By Rick de Satgé, peer-reviewed by Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in Southern Africa. It borders on South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia. It has a population of 14.8 million. There are five natural regions. Almost 64% of the country falls into natural regions IV and V characterised by low rainfall, vulnerability to extreme weather events and limited livelihood opportunities.
Zimbabwe has a long and complex history of contestation over land stemming from colonial conquest and the establishment of colonial authority in Rhodesia. The transition to majority rule in Zimbabwe followed a protracted guerrilla war between the Rhodesian military and nationalist guerrilla forces. Political negotiations facilitated by Britain, as the colonial power resulted in the Lancaster House agreement and set the stage for elections and independence in 1980.
Despite land dispossession being a major impetus for the war, the independence Constitution protected settler land rights for a period of ten years. A market-based land reform programme based on the Willing Buyer-Willing Seller (WBWS) principle was adopted which was supposed to redress deeply unequal access to land. This programme made slow progress. By 1997 3,5 million hectares had been transferred to 70,000 families . Facing popular pressure, Zimbabwe sought to speed up land transfer through legal expropriation and began listing farms for state acquisition, but this proved unsuccessful. The government subsequently negotiated a second phase of the resettlement programme with donors. At the same time, the government came under pressure from land occupations in several parts of the country.
In 2000, twenty years after independence in a context of economic decline, mounting evidence of corruption in government and a serious challenge from an increasingly popular political opposition with a predominantly urban base, Zimbabwe’s political leadership launched the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP). This responded to popular discontent over the slow pace of land redistribution and would result in the forced occupation and confiscation of more than 10 million ha of land  from predominantly white landowners. which radically changed the agrarian structure in the country .
The combination of land occupations, the upsetting of property rights, the abrogation of the rule of law and the violent suppression of political opposition triggered punitive economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union. Notionally these targeted individuals within the ruling party, but in practice prompted disinvestment and capital flight. Zimbabwe experienced a deep economic crisis in which GDP/capita fell to its lowest level of US$ 356.69 in 2008 . The combination of political conflict, economic mismanagement, extreme hyperinflation and the increasing frequency of droughts and floods experienced over the past two decades have seen millions of Zimbabweans leave the country, an exodus estimated to comprise 75% of the national skills base .
There are widely differing analyses of the impacts of land reform. However, there is a body of rigorous longitudinal research that indicates that “the story is not simply one of collapse and catastrophe; it is much more nuanced and complex, with successes as well as failures” . However land issues in Zimbabwe are complex. They cannot be seen in isolation from processes to consolidate “a deeply authoritarian, violent and predatory state (which) has existed in Zimbabwe as a basis for political survival and as the foundation for asset accumulation by the ruling party, state and military elite” .
While there has been a substantial reallocation of agricultural land through the FTLRP, this has not been matched by improved support for small farmers, or tenure security. In 2018 the Zimbabwe Land Commission Land commenced an audit of the 300,000 subdivisions and farms comprising national agricultural land. The two phases completed to date have audited 70,000 land parcels, or a quarter of the land redistributed under the FTLRP. Reports on the preliminary audit findings have highlighted the “shambolic” nature of land allocation records which have been issued by different authorities across a variety of resettlement and land allocation schemes .
In 2020 Zimbabwe faced a renewed economic crisis with GDP having contracted by 8.1% in 2019, after a steady rise since 2008. The World Bank and other institutions have long suspended their lending programmes due to unpaid arrears. In September 2020, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe was running at 659.4%. The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have worsened food insecurity with UNICEF estimating that 4.3 million Zimbabweans in both rural and urban areas were in need of assistance .