Leases will help revive farming

This is a vital step towards recapitalising agriculture, since few will sink money into dams or fences or tobacco barns without good security of tenure, and banks are notoriously wary of lending money without a piece of paper in the manager’s safe that can be turned into cash almost instantly.

The actual form of the lease will need to be thought out very carefully for there are several desirable goals that leases can ensure, and many undesirable results if a lease is poorly worded.

The first goal is obviously security of tenure, and that almost any lease will grant. But, a lease also has to be transferable, firstly to the heirs of the lessee and secondly needs to be able to be sold and bought.

Unless some care is taken this transferability will see the gradual accumulation, once again, of much of the better land into far too few hands. The previous ownership pattern was made worse by most of these large holdings being held by whites, but land reform went far beyond just changing 4 000 names on title deeds. It would be just as undesirable if the bulk of Zimbabwe’s better land was held by just 4 000 blacks. A vital natural resource would once again be reserved for use by a small and privileged minority.

The problem can be solved by a clause in a lease that reserves the right of the Government to approve a sale of this lease.

The obvious way of enforcing the one-man-one-farm rule is to couple such a condition in the lease with a database of farms and farm owners. Only those who do not have a farm, or who sign an agreement to dispose of their present farm, will be able to buy such a lease. This will allow a farmer to will his farm to his children, and will allow a bank to sell a lease to someone on the qualified list, all that is really required from transferability.

Leases also need to have conditions enforcing the requirement that the land is actually farmed, and not left idle or used as a status symbol.

Neither the concept of all, or almost all, farmland being held through lease rather than freehold nor having conditions barring multiple ownership or enforcing use should present a problem. Many other countries have gone down this path.

Paradoxically, considering the opposition Australia has led to Zimbabwean land reform, that country has kept the vast bulk of its farmland in State ownership leasing it out to those who think will use it properly. And Australia has not been shy of using threats of non-renewal to push through desirable results. After World War II some lessees of huge estates were persuaded to surrender large chunks of land that were leased out to returning soldiers in return for longer leases on the remainder.

Leasing land, rather than selling it, does have the advantage of keeping some control over use and ensuring that those allowed to use it are the groups a State is trying to help.

So long as leases are long enough, and Zimbabwe is ready for 99-year leases, to give security of tenure for at least three generations, most farmers will be prepared to invest seriously in assets, either building anew or repairing barns and the like already on the land.

The Zimbabwean land reform programme is being watched closely throughout the region. It will be necessary to get it right before others follow suit.

June 2006
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