The shift in Zimbabwe's farming profile

Aug 4, 2011

Many African countries have decided that their heavy reliance on small scale farmers is one reason for low productivity and recurrent food shortages. This is one reason they are encouraging the controversial practice of letting big foreign agro concerns to come in and lease or buy huge portions of farmland. Zimbabwe has effectively gone the other direction, from dominance by large scale farmers to almost exclusive reliance on small and medium scale farmers. Is one more 'right' than the other?

The answer is not as straightforward as one might think.

Zimbabwe's once dominant Commercial Farmers Union has come out with a report which provides an answer from one ideological perspective. 

Reports Bloomberg:

Zimbabwe lost about $12 billion in agricultural output in the 10 years through 2009 after the government seized commercial farms from whites, the country’s Commercial Farmers’ Union said.

Total agricultural production based on today’s prices declined to 1.35 million metric tons, or $1 billion, in 2009 from 4.3 million metric tons valued at $3.5 billion in 2000.

Only 1.8 percent of the former workers on the commercial farms and their families received land under the program, according to the CFU. 

Maize production fell to 1.2 million metric tons this year from 2.04 million tons in 2000, while wheat production will probably drop to 6,000 tons from 250,000 tons, the CFU estimated. The country needs about 1.4 million metric tons of maize to meet local demand and 450,000 tons of wheat.

Harvests of barley, cotton, small grains, soy beans, groundnuts, sunflower, tea, coffee, paprika, flowers, citrus and vegetables had also fallen, some by more than half, said Theron.

“President Robert Mugabe and his family ‘own’ 39 farms,” said outgoing CFU president Deon Theron, who listed six members of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party with more than five farms in their families. 

It is therefore not surprising that Theron concludes, “If the aim of land reform was to evict whites and replace them with blacks, then it can be deemed a success. However, if the aim was to benefit the majority and not only a chosen few, then it has been a failure.”

However, as Bloomberg points out:

Not all studies have shown the land seizures to be a failure.

In the Masvingo province, two-thirds of the land went to low-income Zimbabweans, while only 5 percent went to people linked to the “political-military-security elite,” according to a study by Ian Scoones at the U.K.’s Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University.   

So without going into much detail of a complicated, politicized, racially-charged subject, it is clear that there is no straightforwardly simple answer about the net success/failure of the land reform exercise at this juncture, 10 years after it began. 

The easiest, most obvious measures by which to judge it a failure are those used by Theron, mainly vastly reduced tonnages of virtually all crops. Why couldn't it have been done in a way that didn't interfere with production, many have asked over the years?

Theron implies part of the answer to this question. It is that at some point, if not necessarily at the beginning, ''to evict whites and replace them with blacks'' did indeed become a major aim of the exercise. How and why this came to be an aim for the Mugabe government has not been explored enough, but it has to do at least partly with the initial reaction of the CFU to the early farm seizures.

In a quite reasonably self-preserving way, the white farmers as a group threw their support behind the then just formed opposition MDC party of current prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC sought to and nearly did topple Robert Mugabe's then and still ruling ZANU-PF. Mugabe never forgave the white farmers for that. Unfortunately for them, decimating them  as a political force definitely became an aim of the seizures, in a way the CFU was very slow to fully realize.

So while the frequently reported  'breadbasket to basket case' transition was a net loss for the country, for Mugabe and his system that was likely an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of a dirty job that they felt they had to do: punish the white farmers for their political audacity to openly support the ruling elite's first serious, viable challengers; and get them out of the way as a political force once and for all.

While it clearly need not have been as violent and punitive as it was, as long as it was going to be fairly deep and far-reaching ownership reform, it could be argued that production declines were inevitable during the transition. If so, how acceptably long was the transition phase going to be for different subsectors and crops? What level of reduced production could have been considered as the 'price of transition' rather than as an outright sign of failure? After how many years could improvement in each sector be targeted? What annual percentages of increase after that point would be targeted and considered as a minimum requirement for a particular sector to be considered to be in post-reform recovery?

That none of this planning was done reflects how the exercise took on an unplanned, political life of its own, distinct and separate from the expressed desire to 'address colonial imbalances on behalf of landless blacks.' 

Theron very carefully avoided any mention of the gradual improvements in the annual tonnages of maize and tobacco, although CFU-heyday figures have yet to be achieved. It is understandable that an organization most of whose members lost their livelihoods is not able to see any aspect of what happened after their loss as positive. Even if the numbers begin to substantially improve in many sectors, that would not take way the bitterness many CFU members must feel over the manner and scale of their loss.

However, a question that must be asked, even if it would be completely unreasonable to expect the CFU to do do, is if the production improvements being seen in some sectors is not an early sign of moving out of negative post-reform transition into positive post-reform transition. If so, that is clearly beneficial for the country, even if it is no help to CFU members.

The improvement in tobacco, for instance, is because of many more small and medium scale black 'new farmers' growing the crop. While the totals may be going up because of the sheer numbers of new growers, yields/hectare are low compared to those of  the previously dominant CFU members.

