In brief

The Zimbabwean government began its land reforms in the 1980s to address the imbalances in land access ownership and use that had existed in the country before independence. A number of reforms were implemented over the years, with corresponding modifications to the law and redistribution targets. The most recent initiative, the fast track land reform programme (FTLRP), was introduced in 2001 to speed up the redistribution of land.

However, the reform has not delivered the outcomes the government intended. It has resulted instead in violence, a lack of legitimacy in land ownership, and a chronic weakening of the country’s agricultural infrastructure, all of which have contributed to Zimbabwe’s deteriorating social and economic conditions.

The challenge

Land has been a source of political conflict in Zimbabwe since colonisation, both within indigenous black communities and, especially, between white settlers and the black rural communities. Colonial policies of expropriation gave a minority of white farmers ownership of large areas of arable "commercial" land, while a majority of black families lived in overcrowded, arid "communal areas". The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 was the first legislation to establish land segregation legally, designating half of the country’s land for whites – who made up only five percent of the population – and assigning them most of the better land. It also made provisions for evicting indigenous farmers to drier and less fertile regions.[1]

The Lancaster House Agreement of 1980 marked the first effort to distribute land more equitably, and contained provisions on land acquisition which protected farm owners. It established that the government would not engage in compulsory land acquisition, as land distribution was intended to take place under a principle of "willing buyer, willing seller", whereby the government would "pay promptly adequate compensation" for property.[3]

Progress under this first phase of reform was slow, and the number of families resettled by the end of 2000 still fell short of the 1980 targets, as the issue had not been given priority. During the 1990s, less than 1 million hectares of land (2.47 million acres) was acquired and fewer than 20,000 families were resettled. Similarly, much of the land acquired during this time was of poor quality, according to Human Rights Watch: “only 19 percent of the almost 3.5 million hectares (8.65 million acres) of resettled land was considered prime, or farmable”.[4] The situation fuelled discontent and, in an attempt to take back control, the government launched a referendum in 2000 - which gave it further constitutional powers - and ran the elections with the motto ‘Land is the economy, economy is the land’."[5]

On the other hand,  it had been commercial farmers who drove economic growth in the country since independence, employed a third of the national workforce, and generated half of Zimbabwe's exports. "They were recognized as being among the most productive farmers in the world, holding world records in yields and advanced conservation techniques." [5] This was also the sector that supported the opposition in 2000.

Despite losing the referendum in February 2000 (see also Stakeholder Engagement), the Zimbabwean government proceeded with constitutional reforms to "fast-track its land reform programme", with constitutional amendments which allowed it to acquire land compulsorily without paying compensation.[6]

The initiative

The government then began the process of setting up a ‘fast track' land reform programme (FTLRP). “In June 1998, the Zimbabwe government published its policy framework on the Land Reform and Resettlement Programme Phase II (LRRP II), which envisaged the compulsory purchase over five years of 50,000 square kilometres from the 112,000 square kilometres owned by white commercial farmers, public corporations, churches, NGOs and multinational companies. Broken down, the 50,000 square kilometres meant that every year between 1998 and 2003, the government intended to purchase 10,000 square kilometres for redistribution.”[7]

The Zimbabwean government formally announced the FTLRP in July 2000, and it was then launched in April 2001, with the aim of acquiring land from white commercial farmers for redistribution to poor and middle-income landless black Zimbabweans. The objectives of the LRRP were said to be, among other things, to acquire: “not less than 8.3 million hectares from the large scale commercial farming sector for redistribution (an increase from the five million hectares stated in 1998)”.[8]

Allocations were made through "offer letters", which were assigned by ministers and other high-level officials, but there were no formal guidelines for these allocations. “While the land acquisition was backed by legislation, actual land allocation had no legal backing, apart from an administrative offer letter that confirmed a right to the land after the allocation. In practice, some individuals had offer letters while others did not.”[9]

The public impact

There is still a debate about the impact of the land reforms, with some analysts attributing them some success in redistributing access to land but with others highlighting the negative effects on the economic and social situation of Zimbabweans.

