Book Launch – Zimbabwe’s land reform: myths and realities

ZIMBABWE LANDBy Magnus Taylor, Royal African Society – Prof Stephen Chan, chairing this meeting, stated that this is a book of great importance. There is a tendency when discussing subjects such as land reform in Zimbabwe to talk about them without nuance. It is however important to develop our discussions in a more complex manner, recognising that – particularly in this situation – people are not dupes, and that there is much space for human agency and creativity.

Crucially, in this example, discussion on land in Zimbabwe has largely been carried out by people who know very little about land. Professor Ian Scoones, however, does. As Robin Palmer later stated, land in Zimbabwe has always been used as a political and economic weapon. Responses to reform must therefore be interpreted in this context.

Prof Ian Scoones

The book has been 10 years in the making, and the essentially local study was conceptualised pre-2000 when the Fast Track Land Reform, characterised by land invasions, first started. However, the land reform could not be ignored, and thus was incorporated into the study, and became an interesting new dynamic. No one really knew what reform would bring to agrarian structure, the answer being complex and not all to the detriment of agricultural production.

The study focused on Masvingo Province. By 2010 9 million hectares of land had been transferred from previous ownership to a variety of different constituencies. This accounts for approximately 30 percent of the land in the province. The primary question Prof Scoones asked was – What happened to the people’s livelihood after they got land from land reform? The findings were often unexpected and surprising.

Land reform in Masvingo has not been an unmitigated disaster. An essential point of Prof Scoones’ study is that over half of the farmers in the region have been ‘accumulating from below.’ In essence, investing in their land through localised and small scale developments. This has been occurring to an extent that agricultural labour has been attracted to the region, and farms have provided a source of ‘livelihood from below.’ A vibrant and farm-based economy has been steadily emerging.

Food insecurity not rife

Prof Scoones stressed that agriculture has not completely collapsed. Whilst the production of some crops has declined, many others have remained stable. There is much room for improvement, but in general there is evidence for a slow pattern of recovery in the agricultural sector. Food insecurity is a problem, but is not as widespread as is often suggested. Increasing numbers of families are now able to grow enough grain to support themselves. In general, claims about food insecurity do not capture the situation on a local level.

Cronies not dominating

It was argued that contrary to the popular representations, ordinary people – largely asset and income poor – have been the major beneficiaries of reform. Political ‘cronies’ although they do exist, and are disproportionately influential, do not dominate. It was suggested that around 7.5 – 8 percent of the redistributed land is in the hands of ‘cronies.’


It is estimated that approximately US $90 million has been invested in the land involved in Masvingo’s reform process. This is however not investment from donors or the state, but from individuals directly involved with the rural economy. Economic activity has shifted, not collapsed, but this sort of activity is never measured.


Prof Scoones refuted some of the main criticisms that have been levelled at this study:

Is Masvingo Province unrepresentative?

Prof Scoones argued that this study is significant in relation to semi-arid regions, and does not make assumptions about highly capitalised farming regions, which he admitted, would probably display different characteristics.

A biased sample?

Prof Scoones stated that this was not the case, as a wide variety of farms of different sizes (both in the A1 and A2 categorisation) were studied with a great deal of ecological variation. Study sites were in fact chosen specifically to include such variation.

Are the ‘myths’ the book seeks to challenge simply ‘straw men?’

No! These ‘myths’ are constantly pedalled in the media, academia and by donors. They have desperately needed to be challenged by a close study of the empirical realities. Future policy should thus be based on evidence and not emotion. However, as Robin Palmer stated, it is very difficult to say anything about land reform without being placed on one ‘side’ or the other.


Who is settling the land?

Historical claims have not been central to resettlement, and Prof Scoones asserted that this was largely not a restitution of land, but a redistribution. There have however been many contestations of authority over news lands, the central question being who holds ‘traditional authority’? Governance structures that have developed have mirrored wartime constructions of governance. Negotiation of public authority over the land is however problematic.

Did the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) miss its opportunity to shape land reform?

This was largely agreed with – many opportunities were missed in the 1990s pre 2010’s ‘Fast Track’ reform process. Some in the CFU now do want to re-engage with government programs and particularly with the evolving new agricultural sector.

On land and water

Reform of land and water must go together. Different sorts of water supply are now need for different farming structures – ‘small water, rather than big water.’ It was stated that in general Zimbabwe’s agricultural development sector needed to get away from ‘big ideas’ when now small investment is what is required. Sobona Mtisi stated that Masvingo itself never had much water, but investment was made in small-scale irrigation schemes.

Technocratic government

The technocratic arms of Zimbabwe’s government have largely ceased to exist in the last decade. The state cannot service the requirements of the people, but the expertise is still there. Rebuilding, however, will require money and sustained state support.