Strategic renewal of Zimbabwe’s agricultural system: emerging issues

Taruvinga Magwiroto

That Zimbabwe’s agricultural system is in need of renewal is beyond question. However there’s no broad agreement on what constitutes that renewal, nor is there consensus among agricultural practitioners in Zimbabwe on how to achieve such a renewal.

This analytical piece is largely informed by the robust interactions and conversations that occur in the Zimbabwe Agricultural Think Tank WhatsApp Group. Many issues have emerged, but I have used my editorial discretion to highlight the big issues. Below I outline the issues, and try to show how they are in fact all related to the problem of land ownership.

The most intractable issue seems to be that of land tenure. In fact, on deeper analysis, land tenure and ownership seems to be the overarching problem in post land reform Zimbabwe, for a number of reasons. For a start, the historical racially-based land ownership patterns has set an equivocal precedence. The success of White commercial farmers from the colonial period up to around year 2000 has proved beyond doubt that it is possible to organize a globally competitive agricultural sector in Zimbabwe. However, the sector’s demise following the land reform is a cautionary tale about the unsustainability of skewered resource ownership patterns. An emerging key lesson seems to be that security does not really reside in the legalistic mechanics of tenure: it lies in the human attributes of fairness, community and knowledgeable action.

From that relatively successful history, we further observe that an oasis of success in a desert of mediocrity breeds resentment and distrust in communities. Most white commercial farms were successful businesses. But to what extent were these farms a ‘community’, in the sense of human beings living together in mutual respect and dignity? A few white former commercial farmers have admitted that in hindsight, more could have been done to build a better sense of community with the black people that laboured for them and lived around them, rather than only forge a purely transactional owner-employee relationship.

Related to the issue of land tenure and ownership is the problem of environmental stewardship. Many observers agree that the rate at which the environment is being degraded post land reform is truly alarming. Where nobody substantively “owns” a resource, or where a resource is considered common, anybody can use and abuse the resource without accountability. Also referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”, the problem manifests in resource use regimes where environmental costs are “externalised”. This means individuals accrue private benefits from exploiting the environment, yet the costs are borne by the public. This occurs, for example,where an individual overstocks and causes overgrazing of communal velds; tobacco farmers cut down trees in public forests thereby prejudicing non-tobacco farmers; hunters start veld fires that get out of hand and destroy huge tracts of vegetation because nobody has put up fireguards; people block water bodies upstream without consultation with other water users; korokozas (and Chinese ‘investors’) put up mining “claims” anyway and anyhow in the search for minerals, and use land with no regard to the resource’s regenerative needs nor the need of other users. The list is endless. The recurring theme is that people feel they can do anything they please on now-common land because, in the words of one mukorokoza, “nobody but God created natural resources. Resources belong to all of us”.

The fourth issue I want to highlight is the problem of agricultural productivity. “Productivity” is seen as an important objective for the Ministry of Agriculture. In fact it is the objective that justifies many of the Ministry’s policies and actions, an obsession that is noble but can become problematic as I will highlight later on.

Getting the new (black) farmers to reach an appropriate level of productivity has been a huge challenge for the government, for a number of reasons. First, a good number of the people who got land did so for speculative purposes, rather than out of any sense of farming vocation. To such people, land is a strategic asset or investment that they hang onto waiting for an opportunity to make money through rent. Others got land because they were at the right place at the right time. Land was something that they had an opportunity to get, and they said “why not”. Secondly, many A2 farmers are not well-resourced. Certainly, they may be better off than A1 and communal farmers, but not by much. Getting adequate capital to leverage their farming operations is problematic, given they hold no bankable title to the land. Thirdly, there seems to be inadequacy of technical and managerial competences on most of the farms, further compounding the issues. Finally, the rainfall has been erratic, exposing the paucity of water harvesting and irtigation facilities on many farms.

Getting back to the point of agricultural productivity. If the reasons for the Fast Track Land Reform of 2002 was to redress the historical imbalances of land ownership in Zimbabwe, it is clear that productivity alone cannot be the sole measure of a successful land reform. The objective must be to build successful rural communities, where ‘success’ must be judged in terms of progress towards both humanistic and instrumental ideals.

