Mugabe supporters
Supporters of Robert Mugabe cheer the president in Harare [Reuters]

In 2000 large areas of Zimbabwe's commercial farm land were invaded by land-hungry villagers, led by war veterans. What has happened since? What did the new settlers do with land? What are the future prospects? These are questions that have been explored in research over the past 13 years, and published in the 2010 book Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities, and updated in the new book Debating Zimbabwe's Land Reform, published this month.

Changes since 2000 have resulted in a radical change in Zimbabwe's agrarian structure. At the time of independence in 1980, over 15 million hectares were devoted to large-scale commercial farming, comprising around 6,000 farmers, nearly all of them white. This fell to around 12 million hectares by 1999, in part through a modest, but in many ways successful, land reform and resettlement programme. Since 2000 land reform has resulted in the transfer of around ten million hectares of land across 4,500 farms to over 175,000 households. If the 'informal' settlements, outside the official 'fast-track' programme are added, the totals are even larger.

In the international media and beyond, the accepted wisdom has been that land reform in Zimbabwe has been a tale of unmitigated disaster. Images of chaos, destruction and violence have dominated the coverage. However research into the controversial policy, and its effects, challenges this view.

We have looked in detail at the story of land reform across 16 sites and 400 households in Masvingo province in the south-east of the country. What comes through is the complexity, the differences, almost farm by farm: there is no single, simple story of the Zimbabwe land reform as sometimes assumed by press reports, political commentators, or indeed much academic study.

While not downplaying the violence, abuses and patronage that have occurred, we argue for a more balanced appraisal of the land reform, and encourage looking forward to the opportunities created by a new agrarian structure.

Our research, for example, shows that the agricultural economy has changed dramatically. Production of wheat, coffee and tea has all declined, as has the export of beef. The production of maize, the staple food crop, is now more variable, and imports have been frequently required. However, other crops, notably tobacco and cotton, have boomed, while small grain and edible bean production has also increased.

Nationally it is a mixed picture. Yet there is substantial agricultural production happening on the new smallholder farms, with substantial marketed surpluses are being produced especially in good rainfall years. In the new land reform areas, there is a core group of 'middle farmers' - around half of the population in the Masvingo study areas - who are generating surpluses from farming, and so are able to 'accumulate from below'. This represents an important economic momentum which needs to be capitalised upon.

With land reform there has been a restructuring of markets too. New connections are being forged, unleashing a dynamic entrepreneurialism in the rural areas. This needs support if the economic multiplier effects of smallholder land reform are to be fully realised.

There has also been significant investment in the new land, including the clearing of plots, the purchase of farm assets, the digging of wells and the building of homes. In addition, schools have been built, roads cut and dams dug. Nearly all of this has been through the effort of new settlers, as external assistance has been virtually non-existent.

If the new resettlements are to contribute not only to local livelihoods, but also national food security and broader economic development, they unquestionably require external investment and support - just as was done from the 1950s for white agriculture. This means infrastructure (dams, roads), financing (credit systems), input supply (fertilizer, seed), technology (intermediate and appropriate) and coordination mechanisms (institutions and policy) that allow agriculture to grow and be sustained.

Major future policy challenges include the guaranteeing of tenure security embedded in an effective land administration system, following a land audit to root abuses and corrupt practice. Investment in smallholder farming as a driver of economic growth must be a major priority.

The story of land reform in Zimbabwe is complex and varied. But it is often not what the standard media narratives suggest. There is much potential, as yet unrealised. For other southern African countries that inherited a highly skewed land ownership structure from the colonial period, there are many lessons to be learned.

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Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, and has worked in Zimbabwe for over 25 years. Keep up to date with developments on land and agriculture in Zimbabwe at