Monday, December 17, 2012

KP Author Milford Bateman Reviews Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land

"Perhaps nowhere more than in the case of post-independence Zimbabwe has the land reform issue in Africa created controversy. Initially, and justifiably, this controversy arose because of the brutality, double-dealing, broken promises, lies and corruption associated with both sides to the land reform process - the Mugabe regime and the international donor community, particularly the UK government. The new book by Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart – Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land - takes as its starting point this land reform process, before venturing boldly into dismissing the often ideologically-driven, and sometimes simply racist, myths that quickly arose concerning the ability of the black community to efficiently farm and manage restituted land. Crucially, this book also provides an assessment of the economic and social policy implications of the new raft of smaller farms now owned by the black community. And although it follows fast on the heels of a couple of other excellent books looking into the same land reform topic,[i] in my opinion this book surpasses these earlier contributions, brilliantly extending, confirming, illustrating and nuancing many of the most important arguments and issues that needed to be raised.

Above all the book provides an important reality check to those who swallowed whole the narrative provided by the international development community, key western governments and a good many international media outlets, which was that the land reform process (in reality, a land restitution process) in Zimbabwe was horribly corrupted by the Mugabe regime, and that the sour reality emerging from the whole state-driven process was, predictably, a grossly inefficient agricultural system to boot. Dealing with these myths is the rationale for the book.

First, there is the crucial role of politics and ideology to deal with. To help illustrate the many absurdities here, we might just note the different attitudes to land reform/restitution shown in Zimbabwe and in another region undergoing a major process of change that I know quite well - the former communist states of Eastern Europe. The land reform/restitution process still taking place in the former communist states in Eastern Europe, where land was appropriated from private individuals by the state as far back as 1918 in the former Soviet Union, has actually been driven forward by the international community. At least partly, we know that this was done in order to build a completely new private sector elite, one that could forge important links to western business interests and would reflect the importance of certain western ideological preferences. Now contrast this scenario with the process of land reform/restitution in Zimbabwe as described in this book, a process that was all too often presented as an abomination that had no basis in legality or fairness or (as we will discuss below) efficiency, and so it was largely resisted by the very same international development community agencies and western governments that supported extensive land reform/restitution in the former communist countries. Indeed, many international aid agencies even refused to work with the so-called ‘land reform farmers’ in Zimbabwe. But the authors show that the land reform/restitution process in Zimbabwe was largely resisted by the international development community not so much because of its basic unfairness, but because it would undermine the white Zimbabwean business elite that was very well disposed towards western business interests and supported western country ideological preferences. Sadly, as the authors allude to, a healthy does of racism was also involved in the Zimbabwe case. Revealing the real rationale, as opposed to the stated rationale, behind policy-making and Zimbabwe’s engagement with the international development community is one of the most important aspects of this book for serious scholars.

However, this book is about something else that has much more importance in terms of the future of Zimbabwe, Africa and other developing countries too: it is about the economic and social efficiency of the particular agricultural structure thereby created by land reform/restitution over a generation, and the crucial policy implications this holds for other nations and communities also seeking the best possible agricultural system. To date, and not always for the most honourable of reasons, as we have noted, a large number of analysts have used the example of post-independence Zimbabwe as evidence that large plantation-style farming, previously under white control, was far superior to the much smaller farms under black ownership and control that emerged out of the messy land reform/restitution process. This book very thoroughly and engagingly dispels this long-standing and ultimately hugely destructive myth.

The book fittingly starts with the plight of war-veterans - the white war veterans, that is, who, returning to then Rhodesia from the battlefields of Europe and the Far East in 1945-7, were helped by state intervention to become the backbone of commercial farming in the country. This goal was largely achieved thanks to the rapid construction of a very comprehensive institutional support structure, notably comprising important public infrastructure, the establishment of well-capitalised and integrated (farm to retail) cooperatives, a large volume of subsidised credit and outright grants, and extensive training and extension services programs. These important measures were then ‘assisted’ by further dispossessing the black community of any remaining high quality agricultural land that was still in their individual or communal ownership. Rhodesia’s agricultural sector thus became one of Africa’s strongest. Importantly, it was by no means the supreme bulwark it is commonly assumed to be. On this, the book dispels many myths about the economic efficiency of the agricultural system prior to independence, notably showing that about a third of the farms remained unprofitable and that much good land was later abandoned and remained unused right up till independence.

Notwithstanding, the agricultural system was a major prop to the white Rhodesian economy and society, especially in terms of consolidating white control and in generating valuable foreign exchange. As noted, the authors highlight the importance to the white farming community of extensive state support. This description offers a striking contrast to the shortfall of support offered to the black farmers after independence. Crucially, the authors point out that Zimbabwe’s white-owned plantation farms needed a major state export promotion program, including grants and subsidies, in order to make serious inroads into expanding global markets for niche agricultural products (e.g., mangetout peas, passion fruit and cut flowers). There should be no surprise here. As a growing number of development economists have begun to recount, notably Ha-Joon Chang[ii], and as a growing number of practical experiences elsewhere in Africa also appear to confirm,[iii] there are in fact almost no examples of a successful agricultural sector that did not count on comprehensive state support and financial investment/subsidies. Not all such individual programs ‘worked’, of course, but there are no successful agricultural systems that did not use such programs and policies. So Zimbabwe’s extensive set of agricultural interventions in the pre-Independence period were actually based on very sound economic principles. And they worked.

