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Land Reform in Zimbabwe

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Article 17: Right to own property

  • In 2000, under the fast track process of land redistribution in Zimbabwe the government has revised the constitution and amended legislation in order to allow it to acquire commercial farms without offering compensation.
  • This process has been accompanied by land occupations by government supporters. In November 2002 Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said the land-grab was over. He said in total the government had seized 35m acres of land from white farmers.
  • The stated aim of the programme was to take land from rich white commercial farmers for redistribution to poor and middle-income landless black Zimbabweans.
  • Violence accompanied the land occupations over the last two years and discrimination on political grounds has characterised the allocation of new plots.
  • The programme's implementation, however, raised serious doubts as to the extent to which it has benefited the landless poor.
  • Zimbabwe suffered a poor harvest in 2004 and has been requiring food aid. This was partially blamed on the land reform programme.

Historical Context

The need for land reform in Zimbabwe was a long standing issue and was generally acknowledged, even by representatives of the commercial farming sector. Colonial policies of expropriation gave a few thousand white farmers ownership of huge tracts of arable land.

According to government figures published before the current crisis, some 4,400 whites owned 32% of Zimbabwe's agricultural land, around 10 million hectares. Meanwhile, more than one million black families had struggled to survive on land that was allocated to Africans by the colonial regime.

Land was seen as an alternative source of income and food security to those in urban areas struggling with increasing food and transport costs and growing unemployment since the mid-1990s.

Land Reform Programme

The government of Zimbabwe formally announced the introduction of the land reform programme in July 2000, declaring it would acquire more than 3,000 farms for redistribution. Shortly afterwards, the Zimbabwean economy went into deep recession.

Many farms were taken over by squatters. There was much violence, with several workers beaten up. Some white farm owners were killed.

The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), representing the large-scale commercial farming sector in Zimbabwe, challenged the news laws and policies of the land reform process and land occupations in courts - but their efforts proved largely unsuccessful.

However, the programme did alienate Zimbabwe from much of the international community – particularly damaging relations within the Commonwealth – which exacerbated the country’s economic crisis.

Need for Change

While many people acknowledged the need to address these unequal and race-based patterns of land occupation, the process of speedy land redistribution raised concerns and led to serious allegations of human rights violations.

The government of another Southern African state, Namibia, has now declared its intention to follow suit in forcibly taking land from white farmers. It says more than 200,000 poor black people need land.

However, the Lands Minister there, Hifkepunye Pohamba, has said these expropriations will be carried out within the law – a statement intended to allay fears of takeovers in the Zimbabwe mould – and that where farms are expropriated, fair compensation will be given. Mr Pohamba is likely to become Namibia’s next Prime Minister.

The fallout of the Zimbabwe programme has also proved controversial, with many allegations of party politics playing a role in the distribution.

There were claims that the process of distributing plots to those who wanted land discriminated against those who were believed to support opposition parties. In some cases, those supervising the process required applicants to demonstrate support for the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).

In July, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) blamed a mismanaged land reform programme, erratic rainfall, a shortage of quality seeds and deep poverty for a poor harvest in Zimbabwe. It estimated that the harvest was less than half of the government's prediction of 2.4 million tons of maize.

The FAO was ordered to leave the country before it could complete its investigation, however.