The fast track phase began in 2000, when 10,816,886 hectares were acquired and 162,161 families resettled. A total number of 237 858 households were reported to have received access to land under the programme.[10]

There was a significant agricultural production shift during the FTLRP period, affecting the major crops and livestock. “The four main [large-scale commercial farming (LSCF)] field crops (wheat, tobacco, soya beans and sunflower) experienced both reduced area plantings and output volumes (30 to 70 percent)... Sunflower production, mainly an LSCF preserve, recorded the sharpest decrease of 87 percent in the planted area between 2002-03 and the 90s average, leading to an equal drop in its volume of output during the FTLRP period.”[11]

The infrastructure and technologies around the agricultural industry also collapsed. “The optimal utilisation of available technologies especially for the peasantry was constrained by limited access to inputs, such as machinery, equipment, and infrastructure, seeds, fertilisers and chemicals, thus limiting the areas planted to most crops at the back of droughts which scorched planted crops... The capacity of public agencies to meet the increased demand for agricultural knowledge services (extension, research, market information, etc) was limited because agencies such as AREX [Agricultural Research and Extension] and Veterinary Services were overwhelmed by the changes and underfinanced.”[12]

There were reports of widespread hunger and malnutrition, with very little up-to-date information, allegedly due to government efforts to obstruct surveys of food availability and malnutrition, especially among children. By 2006, there were between 1.9 and 4 million "food-insecure" people. In addition, “there are somewhere between three to four million people who have left Zimbabwe since 2000”.[13]

By 2015, it was reported that more than 7 million hectares (17.3 million acres) of land had been redistributed since 2000, which was justified as "compensation for colonialism". “Some 4,500 white farmers were dispossessed, sometimes forcibly, and a million black Zimbabweans were settled on their land. A number of new medium-sized farms were created, but by and large the land was redistributed to small-scale farmers – and to people who had good connections to the Mugabe regime... As a result of the land reform, some 300,000 black farm workers lost their jobs."[14]

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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Stakeholder Engagement Fair

There were official government efforts to build support from a number of stakeholders, including those from the international community. After confrontations arising over the first phase of land reform, an international donors' conference on land reform and resettlement was held in September 1998. “This forum aimed to build a consensus among various stakeholders in land reform. A set of principles was adopted to govern ‘phase two’ of land resettlement in Zimbabwe, including respect for a legal process, transparency, poverty reduction, affordability, and consistency with Zimbabwe's wider economic interests. A technical committee worked on finalising the details of the new system.”[15]

The communities that would be affected, however, were not involved in the design and were only included directly in the implementation. The land reform was reportedly centralised within two sectoral ministries: Agriculture and Local Government. “This limited the local participation in resettlement programmes and implementation strategies, because planning was done in the offices of these two ministries. The communities were only involved during the last stage of the projects.”[16]

There was also formal opposition to the programme. “While these debates were ongoing, many of those demanding economic and political reform came together in 1997 to form the National Constitutional Assembly, an alliance of civil society groups which initiated a process of debate on the need for a new constitution... In 1999, representatives of a wide range of interest groups formed a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In particular, the MDC was the first party to attract support from white Zimbabweans, and received significant financial support from the white business and commercial farming communities. In addition to calling for national renewal on a range of issues, the MDC promised ‘people-driven land reform’.”[17]

The government’s response to a perceived strengthening of the opposition was to initiate a revision of the constitution. In 1999, President Mugabe created a government commission, consisting of almost 400 members, to rewrite the constitution. “A draft constitution, including provisions that would greatly strengthen the executive at the expense of parliament, and extend the powers of the government to acquire land compulsorily without compensation, was adopted against the protests of a substantial number of members of the constitutional commission and submitted to a national referendum in February 2000.”[18] The government lost this referendum but still carried on with the constitutional reforms, including the amendments that led to the FTLRP.

Political Commitment Fair

The land reform process was an initiative led by the central government, which called for international support, passed several laws, and launched various programmes for land redistribution over the years. As the reforms began to generate public discontent, due to the lack of results, the government turned to radical means to encourage occupation of the land, with some involvement from the army.

The international community appears to have supported the measure in principle, calling it "essential for poverty reduction, political stability and economic growth". “Between 1980 and 2000 Britain provided a total of 44 million pounds to the government for land resettlement projects... In 1981, the new government organised the Zimbabwe conference on reconstruction and development in which more than GBP630 million of aid was pledged. Only a small share of this was used to finance land resettlement.”[19]

Despite the efforts to obtain approval for land reform, the execution was not as focused as it should have been. After phase one, “by 1999, eleven million hectares of the richest land were still in the hands of about 4,500 commercial farmers, the great majority of them white. Moreover, some farms purchased for redistribution had in fact been given to government ministers and other senior officials rather than to the landless peasantry. Most rural black Zimbabweans continued to suffer immense poverty.”[20]

In the face of the criticism that grew in the late 1990s, President Mugabe and Zanu-PF took more radical measures to promote their objectives. “On the one hand, the government revived the call for radical land redistribution to fulfil the promises made at independence, giving official blessing to a new wave of land occupations led by members of the War Veterans Association that had rapidly accelerated following the referendum result. Members of the army were also involved in coordinating and facilitating these occupations.”[21]

