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From Africa Recovery, Vol.12#3 (December 1998), page 10 (part of special feature on "Land Reform")

In Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and several other African countries, inequitable land distribution contributes to rural poverty and social and political tensions. In Southern Africa in particular, where it is a legacy of settler occupation, severe imbalances in land ownership also are a source of continued racial strain. In this special section (pages 10-15), Africa Recovery looks at the sometimes controversial efforts in Zimbabwe and Namibia to redistribute land to poor African farmers, while a UN economist argues that land redistribution can boost agricultural productivity.

Zimbabwe presses land distribution

Donors react coolly to controversial plan, but black farmers urge even faster action

By Francis Mdlongwa in Harare

Zimbabwe's government, buffeted by a deepening economic and social crisis, is being hurried by land-hungry small farmers to resolve a century-old problem of African landlessness, just as key aid donors have reacted coolly to its land redistribution programme. The plan aims to resettle tens of thousands of people on land originally seized from indigenous groups by British colonists, and thereby help redress economic imbalances between the country's blacks and whites.

But after vocal donor opposition when the plan was launched in September, the government, following many closed-door consultations, agreed to temporarily scale it back.

The government continues to insist, however, that the current distribution of land is both unjust and a source of political instability, pointing to the unauthorized occupations of white-owned land in recent months by groups of squatters.

"The equitable distribution of productive capital such as land is not only economically important but also essential to ensure peace and stability."
-- Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General

The problem dates back to the 1890s, when British colonists settled in the country which was later to become Southern Rhodesia. The white supremacist policies of subsequent Rhodesian regimes worsened the problem of landlessness and fuelled the guerrilla war for independence. Despite the country's attainment of independence in 1980 as Zimbabwe, 6 million blacks still live on arid and infertile land not suitable for agriculture, while most of the farmland is controlled by 4,500 white commercial farmers, multinational companies and organizations such as churches.

Zimbabwe's land crisis, says President Robert Mugabe, "is rooted in our history as a colonized people. It is a question whose resolution is not negotiable." The government insists that the land distribution programme is vital for Zimbabwe's social and political stability, and notes that such stability is in the interests of the white commercial farmers themselves.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed, in a speech read on his behalf at an early September land summit in Harare. "The equitable distribution of productive capital such as land is not only economically important but also essential to ensure peace and stability," he said. "In a country where women and children make up the majority of the rural poor, improving conditions in rural communities would go a long way towards creating a healthier and more educated society."

Donors withhold funding

As originally announced in September, the land redistribution programme envisaged resettling 150,000 families on 5 mn hectares of land within five years. But at the land summit in Harare, most donors pointedly refused to pledge any significant funding for the programme, which will cost an estimated Z$40 bn (US$1.9 bn). It was hoped that half the programme's total funding would be pledged by donors at the conference, but only a paltry Z$20 mn (US$180,000) actually was promised by Western nations and international aid agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The donors' concerns, as highlighted at the three-day summit, included:

-- hat the government will fail to pay full compensation for farms it is forcibly buying from large-scale farmers;

-- that the programme is unlikely to address poverty in the poor "communal" areas, where the majority of Zimbabwe's population of 12 million lives;

-- and that there are no adequate checks against corruption in the implementation of the programme.

The donors also said the programme is too ambitious and would require more than the projected five years for implementation. The main bone of contention centred on the government's controversial 1992 Land Acquisition Act, which empowers the state to forcibly buy farms and pay only what it considers to be fair compensation, a law fiercely resisted by Zimbabwe's commercial farmers, who produce most key exports.

US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Tom MacDonald summed up the mood of most donors at the conference, telling the government that Washington finds it impossible to pledge money for a scheme deemed to violate property and human rights. "We can only provide technical assistance consistent with our laws," he said.

While the UK and most donors do accept the economic and political imperatives of land redistribution in Zimbabwe, they point to neighbouring South Africa as an example for Zimbabwe to follow. There, the government has opted to buy land for the resettlement of blacks from willing white sellers.

In part, the donors' reluctance also reflects misgivings about the way land redistribution has operated in Zimbabwe in the past. The first programme in the 1980s, in which 70,000 blacks were resettled instead of the target figure of 162,000, was marked by public accusations that land earmarked for small-scale farmers was instead diverted to influential figures, charges that President Mugabe's government denies.

