Are communal areas in Zimbabwe too poor for development?

Communal areas are where the majority of rural people live in Zimbabwe. With an estimated population of 1.1 million households and a land area of 16.4 million hectares, these areas far exceed those allocated land in the resettlements. This blog has largely focused on what has happened in the post 2000 land reform resettlements, which amount to around 8 million ha with about 175,000 households across A1 and A2 areas. But what about the relations between these areas; what are the implications for development?

This is the first in a series of nine blogs that will run over the next weeks that reflects on the situation in the communal areas, and compares this to resettlement areas, based on our on-going research in Masvingo province.

As argued on this blog before, Zimbabwe’s ‘second republic’ must focus on rural development if the economy is to be regenerated and livelihoods are to be sustained. In 2018, rural people voted en masse for ZANU-PF (outside parts of Manicaland and Matabeleland North), so the party must deliver. So far it is failing. But in order to deliver, policymakers need to understand the constraints, challenges and opportunities of rural settings.

In the past, this blog has identified a range of policy priorities, and suggested some key requirements for land policy in particular, mostly focused on the ‘new’ resettlements. Too often politicians and those based in urban areas or the diaspora dismiss rural areas as backward and desperate, mired in poverty. Alternatively such places are idealised as ‘the village’, where traditions are sustained. But these places are complex, with diverse populations, and with different needs.

A1 resettlements vs communal areas: big contrasts

To shed light on some of these issues, I have been delving into the data we collected in 2017-18 in a number of communal areas in Masvingo. Each site is close to one of our long-term A1 sites that we have been tracking since the early 2000s. Our sites therefore range from dryland areas in the Lowveld to relatively higher potential areas in Masvingo and Gutu districts further north.

As discussed in an earlier blog series, we are interested in whether the land reform areas, with larger land allocations, more assets and a different population profile, are doing better than their communal area neighbours, or whether the A1 areas are essentially an extension of communal area poverty and underdevelopment.

Our earlier analysis found on nearly all criteria that the A1 areas were doing better. Significant numbers of people were accumulating, and investing in productive assets on their farms. Six years on, what has happened? We returned to the same sites and households in Mwenezi district, Chivi, Gutu West and Gutu North.

The blogs that follow will look at a sample of 608 households (excluding 77 farms that had been abandoned since 2011-12). In particular they will examine land and its use, crop and livestock production and marketing, differentiated asset ownership and investment, labour hiring and employment, as well as the range of off-farm income earning activities in these communal areas, comparing them with our findings from the adjacent resettlement areas in our core study.

The data reveal variations across and within sites, showing differentiation by location and across social groups. The characterisation of these areas as poor holds up, but we also see great enterprise and diversity of livelihoods. Some are able to invest relatively limited returns in new assets (the numbers of cars purchased in some areas was a surprise, as was the number of tractors in Mwenezi) and, despite the state of the public education system, many prioritise paying for school fees as a core expenditure from crop and livestock sales.

Comparing the data to those in the A1 areas nearby, however, we do not see sustained accumulation from farm production, and reliance on external support, including remittances and off-farm work, is the norm. Hiring of labour is limited and a dynamic economy driven by agriculture is not evident. For sure, there are a few who are doing well – those with large herds of cattle in the dryland areas, or those able to produce significant quantities of maize in the higher rainfall areas. These are the ‘hurudza’ of contemporary times and are important people within kin and village networks, supporting others. But the data show these isolated cases and, in everywhere but Mwenezi, not part of a wider economic dynamism.

Because of large land areas, Mwenezi is in some ways more like a resettlement area, with opportunities for accumulation seen if rainfall is good (as was the case in the two years we have recent data for), as crop yields on the relatively good Lowveld soils can be substantial. With grazing plentiful, livestock production is possible too, and proximity to the border with South Africa means trading and jobs across the border is also an option. As the data show, Mwenezi is in some respects a different economic system – more variable, but with greater opportunity – compared with the more conventional, highly resource constrained communal area sites to the north.

Links to the resettlement areas: a territorial perspective

In our interviews, we discussed the links between the four communal areas and the resettlements nearby. The results are interesting. They highlight both cooperative and conflictive relationships. The land reform areas are seen as sources of food (to purchase or via support from relatives), grazing (either through loaning arrangements of animals from the communal area to relatives or others in the resettlement or where surplus grazing can be made use of by communal area cattle) and work (through labour hiring practices of the new farmers). These areas, reclaimed through land reform, are also important for culture and identity. In all cases people identified sites where people have been reconnected with religious and grave sites, previously protected as part of private land under the control of large-scale commercial farmers.

Conflicts also occur, and disputes over grazing access and boundaries were highlighted most frequently. Given that there are many people in the resettlements who originally come from the nearby communal areas, conflicts are usually resolved easily. When things escalate, local councillors, and even the police are drawn upon. Many resettlement sites originally had surplus resources, with fewer people and large grazing areas. This is changing as populations grow and more people settle (often illegally) in the resettlements, so disputes are increasing, people say.

Seeing the communal areas as part of a wider economic system is important. These areas were established originally in the colonial era as ‘labour reserves’. With the collapse of the wider economy and the change in the employment market since structural adjustment in the 1990s, the relationships between the rural and urban, and the role of circular migration has changed.

Today, communal areas now must be seen more in terms of their relationships with surrounding land use and economic activity – notably the linkages with both A1 and A2 resettlements, and the small towns, now often booming, that are in rural areas. With the removal of the stark separation between large-scale, mostly white-owned commercial farms and the communal areas removed, the racial, political landscape has changed. This has important implications for economic development.

As several blogs in this series argue – and as has been discussed here before – thinking about local economic development is key. The communal areas may be too poor to develop by themselves, but as a source of labour, markets, service needs and some production, they are important in local economies. Development planning and investment needs to take a wider view, and not just invest in small agricultural projects in communal areas in the hope of a transformation, but think about linkages, synergies and connections, in ways that connect communal areas with resettlements and small towns.

In the forthcoming blogs, I will discuss these questions in relation to particular themes. The bottom line is that investing in production, marketing and economic growth in most communal areas is severely constrained. Where these opportunities open up is when we look at the communal area in relation to the land reform areas nearby, as part of a spatial, territorial approach to economic development. Communal areas are certainly poor, but not too poor for development: thinking more broadly about linkages and connections across a territory is essential.

This post is the first in a series of nine and was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

This field research was led by Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene. Data entry was undertaken by Tafadzwa Mavedzenge.