The Cost of the Farm Invasions

In the late 90’s the Government of Zimbabwe held a conference on land reform in Zimbabwe. Broad agreement was reached between the State, the stakeholders and international aid agencies but the agreement was never implemented. Two years later, in an attempt to destroy the opposition base on commercial farms, the State began what it eventually called the 'Fast Track Land Reform' exercise.

They justified this programme to the rest of the world by arguing that they were redressing historical injustices and racial imbalances in the ownership of the land. The reform programme ignored the legal situation prevailing in respect to farm ownership and it also ignored the issue of fair and reasonable compensation for assets taken over by the State.

The legal position was quite straight forward - commercial farmers held full freehold title and in over 80 per cent of cases, also held a 'certificate of no interest' issued by the Zimbabwe government allowing them to buy the farms on the open market after 1980. Such a requirement was mandatory - in order to enable the State to acquire the farms if they so wished, on a willing seller, willing buyer basis. Some 3,8 million hectares of farmland was in fact acquired in this way since 1980.

Farmers holding both the title and the certificates held an unassailable legal right to the land and all improvements. By so doing they held the right to receive in full, the market value of such assets when they were sold, less any bond obligations to banks.

In the following 8 years, thousands of farms were 'acquired' with the regime changing the law every time a farmer or group of farmers secured legal judgements in their favour. Eventually a group of farmers took their case to the SADC Legal Tribunal in Windhoek, Namibia where they initially obtained a decision saying that they had the right to go to the Tribunal on the issue (the State had apposed the action) and subsequently secured a ruling in favour of the farmers - instructing the Government of Zimbabwe to protect the farmers legal rights.

One small group of affected farmers also enjoyed the protection of a 'Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement' signed between the Government of Zimbabwe and the farmers home Government. A group of farmers of Dutch origin who had invested after Independence and were protected by the BIPA took their case to the international Courts in the Hague. Last week the highest legal tribunal in the world ruled in favour of the Dutch investors and granted them nearly 22 million dollars in compensation, payable in 90 days.

The attitude of the regime towards the farm acquisitions was quite straight forward. They were 'taking the farms' from their owners. They simply went to a nominated agency or individual and obtained an 'offer letter' which then allowed the 'beneficiary' the right to take occupation. No protection was afforded to the owner or his staff and no interference was permitted, as the operation was considered 'political'. In the majority of cases force was used - mainly in the form of groups of young, politically motivated thugs who acted on behalf of the 'beneficiary'. Once the owners and their senior staff had been evicted, the new farmers took occupation and took advantage of the assets and even standing crops and livestock on the farms.

Many elderly and outstanding farmers were evicted in this way - leaving some of them so traumatised that they never recovered. One such farmer, Keith Harvey, was evicted from his cattle ranch in the midlands and subsequently went into a cationic coma for two years before he eventually died. He was a former chairman of the Natural Resources Board and a life long conservationist. A fine cattleman and a person of great integrity and commitment to the country of his birth.

But no estimate has yet been made of just what the disruption of commercial farms has cost us and I asked economists in the farming industry to let me have the numbers. Even I was shocked by the statistics. In 2000 the total output of the agricultural industry in Zimbabwe was 4,3 million tonnes of agricultural products worth at today’s prices US$3,347 billion. This has declined to just over 1,348 million tonnes of products in 2009 worth US$1 billion - a decline of 69 per cent in volume and a decline of 70 per cent in value.

What is often not appreciated is that smallholder farmers have been just as badly affected by the collapse of the industry as the large scale commercial farmers. Their production in the past season is estimated to have decline by 73 per cent over that achieved in the year 2000. This is on top of the forced displacement and loss of employment for 250 000 people and their 1,3 million dependents on commercial farms.

Despite these stunning figures the farm invasions have continued with 480 incidents on remaining farms recorded since the GPA was signed in September last year. Even those farms that were granted legal protection by the SADC Tribunal have been specifically targeted on a punitive basis by the elements that are carrying on with this illegal activity and in fact are openly defying the SADC decisions. The international decision is enforceable and creates very significant challenges for the new Transitional Government. Estimates put the total value of potential legal claims at US$5 billion dollars, some 30 per cent more than current GDP.

It is quite clear that the reform programme pursued by the Zanu PF led regime since 1998 has been a costly failure. This is demonstrated when it is appreciated that over 90 per cent of all production from commercial farms in the past season has emanated from the remaining large scale farmers who are now being disrupted. There are reports that over half of all the farms taken over are in fact now derelict and abandoned. Many of the individuals now 'taking' farms are doing so for the third or fourth time. The fact that sugar production in the lowveld, on highly developed irrigation estates, has declined by 35 per cent - almost all of the decline outside of the control of the core Estates of Triangle and Hippo is due to illegal land occupations.

It is time to accept that the past policies on land have been a failure and that it is time to rethink and to put policies in place that will give all farmers security and enable then to finance their operations properly. Such policies cannot be implemented until the issue of the rights of farm owners is resolved and the issue of compensation addressed. The combined costs of the folly of the land invasions are staggering - they include US$2,8 billion in international food aid on an emergency basis, nearly US$12 billion in lost agricultural production over 10 years and now a potential bill for US$5 billion in compensation - a total of US$20 billion dollars.

And now we are asking for billions of dollars to fix this self-inflicted damage - its bizarre.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 28th April 2009