The UK, which aided Zimbabwe's first land plan because it was based on a willing-seller, willing-buyer policy, argues that it cannot do so now because the current programme fails to recognize fundamental property rights, is not transparent and does not address poverty issues.

'We can no longer wait for promises'

Meanwhile, land-hungry villagers have fired warning shots of their own, expressing growing impatience with the government's failure to fulfill promises to give them land when independence first was achieved 18 years ago. In the past several months, thousands of villagers in various parts of the country have seized prime commercial land, most of it owned by whites, to resettle themselves illegally. The villagers have vowed not to move out of the properties, saying the government is not serious about addressing their plight. In the words of one angry villager, "We can no longer wait for promises and more promises."

The government has appealed to the villagers to end their occupation of the farms, but has not taken any steps to forcibly remove them. President Mugabe has been wary not to act harshly against the villagers and is acutely aware of the explosive nature of the problem, especially at a time of widespread public discontent over the country's severe economic difficulties.

President Mugabe told the land summit, "We must move forward speedily and vigorously [with the land plan] ... otherwise they, the people, will resettle themselves in a manner they deem appropriate. Such anarchy will not be helpful to anyone. We therefore trust that the government's efforts for orderly resettlement will receive the necessary [donors'] support."

President Mugabe has said in numerous speeches that he sees no reason why the government should pay for land which was "stolen" by British colonialists. He says the government is happy to pay for improvements made on the farms, but "will not pay for the soil -- it is God-given and belongs to the people."

Influential groups such as the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), the umbrella body for Zimbabwe's white commercial farmers, have acknowledged the need for the government to address landlessness, but are unhappy about the methods used, such as the 1992 law giving the government unchallenged powers to virtually seize any land or farm, paying only what it considers fair compensation. They agree that resettlement is crucial for stability, but that full compensation based on the market value of the farms must be paid.

While debate on the merits and de-merits of Zimbabwe's land redistribution plan rages, most Zimbabweans and economic analysts have been largely concerned about its effect on output in agriculture, the economic mainstay of a nation which normally has been a food exporter to its poorer neighbours.

The government has made the point that small-scale farmers, if given enough land and the tools to farm, can be as productive as the commercial farmers. Indeed, black farmers now grow about 70 per cent of Zimbabwe's staple, maize. Before independence, most maize was grown by the commercial farmers, with peasant farmers growing just enough for their own needs. Thus, the government points out, land redistribution would not only alleviate poverty among rural blacks -- the majority population -- but also help stimulate agricultural output overall.

Nevertheless, some economists have warned that if the plan is implemented as it now stands, the key tobacco sector, Zimbabwe's single largest exporter earner, will be hard hit. They estimate that it will lose 50 per cent of its total annual production of 230 mn kilograms of flue-cured tobacco by 1999. Tobacco currently nets about US$330 mn a year in foreign exchange.

Under the government's land plan, 700 of the nation's tobacco farms are among the total of 1,500 farms earmarked for imminent seizure and resettlement of landless farmers. "Taking that land [the tobacco farms] out of production will probably halve production," independent Zimbabwean economist John Robertson says. "Some of the farmers who are being resettled don't have the skills or the capital that those farmers [who] will be removed from the land have. When you have 20 farmers working separately where you used to have one farmer with a consolidated approach, they are likely to spend years trying to figure out who gets what resources."

Although the government emphasizes that resettlement is needed to relieve overcrowding in the degraded rural communal areas, it also says that some of the new settlers will be trained farmers or those with adequate funds to farm productively.

Some of the analysts who project a fall in farm output argue that formal sector employment, which has hardly grown from the 1.5 million workers at independence, is also likely to decline by at least 15 per cent, since agriculture provides the inputs for most local industries.

But Professor Sam Moyo of the Southern Africa Regional Institute for Policy Studies, a local think-tank, answers that some of these projections are exaggerated by whites worried about losing their land and privileged economic status in a country where 70 per cent of blacks live below the poverty line. Prof. Moyo, who has studied Zimbabwe's land question extensively, says that some of the 1,500 farms already identified for compulsory acquisition by the government are not in the fertile and heavy rainfall regions, where most crops are produced, but in relatively poorer and drier regions, although still better than in the communal lands where peasant farmers currently live. Therefore, he says, overall farm output probably would not be compromised.

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