Changing views on Zimbabwe’s land reform
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Changing views on Zimbabwe’s land reform


Zimbabwe’s land reform of 2000 was central to President Robert Mugabe’s re-election campaign. Mugabe argued that he was putting right the wrongs inherited from the colonial era, when black Zimbabweans were forced from their land in favour of white settlers. After 2000, most of the country’s 4,000 white farmers were evicted from their land, which was handed over to about 200,000 black Zimbabwean households. The programme has been widely misunderstood, presented as disastrous and a universal failure, with land captured by political cronies left idle and unproductive. This narrative has dominated the media and many academic commentaries, and influenced policy thinking across the region. But without solid field-based evidence, was this position influenced by ideological positioning and misunderstanding? My name is Ian Scoones, from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. I’ve been working on changes in livelihoods following Zimbabwe’s land reform over the last 15 years. We wanted to find out what really happened through detailed work on the ground. Our detailed study of 400 households in the southeast of the country has uncovered a much more complex story. It builds on my long-term work in Zimbabwe on land and agrarian change, starting way back in 1985. ESRC funding has allowed sustained longitudinal research to track change and build evidence. The research asked: What actually happened to people’s livelihoods when they got the land? There have been many challenging and surprising findings. Contrary to media portrayals and other commentary, we found that many smallholders in the post-land reform resettlement areas have actually done rather well – investing in the land, building homes, accumulating cattle, employing workers and producing crops for sale and household food security. Our findings have been of wide interest both in Zimbabwe and the region. Many policymakers have become interested in our work, particularly in countries where highly skewed land distributions were inherited from the colonial era. With a wide group of stakeholders we produced books, journal articles, a weekly blog, booklets translated into the local language, and videos. We’ve also built research capacity with our Zimbabwean colleagues and students, stimulating new research. We’ve also influenced policy around such issues as food security assessments and resilience-building in smallholder farming areas. Fifteen years on there have been positive gains along with persistent problems, but we’ve built up a detailed picture of the consequences and implications of land reform with evidence-based research. It has helped inform debate and challenge myths and perceptions through an engagement with the realities on the ground.

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