The Cost of Zimbabwe’s Continuing Farm Invasions

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In the late 1990s, the government of Zimbabwe held aconference on land reform in Zimbabwe. The government,the interested parties (including the farmers), and internationalaid agencies reached a broad agreement. That agreement,however, was never implemented. In 2000, in an attempt todestroy the opposition, which derived much support from thecommercial farmers and their employees, the governmentbegan what it eventually called the “Fast Track LandReform” exercise.

Land Reform Ignored the Property Rights ofCommercial Farmers

The government justified the land reform to the rest ofthe world by arguing that it redressed historical injusticesand racial imbalances in the ownership of the land. The landreform ignored the prevailing legal situation with respect tofarm ownership. It also ignored the issue of fair and reasonablecompensation for assets taken over by the government.

The legal position was straightforward — commercialfarmers held full freehold title. In addition, over 80 percentof the farmers also held a “certificate of no interest” issuedby the Zimbabwe government. Under the Zimbabwean law,farmers who wished to sell their farms had to first offer themto the government at a market price. When the governmentdeclined to purchase such farms, it issued the farmers withthe “certificate of no interest” and the farmers could proceedto sell their farms on the open market. In fact, the governmentpurchased some 3.8 million hectares of farmland inthat way between 1980, the year of Zimbabwe’s formal independencefrom Great Britain, and the commencement of theland reform.

Farmers who held both the title and the certificates possessedan apparently unassailable legal right to the land andall the improvements they have made on that land. As such,they also had the right to be fully compensated when theirassets were taken over by the state.

Unfortunately, over the last nine years, the government“acquired” thousands of farms without paying market priceor, in many cases, any price to the farmers. To accomplishthat, the government changed the law every time a farmer ora group of farmers secured legal judgments in their favor.Eventually a group of Zimbabwean farmers took their caseto the Southern African Development Community’s LegalTribunal in Windhoek, Namibia. In 2008, those farmersobtained a decision instructing the government of Zimbabweto protect the farmers’ legal rights. The government, in spiteof being a signatory to the treaty creating the SADC LegalTribunal, ignored the ruling.

One small group of affected farmers also enjoyed the protectionof a “Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement“signed between the government of Zimbabwe and foreignfarmers. A group of farmers of Dutch origin, who had investedafter 1980 and who were protected by the BIPA, took their caseto the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In April2009, the Hague tribunal ruled in favor of the Dutch investorsand granted them nearly $22 million in compensation.

The attitude of the members of the Zimbabwean regimetoward the farm acquisitions was straightforward — they were“taking the farms” from their owners. No police protectionwas afforded to the farmers or their staff, and no interferencewith expropriation was permitted. In the majority of cases,force was used — mainly by groups of young, politicallymotivated thugs. Those thugs acted on behalf of the future“beneficiaries” of farm expropriations — mostly members ofPresident Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Once the ownersand their senior staff had been evicted, the new “owners“occupied the land and took advantage of the assets, includingcrops and livestock.

Many elderly and outstanding farmers were evicted inthat way — leaving some of them so traumatized that theynever recovered. One such farmer, Keith Harvey (aged 86),was evicted from his cattle ranch in the Midlands and subsequentlywent into a coma for two years. He eventually died.He was a former chairman of the Natural Resources Boardand a life‐​long conservationist. He was a fine cattleman, aperson of great integrity and totally committed to the countryof his birth. Many other farmers lost their lives — eitherdirectly or indirectly — as a result of expropriations.

The Staggering Costs of the Land Reform

To date, no proper estimate has been made of the financialcost of the land reform. Therefore, I asked economists inthe farming industry to come up with the numbers. Accordingto the Commercial Farmers’ Union, the total output ofthe agricultural industry in Zimbabwe in 2000 was 4.3 milliontons of agricultural products, worth, at today’s prices,some US$3.347 billion. This output has declined to just over1.348 million tons of products in 2009, worth some US$1billion — a decline of 69 percent in volume and a decline of70 percent in value.1

It is not often appreciated that smallholder farmers havebeen just as badly affected as the large‐​scale commercial farmers.Their production in 2008 was 73 percent lower than theirproduction in 2000. According to the government‐​appointedUtete Commission, during the first three years of land reform,some 250,000 people and their 1.3 million dependents wereforcibly displaced from commercial farms alone.2

In spite of those stunning figures, the farm invasions havecontinued with 480 new incidents of violence against farmersrecorded since the power‐​sharing agreement betweenMugabe’s ZANU-PF and the Movement for DemocraticChange was signed in September 2008. According to the CFU,even those farms that were granted legal protection by theSADC Tribunal were targeted — presumably as a punitivemeasure.

The international decisions in Windhoek and The Haguecreate very significant challenges for the new transitionalgovernment. Justice for Agriculture, an organization of commercialfarmers, estimates the total value of potential legalclaims at US$5 billion dollars — some 30 percent more thancurrent Zimbabwean gross domestic product.3

It is clear that the land reform had been a costly fail​ure​.In 2008, CFU estimates, over 90 percent of all productionfrom commercial farms came from the remaining largescalefarmers — the same farmers who are now being targeted.JAG claims that more than half of all the farms takenover by the state are now derelict and abandoned. Many ofthe individuals who are now “taking” farms are doing so forthe third or fourth time.

The combined costs of the land reform are staggering — they include US$2.8 billion in international food aid on anemergency basis, nearly US$12 billion in lost agriculturalproduction over 10 years, and a potential US$5 billion incompensation — a total of some US$20 billion.

It is time to give all farmers secure tenure that will enablethem to finance their operations properly. Such policies cannotbe implemented until the issue of the rights of the farm ownersis resolved and the issue of compensation addressed.


1. Personal communication with representatives of theCommercial Farmers’ Union.
2. Unpublished report by the Utete Commission.
3. Unpublished report by Justice for Agriculture.

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Eddie Cross

Eddie Cross is a Zimbabwean businessman and a Member of Parliament of Zimbabwe for the Movement for Democratic Change.