The humanistic ideals I’m talking about are about empowerment, participation, a sense of community and opportunities of continuous “learning” to be better producers, better land stewards and better people. In short, “leaving no one and no place behind” as the Ministry of Agriculture has adopted as their sine qua non. This can be achieved using a rational land allocation system that puts fairness of access and ownership as the foundation of the process. Let those who need land get it, and those who need farming skills get those skills, through availing formal, non formal and the informal learning opportunities to them.

The instrumental ideals I’m talking about are about the need for food security, raw materials and export possibilities from agriculture. It is the need for growth of commercial farming. There is huge expectation on the potential of agriculture to contribute to the overall economy, and the government has been doing much to leverage that potential. There have been many schemes (scams?) to shore up commercial farming post land reform: direct fuel transfers to farmers; mechanisation ‘loans’; tractor transfers; input transfers; cash ‘loans’… it’s a long list.

However, there’s a sense that agricultural growth stimulus packages have yielded very little returns. In fact there’s a sense that these schemes have been used by opportunistic individuals to enrich themselves at the expense of the greater good. The schemes have seen the emergence of perennial “freeloaders” who grab the inputs every year knowing full well that the loans will be written off by a very ‘caring’ government. Nomatter how you look at this problem, there is something “off” in the mechanics of government subsidies in agriculture. Something is not right, and needs to be set right.

Of late, an interesting phenomenon has been that of Joint Ventures (JVs). On face value, this phenomenon seems to be solving the problem of productivity. People with money and resources are renting farming land from those with excess land and little resources or little appetite to take the risks of farming. Fair enough. While satisfying the productivity imperative, at a deeper level, there’s something morally wrong with some of these arrangements. I will explain below.

If a foreign national X comes along and says, “let’s get into a joint venture to grow a niche crop for the European market”, I see nothing wrong with that. But the disturbing trend that we see is where bona fide Zimbabweans (black or white) entering these JVs and having to pay landlords for the use of land. I find that strongly objectionable, on many grounds. First, the person leasing out the land, and collecting rent, did not buy the land in the first place. They are accruing benefit just from occupying (enclosing) public land. If people occupying land can’t themselves farm it, they should vacate it or downsize. If they can secure JVs with foreign investors, fine. But no JVs with locals! Use it or stand down! Why do they not give up the land for those who can? Why not downsize landholdings so that more land is freed up for those who are willing and able to farm? Why would I, a bona fide citizen just like everybody else, pay someone the use of land when that someone was given same land by a government that is also my government? The principle around land reform was about equitable sharing, and the jambanja episode epitomises the risks inherent in insensitive resource distribution. We must be careful not to lay the foundations of another debilitating jambanja.

In particular, former (white) commercial farmers have been hugely sought after for JVs. They have the capital. They have the expertise. They have a commitment to farming. If after all the trials and tribulations they are still in the country, they have a commitment to the country. They have the marketing networks and they are white. They have racial capital, to coin a word. They used to run a world renowned agricultural sector. And they are Zimbabweans! There’s nothing ambiguous about their citizenship status. They just happen to be white, otherwise most are just as Zimbabwean as you and me. How best do we exploit these strengths in a new order? How do we create a new order?

For me, its a no brainer: get these guys onto the land, but not in JVs. If vana vevhu (sons and daughters of the soil) are getting land, give them their portion. Let them show what they can do, freed from the baggages of an insufferable past. Let them be a force for good in a dual legacy that is Zimbabwe.
JVs are for the private good, for the landlords. For the public good, you want your best people on the land. Producing for food security. Producing for the local market. Producing for export. Transferring skills, resources and organisational knowhow. Expanding our marketing networks. Building successful rural communities. Protecting the physical environment on which agriculture itself depend.

Post land reform Zimbabwe is an opportunity for wise leaders to leave a real legacy through exploiting our “dual” legacy, and leaving no one and no place behind.

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