Where the blame should lie for the failure to change the racially skewed nature of land ownership in Zimbabwe over the two decades since minority rule was ended has been a key point in diplomatic interactions over the current land crisis. Zimbabwe received financial assistance for land reform during the 1980s and 1990s from various governments. But conditions were put on the way that the money handed over could be used. The British government in particular, the former colonial power responsible for brokering the agreement that led to the 1980 transition to majority rule, has been protective of white farming interests in Zimbabwe and in the early years insisted on a market-based land redistribution policy. The World Bank, another key donor, has itself acknowledged that the Economic Structural Adjustment Plan for Zimbabwe embarked on at its recommendation in 1991 had damaging social consequences, in particular by increasing poverty.

Fast Track Land Reform In Zimbabwe

The "fast track" land resettlement program implemented by the government of Zimbabwe over the last two years has led to serious human rights violations. The program's implementation also raises serious doubts as to the extent to which it has benefited the landless poor. The stated aim of the fast track program is to take land from rich white commercial farmers for redistribution to poor and middle-income landless black Zimbabweans. Under the program, however, ruling party militias, often led by veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war, have carried out serious acts of violence against farm owners, farm workers, and, using occupied farms as bases for attacks, against residents of surrounding areas. The police have done little to halt such violence, and in some cases are directly implicated in the abuses. The process of allocating plots to those who want land has frequently discriminated against those who are believed to support opposition parties, and in some cases those supervising the process have required applicants to demonstrate support for the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). Zimbabwe's several hundred thousand farm workers have been largely excluded from the program, and many have lost their jobs, driven from the farms where they work by violence or laid off because of a collapse in commercial agricultural production. Even those people allocated plots on former commercial farms appear in many cases to have little security of tenure on the land, leaving them vulnerable to future partisan political processes or eviction on political grounds, and further impoverishment.

The need for land reform in Zimbabwe is generally acknowledged, even by representatives of the commercial farming sector. Colonial policies of expropriation gave a few thousand white farmers ownership of huge tracts of arable land. About 4,500 large-scale commercial farmers still held 28 percent of the total land at the time the fast track program was instituted; meanwhile, more than one million black families eke out an existence in overcrowded, arid "communal areas," the land allocated to Africans by the colonial regime. Farm workers, many of whom are of foreign descent, have little or no access to land on their own account, and are also vulnerable to arbitrary eviction from their tied accommodation. Many poor and middle-income black people in urban areas, squeezed by rocketing food and transport price hikes and growing unemployment since the mid-1990s, see land as an alternative source of income and food security. Many land restitution claims relating to forced removals during the era of the white government have also not been addressed. These factors create a significant land hunger in Zimbabwe.

This report considers the human rights implications of the so-called fast track process of land redistribution in Zimbabwe, under which the government has revised the constitution and amended legislation in order to allow it to acquire commercial farms compulsorily and without compensation, and the land occupations that have accompanied it since early 2000. We focus on the violence that has accompanied the land occupations of the last two years, on the discrimination on political grounds that has accompanied the allocation of new plots, and on adverse effects that the fast track land reform process has had for one of the constituencies which was supposed to benefit: the rural poor.

As has been widely reported, war veterans and associated Zanu-PF militia occupying commercial farms have intimidated, assaulted, and in at least seven cases killed white farm owners in the course of occupying commercial farms. A much larger number of victims have come from among farm workers on commercial farms; several tens of farm workers have been killed. In addition, Human Rights Watch collected numerous testimonies indicating that commercial farms are being used as bases for war veterans and Zanu-PF militia to intimidate alleged opposition supporters in neighboring communal areas. Our findings confirmed the reports of Zimbabwean and other international human rights organizations that the police have at best failed to take action against the alleged perpetrators of violent crimes, and in some cases have actively assisted illegal actions. The army, too, has played a role in organizing and facilitating the occupations, without providing any check on the violence.

The desire for land is evident from numerous testimonies, including from people who support opposition parties which have officially opposed the current process. In particular, those who work the land on the commercial farms often have no land of their own or alternative livelihoods. Yet, according to many witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch the process of land distribution itself raises serious concerns. The first problem they identified was the party-political control of access to the forms for applying for land and partisan discrimination in the allocation of plots. The second was the key role of the war veterans' Zanu-PF militias in distributing and allocating land, the same militias that are responsible for violence and intimidation against many who might otherwise apply for a plot. A third was the general exclusion of farm workers from the benefits of land redistribution. Although there is an official structure for allocating land through the civil service and elected officials, in many cases this system is superseded by informal processes governed by the war veterans, who may require demonstrated loyalty to Zanu-PF before allocating a plot. Working in concert with the ruling party militias, the police and army were identified as coordinating some of the land occupations.

Some people from communal areas who genuinely need land to raise themselves out of poverty, as well as some middle class people from urban areas who wish and have the capabilities to enter commercial farming, have been among those who have obtained access to land for the first time. The extent to which real need has been a criterion is difficult to assess because of the difficulties of accessing fast track resettlement areas or talking to the ruling party militia often led by war veterans that control most resettlement areas. Nevertheless, the testimonies we received raise issues concerning the politicized nature of beneficiary selection and thus about the extent to which fast track land resettlement is really benefiting those who most need land.

Because the "fast track" process of resettlement is being carried out so rapidly, short-circuiting legal procedures, some of those who have moved onto new plots or those who might otherwise do so, expressed concern about the lack of certainty that their title to land will be secure. Others who want land have not taken up the opportunity because they do not have the resources to plow the land and because there is little if any government support to assist new settlers. The absence of legal security and government assistance could leave them vulnerable to hunger and displacement. Development organizations following the crisis in Zimbabwe have noted that the disruption to commercial agriculture caused by fast track resettlement has endangered food security in Zimbabwe, usually a maize exporter.

