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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Digging for Hope in Land Reform

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Aug 12 2008 (IPS) - Through the difficulties facing the land reform process in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, glimmers of hope are emerging. The challenge now is to seek lessons which enable newly settled farmers to create a livelihood.

Strong demand for land for subsistence farming is not yet recognised by government policy in Southern Africa. Credit:  Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies

Strong demand for land for subsistence farming is not yet recognised by government policy in Southern Africa. Credit: Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies

Finding these lessons is the task of the 'Livelihoods after Land Reform' project, which focusses on the impact of land reform policies on poverty reduction and the way in which the livelihoods of resettled communities have been affected.

The three-year research project is funded by the UK-based Economic and Social Research Council and the UK government's Department for International Development.

Different paths

In Zimbabwe 'fast track' land reform resulted in 150,000 small scale farms and 15,000 larger, more commercial farms changing hands. It happened in a chaotic and often violent way, with the mostly white farmers being intimidated into leaving their land. In South Africa and Namibia redistribution is occurring in a more structured way – in South Africa people apply for land either through restitution (where people have a historical claim as they were removed from the land decades or centuries ago) or redistribution (where people apply for government grants to acquire land). Despite these differences, analysts agree the one common factor is that land reform policies have for the most part not been successful.

According to Ben Cousins, director of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), at the University of the Western Cape, and project leader, this can be attributed to many factors including a lack of planning, a lack of capacity development (governments did not invest in skills development or financial help for procuring fertiliser, seeds and irrigation) and a lack of infrastructure to get produce to markets.

"In Zimbabwe perhaps 5 percent of the land went to those with political ties. Another 15 percent went to civil servants or others with jobs in the urban economy. Peasant farmers got about 80 percent of the land and they are doing much better (than the rest). This could be because they farm in more labour intensive ways and are less dependent on purchased inputs and fuel which have been in short supply because of wider economic problems," Cousins said.

While Zimbabwe is widely regarded as an economic failure, some researchers see a ray of light emerging in the country's agricultural sector. According to Ian Scoones, a researcher at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, many farmers are doing surprisingly well.

"Sure, there have been failures, particularly in the areas where highly capitalised farming had been taken over, or where long-nurtured market relationships have been undermined such as in the tobacco or horticulture sector. Getting these back on track will take time and resources. But in other areas, where small-scale farmers have taken on land – against all the odds, including lack of credit, poor infrastructure and recurrent drought – many farmers with newly acquired land have been doing surprisingly well. They have been investing in new homes, growing herds of cattle and reaping substantial yields of crops in good rainfall years."

However, economic instability and hyperinflation has had a devastating impact on agriculture. Rising fuel and food costs have made the costs of inputs and transport prohibitive and credit sources have dried up. "This has undermined the establishment of new farming businesses, particularly on the small-scale commercial resettlements," said Scoones. "Those with lower input requirements and hooked into more localised exchange networks in the small scale farming resettlements have fared better, but even so, recent times have been very tough for everyone."

He added: "There are many positive dimensions to the Zimbabwean land reform and important lessons for the region including the real potential of small-scale agriculture, if it is given support. There is also potential for a dynamic entrepreneurial local economy with new players emerging in the market.

"There are multiple examples of success in Zimbabwe alongside the better documented examples of failure. But success must be nurtured and supported and this will only come with sustained political and economic stability."

Limited success

In South Africa, the failures of land reform have also been well documented. There are cases where groups of people have bought land but when they find no immediate success, members opt out leaving only a core group behind on the land; some new farmers let the land lie fallow as they became overwhelmed by the cost and unpredictable nature of farming; others lost interest due to a lack of government support.

But there have been a few success stories. One of these, said Michael Aliber, a researcher at PLAAS, was the case of 486 households who claimed restitution land of 1600 ha in the Munzhedzi area in the Limpopo Province. In the end only 170 of these claimant households moved into the area but 800 non-claimant households moved there as well. These people had no historic claim to the land, yet they set up business on plots of 50 m X 30 m.

"It seems as if the households who have a legal claim on the land accept the non-claimant families," said Aliber. "This proves that there is a strong demand for land for homestead purposes. These people are subsistence farmers who seem to be quite content. The irony is that this is not the kind of outcome envisioned by government who is more focused on establishing commercial farmers. Even though Munzhedzi is clearly working and there is a huge need for small plots, subsistence farming is not an acceptable concept to government and as yet there is no help for people who want only a small piece of land."

Namibia too has had more failures than successes. "Just after independence in 1990 a national land reform conference was held which lay the foundation for a peaceful land reform process," said land reform expert Willem Odendaal. "However, the land reform process is taking place much too slowly for most people."

Namibia is the most arid country in sub-Saharan Africa which means that there is limited agricultural potential – most farmers opt for livestock. Subsidies to farmers have shrunk and the competition in global markets has increased. Along with rising fuel costs, there is not much incentive for established farmers to keep on farming. There is also very little government initiative to support resettlement.

Yet many resettled farmers have been successful, despite the obstacles, said Odendaal. "For them it is also extremely important that they are now independent people who work for themselves."

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