Understandably, then, the authors are right to repeatedly point out that when the black community began to move into farming in the post-Independence period thanks to the land reform/restitution process, it was therefore a major barrier to the new farmers to find that similar forms of state support were simply unavailable. This makes the ultimate success of the black owned and controlled farms even more astounding. This deleterious lack of support was not so much policy-driven, as the authors are quick to point out, but simply because of a lack of domestic resources in the country after a vicious liberation war and in the face of continuing military and economic attacks by the apartheid regime of South Africa. For example, although the existing agricultural marketing and extension services were immediately opened up to all Zimbabweans following Independence, the funding made available was not anywhere near in proportion to the enormity of the task at hand. Partly also, however, the problem facing Zimbabwe’s new black farming community was that the international community, then in thrall to the ideology of neoliberalism and structural adjustment, did not actually believe in, and so nor would they sanction, such forms of state support being funded with international loans and grants – instead, ‘the market’ was expected to take care of such important matters.

The authors paint a vivid picture of the new class of black farmers returning from the war of Independence only to encounter very much worse conditions compared to the previous white generation returning from duty in World War II. They also point to the serious drought in 2001-2 that followed upon a series of catastrophic droughts, notably in 1991-1992 (the worst of the century), which hardly made things any easier for the new black farming class. Nonetheless, it is the defining feature of the book to show how, seemingly in spite of all the odds, economically successful farms were eventually created by the black community upon their newly restituted land. Making use of peer-to-peer learning (often involving white farmers that remained in Zimbabwe), by the patient reinvestment of any initial surplus made on the farm, by experimentation with different crops and techniques, and through much collective effort, the new black farmers eventually began to reach, and then sometimes to exceed, the productivity levels reached by the former white farmers on much larger plantation-style farms using better quality land. The book thus makes a hugely important contribution to the ongoing debate over the economically ‘optimum’ farm size. The evidence presented here from Zimbabwe supports those analysts, especially those associated with the agro-ecological lobby,[iv] who claim that the key to a productive agricultural system is more likely to be found not in plantation-style farms, but in much smaller but still commercially-oriented farms.

Going even further, the authors show that the old white-owned and controlled plantation farms in Rhodesia were not just much less economically efficient than was hitherto very widely assumed, but that such plantations clearly exacerbated the depth of general poverty and existing social divisions in the community along colour lines: that is, very much as is the norm across Africa, the few employees used on the plantation farms in white-controlled Rhodesia were very seriously exploited, while the local community rarely benefitted from even the most successful plantation farms that were in the vicinity. This unsatisfactory situation is then very usefully contrasted with the emerging situation in the post-Independence period, where the growing numbers of black-owned farms have begun to impel a very positive economic and social development trajectory at the local level. This new trajectory is marked out by rising individual farm incomes, growing levels of solidarity and intra- and inter-community trust, more local food self-sufficiency, and a lessening of previous high levels of inequality. So, smaller farms in Zimbabwe are not just doing very well in terms of productivity, as was noted above, but are also increasingly seen as a much better strategic option for local communities seeking generalised economic and social progress. Pointedly, even the international community is now starting to pick up on the radically different and significant reality that is Zimbabwe today, and is so carefully and intelligently described by the authors of this book.[v]

All told, this book is, first, a fantastic history lesson. At a time when another on-going land grab is dominating the world news as I write this review – the relentless and brutal dispossession of the Palestinians by the early Israeli settlers coming mainly from Europe, and the continuation of this program by their equally intransigent descendents – the appalling unfairness, brutality and stupidity of the white settler land grab from the late 1800s onwards in what is now Zimbabwe is pointedly and rightfully noted throughout the entire book. But, even more than this, this important book provides a much-needed antidote to so many of the myths surrounding the economic and social efficiency of the post-land reform/restitution agricultural sector in Zimbabwe. On this issue, it is informative, passionate and well-argued, and written in such a brilliantly engaging style that it was hard to put down. For this reason, it is an indispensible addition to the library of those working in land restitution and reform issues, and perhaps an even more important purchase for the probably much larger group of economists looking at the role of the agricultural sector in facilitating sustainable rural development everywhere around the world. This book cannot be rated too highly."
By Milford Bateman, author of the Kumarian Press publication Confronting Microfinance.

[i] Notably, for example, Ian Scoones, Nelson Marongwe, Blasio Mavedzenge, Jacob Mahenehene, Felix Murimbarimba and Chrispen Sukume, 2010, Zimbabwe’s land reform: Myths and realities, Harare: Weaver Press.
[ii] Chang, H-J. 2009. ‘Rethinking Public Policy in Agriculture – Lessons from History, Distant and Recent’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 36 (3), 477-515.
[iii] Pointedly, the major improvements registered in Malawi thanks to targeted subsidies that were used to allow smallholder farmers to purchase fertiliser and quality seeds, and which within a few years transformed Malawi from a net food importer into a major food exporter. See Bello, W. 2009. Food Wars. London: Verso. 
[iv] For example, see Norberg-Hodge, H., and T Merrifield T, S Gorelick. 2002. Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness, Zed Press: London.
[v] For example, ‘In Zimbabwe Land takeover, a golden lining’, New York Times, July 20th, 2012.


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