In many ways, those most disadvantaged by the fast track land reform program are landless farm workers: large numbers of farm workers have been laid off from paid work; yet farm workers have not been among the groups targeted to benefit from land reallocations. Those who are descendants of Zambians, Malawians or Mozambicans brought to Zimbabwe as indentured labor during the colonial period may have additional difficulty in accessing the fast track resettlement schemes. Despite government commitments to addressing gender inequality in land distribution, women, whose rights to land under customary law are weak, have also failed to benefit proportionately from the fast track process.


The government has defied court orders requiring the police to remove those occupying farms where land was not acquired in accordance with procedures set down in the law and flouted the court ruling that commercial farmers be allowed to continue operations. It has interfered with judicial independence, in particular by forcing resignations from the Supreme Court, after the court ruled the "fast track" land reform program unconstitutional, and replacing judges with individuals perceived to be loyal to the ruling party. The new court accepted the government's arguments that the rule of law had been restored to land reform by legislation attempting to retroactively validate occupations carried out in violation of legal procedures.

The fast track program has thus violated rights to equal protection of the law, nondiscrimination, and due process. The violence accompanying land occupations has created fear and insecurity on white-owned commercial farms, in black communal areas, and in "fast track" resettled areas, and threatens to destabilize the entire Zimbabwean countryside.

Where the blame should lie for the failure to change the racially skewed nature of land ownership in Zimbabwe over the two decades since minority rule was ended has been a key point in diplomatic interactions over the current land crisis. Zimbabwe received financial assistance for land reform during the 1980s and 1990s from various governments. But conditions were put on the way that the money handed over could be used. The British government in particular, the former colonial power responsible for brokering the agreement that led to the 1980 transition to majority rule, has been protective of white farming interests in Zimbabwe and in the early years insisted on a market-based land redistribution policy. The World Bank, another key donor, has itself acknowledged that the Economic Structural Adjustment Plan for Zimbabwe embarked on at its recommendation in 1991 had damaging social consequences, in particular by increasing poverty. The donor community also raised various problems with the way in which the funds provided for land redistribution were disbursed-not least that among the recipients of commercial farmland appropriated under land reform measures were a number of senior political leaders. The Zimbabwean government countered the arguments not least on the basis that the money paid was as a matter of historical obligation rather than development assistance. The international donor community thus does not come with clean hands to the current fast track land reform process.

The response of other African countries to Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has been strongly shaped by the history of southern Africa, and the long struggle for an end to colonial and white minority rule. Issues of control over land resonate forcefully in South Africa and Namibia, in particular. Other African states have often supported the Zimbabwe government in its allegations that the response of Britain, in particular, to the land crisis, is essentially racist.

At least partly as a consequence of this history, the strong criticism of the fast track program voiced by the British, the European Union (E.U.), and the United States, among others, has not been matched by similar statements from Zimbabwe's African neighbors. In late 2001, however, both the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and in particular the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) began to take a stronger-though often inconsistent-line in criticizing the disorder and economic chaos unleashed by fast track land redistribution and other developments, and urging President Mugabe to restore the rule of law to the land reform program and the elections scheduled for March 2002. At the same time, many African states have publicly disapproved of sanctions against Zimbabwe introduced by the E.U. and U.S. The Commonwealth, which brings together both rich and poor former colonies of Britain, has been more outspoken, though often divided along racial lines.

Colonial policies of expropriation established ownership patterns in which white farmers in Zimbabwe possess large, fertile farms while black rural dwellers barely subsist. There is an urgent and long-standing need to change these unequal and race-based patterns of land occupation; and there are well-developed plans approved by the government of Zimbabwe setting out the means to do so. But the fast track land resettlement program sidesteps these, while laying down an infrastructure for rural violence and intimidation that subordinates development plans to political ends. New kinds of hardship and insecurity are being created for rural Zimbabweans, including in many cases the intended beneficiaries of land reform. While international attention has focused on the plight of white farm owners and on the consequences of illegal expropriations of land for property rights and the macro-economy, it is poor, rural, black, people who have suffered most from the violence that has accompanied the fast track process.

It is important that the rule of law be restored to the land reform program; not for the protection of existing commercial farming interests, but to ensure that redistribution of land is carried out fairly and to bring an end to state-sponsored violence and impunity for violent crime. Legal safeguards are imperative to ensure that land redistribution does not result in further discrimination and human rights abuses against those who are supposed to benefit from it. At the same time, there has to be recognition that the fast track land reform program has created new facts on the ground in Zimbabwe. It cannot be a solution to the current crisis simply to use the same arbitrary and violent methods to evict new settlers from the land. Once some sort of stability has been restored, and violence ended, the competing claims of commercial farmers, farm workers, new settlers, and the state to land must be arbitrated by an impartial tribunal with authority to adjudicate disputes over land and allocate title fairly. The international donor community should give generous assistance to efforts to ensure a sustainable settlement to the land question in Zimbabwe.

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During a month-long research visit in the rural areas of Zimbabwe in July 2001, Human Rights Watch interviewed farm workers, farm owners, villagers from communal areas, and settlers in areas resettled during the 1980s, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in rural communities and academics concerned with land reform. We interviewed some people in "fast track" resettlement areas, though not as many as we would have wished, due to the difficulty of visiting those areas in the face of threats from government party militia. Testimonies were taken in five provinces: Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East, Mashonaland West, Manicaland, and Matabeleland South. Amnesty International also generously shared with us several testimonies collected during their own missions to Zimbabwe. The report does not describe the general situation of violence and other harassment against the political opposition, in connection with the parliamentary or presidential election campaigns, except insofar as it is related to the fast track reforms.

Originally appeared in Human Rights Watch.