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Promised Land in Zimbabwe and Venezuela

By Alexandra Reihing | June 11, 2007

Poor urban Zimbabweans were dumped in
the countryside during Operation
Murambatsvina (Drive Out Trash). Photo
by Sokwanele (CC).

Land tenure has been an issue in Zimbabwe since the country's formal independence from Britain in 1980, which left 70 percent of the arable land in the hands of 4,500 white commercial farmers. Despite later international support and aid donated for the purpose of correcting this imbalance, land reform was never fully undertaken by President Robert Mugabe until recently.

Mugabe's government, under pressure from grassroots movements, liberation war veterans, the international community, and the political opposition, finally undertook land reform in 2001 to distribute "not less than 8.3 million hectares of land" to poor and middle-income landless blacks.

But much of the land was granted to Mugabe's government cronies and war veterans in exchange for continued support of his rule. These new landowners, unlike the previous white owners, are uninterested in farming. Farm workers and women, the two largest landless groups, were not beneficiaries of the policy.

Even the land granted to poor blacks remained fallow in many cases, due to insufficient support and lack of tools, equipment, and agricultural training from the government. Zimbabwe earned the reputation for being "Africa's breadbasket" in the 1990s due to the success of its staple crop, corn. But the destruction of white-owned commercial farms, which produced 80 percent of the country's food, means that it now relies on outside food donations to sustain the malnourished population.

As a response to decreased agricultural and manufacturing production, capital flight, and continued pressure to keep up with interest premiums on foreign debt, Mugabe began printing more money in hopes of fixing the problem. Steadily increasing since 2002, inflation reached 3,714 percent in April 2006. Unemployment reached about 80 percent. Today a loaf of bread costs 5,000 Zimbabwean dollars, making it the most expensive loaf of bread in the world.

In a different part of the world, another country is carrying out land reform. Venezuela's history with land reform goes back to the Agrarian Reform Law of 1960. With the election of Hugo Chavez and the drafting of a new pro–land reform constitution in 1999, land reform once again came to the forefront of politics.

A 2001 law laid the groundwork for the redistribution of both publicly and privately held land. The law states that the government can requisition idle land of a certain size and quality as long as it provides compensation for landowners. In 2001, 80 percent of the land was owned by 5 percent of the population. By 2004, 2 million hectares of government land had been redistributed. Problems have arisen, however, due to the seizures of private land, which began in 2005.

While Chavez's policies have created a utopia for some, with new farming cooperatives and villages set up for newly landed peasants, former owners view land reform as an assault on their livelihoods. "This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state," said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of commerce in northwestern Yaracuy State, in an interview with the New York Times. More than 160 peasants and eight landowners have been killed in violence stemming from recent seizures. The law has allowed squatters to take control of the land and burn crops, which has led landowners to hire outside protection.

Like in Zimbabwe, land reform in Venezuela has had a negative effect on food production. Both countries import most of their food. Since the initiation of land redistribution, sugar cane production in Venezuela has fallen 40 percent. Agriculture makes up only 6 percent of the economy in Venezuela, but demand for food has increased more than 30 percent over the last two years. While Venezuela has been spared the rampant inflation seen in Zimbabwe, a spike in fuel prices and government spending might be cause for concern. Venezuela's inflation rate is already 20 percent per year, the highest in the Western hemisphere.

While both Mugabe and Chavez have pinned much on land reform, the promises have failed to deliver. Faulty land policy in Zimbabwe has ruined a once prosperous and self-sufficient state. Violence and an oil-dependent economy makes the situation marginally less tenuous in Venezuela. Both instances illustrate the difficulty of engendering equity in postcolonial environments.

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Read More: Agriculture, Charity, Food, Human Rights, Migration, Peace, Poverty, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Africa, Americas

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