrastructure, and, at long last, legal tenure over their land. Only with the extension of private property rights to all Zimbabweans will the historical wrongs of the past be rectified -- and the true value of their beautiful country realized.