One point of view is that it is a step backwards to now have say 10,000 small scale farmers produce the quantities that say 500 large scale farmers did before (the figures are only for example). Each new farmer has a much smaller parcel of land than a CFU member did, and his yields per hectare are also lower for reasons of experience, access to capital, mechanization, inputs, irrigation and so on. In other words, the new farmer may be growing tobacco like the old CFU farmer did, but they practice fundamentally, quite different forms of farming.

From one perspective the new farmer is using a 'primitive,' non-viable model of farming. For those who see it this way, Zimbabwe's farming has gone back in a much more basic way than can be illustrated by just the decline in tonnages. From this point of view, even if tobacco or maize figures soon equal and exceed the best harvests of years past, Zimbabwe's land reform has still 'failed' because it is taking 10,0000 mostly manually toiling farmers to produce what 500 large-scale mechanized farmers once did.

But that is a value judgment, not an uncontestable fact.

Another point of view would be that the country is now more politically 'stable' from the point of view of the 'democratization' of farming production, even if the per-capita land holdings and yields have gone down. Once the country's basic food security has been restored under this 'primitive' system of farming, from these many small scale farmers can then again be built up a corps of 'commercial' farmers, like the CFU and its members were developed over many years. Or perhaps not, if it is possible to 'empower' the many more smaller scale farmers to meet the country's food and other agro-based needs.

It is therefore possible to see the present state of agriculture in Zimbabwe part of a long transition, one that will not necessarily lead to a system identical to the old highly functional but racially/historically fraught one, but a different, modified one. There is no way to tell now whether this is the course Zimbabwe is on, or whether
its agriculture is on an inexorable long term net decline, with the bits of good news here and there being mere aberrations. Which it is will only become clear with hindsight, many years hence. The point is to illustrate, however, that as the heat and the emotionalism of the land reform exercise on all sides begins to subside, it is possible to see it in a much more nuanced way.

While many looked at Zimbabwe's old CFU-driven industrial model of farming with admiration, there are those who hold that it is destructive and unsustainable, and that the world should instead emphasize a simpler style of smaller-scale family farming. According to this view, lower yields are acceptable if they mean less environmental destruction, less or no use of synthetic chemicals and so on. The success or failure of this type of farming model is measured by very different criteria from that of the CFU-type of farming.

For those who think this way, Zimbabwe's current farming difficulties are unfortunate but welcome if it means they will lead to a shift away from industrial farming. In theory, the small scale farmers would be taught and aided to increase their yields, but staying within their anti-industrial farming paradigm. Of course the reigning thinking is that this is absurd, as shown by the many African countries who are trying to institute a farming system like Zimbabwe once had, and de-emphasize reliance on small scale farmers. In the rest of the world it is often said the trend is towards farm consolidation, more intensive methods, more mechanization and so forth. This may be the reality for agribusiness concerns, but most countries still have to contend with and try to cater for the majority of mall scale family farmers. 

It must be said that there is no sign that the Mugabe government buys this anti-industrial farming argument. If anything, it seems to seek a continuation of the CFU industrial farming model, but under blacks. This is problematic in many ways that are beside the points of this article, but again, the fact is that when taken with a long-view, Zimbabwe's land reform experiment can be seen as different things to different people, especially as its results continue to unfold with time.

There are some aspects that don't have much nuance, such as the grabbing of the best built up farms by the ruling elite. This didn't have to do with any particular farming interest among them, but for the fact that they were fully built up assets (house, swimming pool, etc). For most of this greedy elite, their farming commitment was at best light. They had their jobs and other businesses, which gave them basic security and access to many other opportunities, meaning for most their new farms could be taken as a hobby or latest prestige asset, with predicable results. 

The issue of non-productive farms is clearly one of the thorny issues crying for attention, even though it is hard to imagine that happening under the current political dispensation.

However, if the old CFU model of industrial farming is to be continued in one or another form, as seems to be the hope/desire of the government, that will continue to mean relatively large landholdings for that category of farmers, although the country is unlikely to ever again see the huge farm sizes that were common in previous years. This automatically means that only a small 'elite' will be able to farm like this. If that is the predominant mode of farming considered ideal for the country, it is inevitable that the old CFU white elite will/is being replaced by a new black elite. This elite will also inevitably be considered 'Mugabe's cronies' by the CFU and many others, but the point is that pretty much by definition, industrial farming is an activity for the elite because of its requirements.

The CFU report mentions many of the other subsectors that have seen production declines. Most are nowhere near recovery because of their particularly highly specialized nature. In comparison to sectors like tobacco, cotton and maize, which are accessible to small scale farmers, wheat-farming for example is not. The decline in this sector is probably long-term.

But it should have been expected that a very different farmer profile would inevitably mean a different profile of crops that they could viably grow. So while the near wiping out of the wheat-growing sector is tragic, as long as the country's farming is predominantly small scale and rain-fed, there is not much point in moaning about it. That big change in the farmer profile requires that new sectors more suitable to small scale farming be investigated and supported.    

So, is Zimbabwe's land reform a failure or a success at this point? It seems obvious on many counts to say, 'clear, obvious failure,' as the CFU has concluded. However, this is a question that may have a different answer every few years, as a still fluid situation slowly gels. One must also qualify by what parameters of measurement one is asking for the question to be answered.

There are many things about Zimbabwe that are not as clear cut as they may first seem on the surface.


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