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Critical thoughts on land repossession

Land was redistributed not on the basis of merit, but race and political allegiance. Redistributive justice was the basis of the land reform.

RECENT media reports stating that the government wants to repossess land from farmers, who are under-utilising it, left me with a sense of ambivalence.

It was almost inevitable that we would get to this point.

Land was redistributed not on the basis of merit, but race and political allegiance. Redistributive justice was the basis of the land reform.

You got land because you were a child of the soil. Be that as it may, the production imperative has always been part of the conversation.

After all, every country needs to be able to feed itself. Food sovereignty is a primary condition of nationhood.

But there is a problem. People do not become productive because they fear their land will be repossessed. People are not productive for a good reason. There must be other ways of looking at this problem.

In fact, I believe that the current crisis is less about productivity. It is a crisis of the farmer incentive system.

We can argue that government has provided free land and inputs to land reform beneficiaries. That should stimulate farmers to produce something.

But what is happening at the marketing end seems to undermine all the good work that the government has done to lift people out of hunger.

The markets are generally not working for the farmer. Prices of most agricultural commodity markets are dictated by buyers.

Farmers are trapped in slave-like contracts from which it is impossible to escape – middlemen, exchange rates manipulations and late payments contribute to the basic condition of farmer-as-slave.

The average primary producer gets almost nothing for their toil. This is why many abandon farming or grow crops to feed their own immediate families.

There can always be an argument that an agrarian reform is an iterative process. Policy options and institutional arrangements are fine-tuned as socio-technical processes and practices unfold, exposing the evidence for different policy alternatives.

Why do I have misgivings on the efficacy of the repossession policy?

First, we need to create a self-honing system. A person should cultivate because farming brings benefits to them as individuals, first and foremost.

While national benefit is critical, it must be but a secondary dividend to individual enterprise. That is the only way to sustain the business of farming.

We need to appeal to the individual self-interest: That appears to be how human nature works, at least according to the capitalistic logic of homo economicus, the economic man.

So how do you achieve that? Firstly, we achieve this by ensuring the availability of good markets for the primary producer. Farmers must get fair value for their crop.

Secondly, we achieve this through targeted farmer support. As currently practiced, government input-support programmes are largely captured by the elites because they are poorly targeted.

This leads to a wrong conclusion that the government has given people land and inputs, who cannot produce enough for the country and that it is  better to repossess the land. Another question revolves around the multi-functional value of land.

Land is not only used for agriculture. It has multiple uses. I raised this point in a previous article, questioning the ‘use it or lose it policy’.

Who determines that the land has been used? Using what and whose criteria and standards? Who determines the proper use of land, if such a thing exists?

If we remember that the ethos of the land reform was based on redistribution of the productive resource rather than on productivity. We then ask: Is that redistributive imperative under threat?

Some alternative ideas

The way I see it, a sustainable solution must revolve around giving people an opportunity to own their pieces of land.

This should involve (re)valuation of land. Existing land holders must be given an opportunity to work towards buying their land over a generous period of time.

This means each time you make a contribution payment towards buying your land, you are actually investing in the land. You are adding more value to the land. Even if you decide to leave farming, you can sell your ownership stake for the pro-rata value of your contribution to the total value of the piece of land.

Moreover, any improvement on the land is an investment that you can recoup if you ever decide to quit farming.

As things are, the incentive system is like saying: "Make use of the land or else it gets taken away". I do not believe that is a good incentive system.

In my opinion, there is need for a rethink of that policy. At best, it facilitates a gradual displacement of the rural poor. At worst, it can trigger a no-holds-barred rush of arbitrary, elite-capture-without-compensation land grabs.

Magwiroto is a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, Department of Community and Social Development, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Studies.

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