Use the land or lose it

As with all pioneers, Zimbabwe has discovered several unforeseen problems, the worse two being a desire by a small minority of new owners to copy the worst of the colonialists and grab as much land as possible and a desire by far too many to have “a piece of land” without any intention of seriously farming that land. The first problem, that of multiple farm ownership, has been the subject of audit reports. Action has already been taken and those who grabbed more than their fair share have been told to choose which farm they wish to keep and to surrender the rest of the land to others still in the queue. There seems little doubt that this problem, while dominating headlines, is not widespread and is not going to be difficult to sort out. Consolidation of provincial records into a single national database as leases are granted will close the loopholes exploited by a small group. The second problem, of gross underuse or even zero use of granted farms, is more widespread and is likely to produce more headaches as the authorities refine the reforms. After all one man’s underuse is another man’s modest start to a new way of life. This problem is largely confined to what are known as the A2 farms, reasonably-sized subdivisions of 100 to 200 acres carved out of the old large commercial farms. The significantly smaller A1 farms were designed for those with few or no assets and were meant to end the intolerable overcrowding of many communal areas, the successors of the old native reserves. Most of those assigned A1 farms come from the communal lands, have a background of farming on family plots and live on their farms. The A2 farms were designed for those prepared to invest in what must be described as the business of commercial farming. Applicants had to produce proof of assets that they could invest, or could borrow against, and produce business plans. Some had real assets, knowledge of farming and business, and were determined to seize the opportunity to build on what was already there to create highly productive modest farms. This group, with the good rains of the season just ending, are now viable and generating profits for re-investment. All they really need now is the security of a lease and they are unlikely to be disappointed. A second group were woefully optimistic about how much cash they could mobilise, over-estimated their skills or were caught short by the hyperinflation that hit Zimbabwe as land reform took off. But quite a few of this group have made an honest attempt to at least start farming even if they are using only a small fraction of their land. Some are never going to be able to make a go of the larger A2 farms and should be re-allocated an A1 farm. Others simply need the chance to build up the farm over a number of years. An obvious test to decide who belongs to which group would be to examine investment records. Those who have been unable to increase their investment in most years clearly are never going to be able to grow while those who have expanded their area under crops each year and have put in more money most years simply need time. The third group comprises those who never had any serious intention of farming. As the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Dr Gideon Gono, has vehemently noted they either just wanted a place in the countryside where they could drive to most weekends and have a braai or they simply wanted to loot what was there and then effectively abandon the farm. There is nothing wrong in wanting a weekend or retirement cottage in the countryside. This is a dream of many, and not just in Africa. The only problem is that some of these dreamers are tying up large areas of productive farmland that they do not intend to cultivate. The dreamers could easily be catered for with small plots, one to five acres would be ample. Such plots already exist, both formally and informally. It should not be difficult to survey more such plots and even sell leases to raise money to back the real farmers. The general problem of unused, misused or under-used A2 farms can be solved simply through a policy that requires land holders to use their land or lose their land. It should not tax the ingenuity of a legal mind to place such a condition in the leases that are to be granted this year. Other countries, ranging from Australia to Zambia, that prefer leasing farmland rather than granting freehold, insert conditions in their leases to ensure that farmland is actually farmed. Zimbabwe and other African countries embarking on land reform can easily do the same. What would be intolerable is if those granted farms adopted the worst of the colonial attitudes, to have land for status, not use. We say there are no political benefits in allowing lazy layabouts to hold on to land when capable or more enthusiastic farmers are crying out for land.

April 2006
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