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Use it or lose it, a fatal policy flaw

Recent media reports of farm evictions and land ownership wrangles have alerted us once again to unresolved issues post-land reform. The crux of the matter is security of tenure.

Security of tenure must play an important role in agricultural renewal. However, what constitutes “secure” tenure is contested. This is expected, not least because of differences in interpretive filters, interests and aspirations. In this article, I try to untangle the different understandings of “secure tenure”, and ask questions that may hopefully guide us in resolving the contradictions.

A good starting point in analysing this issue is to ask: what is security of tenure and why is it important? In common language, security of tenure defines the degree to which someone has permanent rights of ownership of an asset, and the conditions under which such rights subsist.

However, it is important to note that security is a continuum, from the precarious hold of invaded territory, to common regimes such as Tribal Trust Lands of old, to freehold title etc. The common understanding is that the most secure tenure is the one that is institutionalised as “individual title deed”.

However, borne out in our recent history, security does not reside in the legal fact of title deeds per se. It lies in the human attributes of fairness, shared community and knowledgeable action. In other words, these are the conditions that must guarantee security.

Others have sought to go round the question of security of tenure and have said let us talk about “access” instead. But on deeper analysis, even when we talk of security of tenure, we are in fact talking about specific regimes of access to a resource.

So when you talk about security of tenure, you are talking about a specific form of access. So, whether one prefers to talk about security of tenure or access to land, the same questions apply. How secure is your access to that land? Can it be inherited by your descendants?

Can you do with it as you please, within common rules? Can you make long-term plans and invest long-term on it? Can you act in your self-interest and not worry about someone policing you to do this or that? In other words, do you have independent, exclusive use of that resource?

These questions become particularly interesting if you interrogate the government’s “Use it or lose it” policy. For a start, “use” is a vague word. It needs to be defined and qualified.

What is to “use”? What do I need to do to be judged that I have used the land? Who judges that I have used it? Does it just apply to quantitative issues? How about qualitative issues — conservation for example? What if I want to get into agricultural tourism, and I am experimenting with different forms of land use that require long fallow periods? Does that qualify as use or it will be deemed “underutilisation”? What is the evidence of use? How do you identify unused land? Do you do a walkabout?

We have seen some very productive farmers lose their land. You would think that “using” it would guarantee security of tenure. But that is obviously not the case. In fact most land wrangles have nothing to do with “use” per se, but with ownership. In other words, using something presumes some form of exclusive access to it. But then if my access is not secure, how am I to use it? And if I am not guaranteed long-term use, do I have to be worried about the long-term integrity of that resource?

Currently, there is nothing in the “use it or lose it” framework that stops a more powerful individual coming in to hound me off my land, Wild-West style. In short, “use it or lose” does not address security of tenure, and that’s a fatal policy flaw.

Security of tenure needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Short-term fixes, ambiguities and ambivalence make for a shaky foundation.

Short-term policies promote exploitative and destructive extractive practices. People must feel that they own the land on which they are resettled. This promotes the kinds of investment that must surely lead to attainment of a prosperous upper middle income society by 2030.

Ultimately, the answers must lie within our national and individual aspirations, and our disciplined commitment to those aspirations. Vision 2030 talks about Zimbabwe being a prosperous upper-middle-income society by 2030. Productivity on land is key to the attainment of such an ambitious vision, but it must be premised and conditional upon fairness, shared community and knowledgeable action. We must be pragmatic: there must be no space for demagoguery, opportunism and anarchism.

There is no magic formula to building a prosperous and inclusive society: only organisation, discipline and sound ideas will take us there. – Zimbabwe Independent


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