In addition, the government implemented the provisions of the rejected draft constitution with regard to land acquisition, which “significantly extended the grounds on which land could be compulsorily acquired and absolved the government from providing compensation, except for improvements; instead, the ‘former colonial power’ should provide any compensation”.[22]

Public Confidence Fair

Land redistribution was a priority for Zimbabweans, and many were in favour of a more equal allocation. “In an opinion poll conducted in March 2000, 30 percent of Zimbabweans wanted to see farms removed from white owners. (Land, however, ranked fourth among respondents' concerns, after inflation, unemployment, and the fall in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar.)”[23]

On the other hand, as land was allocated through offer letters – which did not have the legal standing of a formal land title – beneficiaries were unable to access financing, and were exposed to allegations of "fake" allocations, which gave them little security even after acquiring a piece of land (see also Feasibility).[24]

As measures were executed drastically and without the appropriate resources to support the relocations, many people were not satisfied with the results. “Because the ‘fast track’ process of resettlement is being carried out so rapidly, short-circuiting legal procedures, it appears that many of those who have moved to new plots or those who might otherwise do so, are worried about the lack of certainty that their title will be secure.”[25]

Others who wanted land told Human Rights Watch that they had not taken up the opportunity because they did not have the resources to cultivate the land and there was no government support to assist new settlers. “Many rural black Zimbabweans expressed a profound disapproval of the manner in which government is carrying out land reform, in particular the lack of clear criteria for the allocation of land and the lack of structured support for new settlers. ‘This issue of land, we are not saying people should not be given land, of course they should; but it should be done in a proper way. Some people can just go and settle at a place where there are no facilities like water, schools, clinics, sanitation... And the loss of jobs brings hunger to the farming areas, since the workers aren't buying from the small-scale farmers either.’"[26]


Clear Objectives Weak

The general objectives of the different land reforms remained the same during their various phases. However, there were repeated changes in the quality of land to be targeted and the means by which the reform was to be implemented, as well as the amount of land that should be distributed. So even though there were explicit targets, they were inconsistent.

Over time, the objectives of the FTLRP and its implementation became no clearer. “Since the introduction of the fast track process, government policy and stated aims in relation to redistribution and land occupations have repeatedly changed. There are clearly divisions within Zanu-PF as to the way forward on land reform, between those favouring an orderly legal process, and those urging a ‘revolutionary’ approach.”[27]

In the FTLRP, there were also changes to the regulation and attributions for the land interventions, which legalised processes that were illegal at the time the reforms began. “The Rural Land Occupiers (Protection from Eviction) Act of June 2001 protects from eviction for a period of twelve months (originally six months) those who had occupied land up to February 2001 without following the proper procedures, and suspended the application of court orders for eviction. In November 2001, President Mugabe used his ‘presidential powers’ to amend the Land Acquisition Act, with retroactive effect to May 2000.”[28]

Evidence Weak

The first phase of land reform was implemented in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, so when the FTLRP was launched the government had experience of the nature of the process and its repercussions. “Zimbabwe has a long history of land reform that dates back to the early 1980s. At that time, Zimbabwe’s land redistribution programme was well planned, carefully organised and lawful.”[29]

However, there are different views about how successful previous attempts were and how useful they were as evidence. “Although the first phase of the land reform was relatively well planned and supported, it failed to achieve set targets. In 1983, for instance, the British government gave about 40 million pounds to the Zimbabwe government for the purpose of land redistribution. However, the government failed to vigorously pursue the land redistribution plan in order to resolve the land imbalance that existed.”[30] The means of enforcing reforms also changed over time, so it is difficult to make direct links to previous experience.

The government did not refer to previous successful external models for the design of the FTLRP mechanism, as Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to implement land redistribution of this nature.

Feasibility Weak

There is limited information available about the resources and legislation in place to make this initiative successful. Even though there are records of substantial donations from foreign countries, the initiative appears to have lacked funding and the necessary infrastructure to support its success.

A UN Development Programme (UNDP) report in 2010 found several issues relating to the financial, administrative and overall resourcing of the FTLRP. Some of the challenges related to the Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement’s capacities, in terms of human, material, and financial resources, to carry out land information management, land auditing, and general farm inspections.[31]

There was also inadequate consideration of the surrounding services and infrastructure required to make relocations successful. “A UNDP technical team considering the FTLRP in late 2001 noted that ‘the provision of roads, schools, clinics and boreholes, etc. was lagging far behind settler emplacement,’ and that the provision of essential public infrastructure within a reasonable timeframe ‘will be impossible on the government’s past track record and its current implementation capacity’.”[32]

The UNDP team concluded that the FTLRP would not be sustainable unless:

  • “The settlement timetable is substantially adjusted
  • “There is a considerable infusion of resources to finance the necessary infrastructure and support services
  • “There is a stronger basis for optimism on the part of settlers about their future leading them to form viable community organisations aimed at ensuring the sustainability of new settlements.”[33]

Similarly, many residents were unable to work on the land and make it productive, due to a lack of ownership documents or financial resources. “The newly resettled peasants had largely failed to secure loans from commercial banks because they did not have title over the land on which they were resettled, and thus could not use it as collateral. With no security of tenure on the farms, banks have been reluctant to extend loans to the new farmers, many of whom do not have much experience in commercial farming, nor assets to provide alternative collateral for any borrowed money.”[34]

It eventually became clear that people would need additional support to invest in the land, so the government enforced additional measures. “In January 2006, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said Zimbabwe was considering legislation that would compel commercial banks to finance black peasants who had been allocated formerly white-owned farmland in the land reforms. Made warned that banks failing to lend a substantial portion of their income to these farmers would have their licences withdrawn.”[35]


Management Weak

There were several ministries and committees at the national and local level engaged in the initiative. “According to official government documents, the identification of land for compulsory acquisition under the fast track process is in theory coordinated by a National Land Identification Committee, chaired by the vice-president's office. Four ministries were officially involved: Lands, Agriculture, and Rural Resettlement; Local Government, Public Works and National Housing; Rural Resources and Water Development; and Environment and Tourism.”[36] Even though the Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement was officially in charge of this programme, [37] there are several other institutions cited in most accounts.

In addition, there was a duplication of administrative roles at district and provincial levels. “Provincial Land Identification Committees chaired by the provincial administrator coordinate implementation; a technical committee shortlists and evaluates applications. This structure was duplicated at district level, where committees are chaired by the district administrator. Representatives of the rural district councils, traditional leaders, and the War Veterans Association are all members of these committees.”[38]

This made the process more cumbersome and harder to be implemented efficiently. “A UNDP technical report on the FTLRP noted in January 2002 that the programme is 'affected by cumbersome consultations and decision-making processes involving numerous district, provincial and central government actors…. Problems of weak capacity and poor coordination have led to numerous errors in processing the acquisition of properties'... Among the farms listed for resettlement have been properties totally unsuitable for the purpose, including land flooded under dams, land already resettled, or land currently used for industrial purposes. The team commented that even after recent amendments to the law, the land acquisition process was ‘complex, cumbersome and tedious to execute’, and that the team ‘is not aware of any other country in the region where the procedure for compulsory acquisition of land is so elaborate’.”[39]

Measurement N/A

There is no information available regarding this parameter, so we are unable to rate it based on our framework.

Alignment Weak

There were inconsistencies in the implementation of the reform, leading to increasing discontent among stakeholders from both Zimbabwe and the international community.

There have been accusations against the government of political favouritism and a failure to meet their obligations to farmers. “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 Zanu-PF. Zimbabwe's several hundred thousand farm workers have been largely excluded from the programme, 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.”[39]

It was clear that the FTLRP led to significant levels of violence, reportedly by Zanu-PF militias led by veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war, and even with army involvement. “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... The army, too, has played a role in organising and facilitating the occupations, without providing any check on the violence.” [41]

The government was also inconsistent in its land redistribution, with several claims of irregularities in the criteria for allocating plots in accordance with the FTLRP's development priorities.

Testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch raised two main concerns about the legitimacy of the beneficiaries of the FTLRP, as set out in the official development plans:

  • First, the existence of party political channels regarding applications for land and discrimination in the allocation of plots.
  • Second, on the key role of war veterans’ militias in distributing and allocating land, groups which were also accused of violence and intimidation by local villagers.

“In practice, the official structure for allocating land through civil service and elected officials (such as the rural district councils) is often superseded by informal processes governed by the war veterans and their associated ruling party militia. Because these processes are effectively unregulated, beneficiary selection can become highly politicised.” [42]

Although the programme had international support at the beginning, this faded over time and there was increasing criticism from international organisations. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan questioned the Zimbabwe government’s approach to land reform at the World Conference Against Racism held in South Africa in 2001, saying that land reform should be "credible and legal and required adequate compensation to those whose land was being expropriated".

Similarly, a technical team from the UNDP, which visited Zimbabwe later that year to investigate the land reform programme, concluded in a report that: “while the political philosophy and socioeconomic rationale of the FTLRP as defined by the Government of Zimbabwe remain sound, the current scope of the Fast Track represents an overreach of the original objectives as stated by the government. In addition, the manner in which [the] programme is being pursued, while legal because of the many changes in the law, has not provided any scope for formal debate either among elected officials, or among those who will lose and those who will benefit.”[43]


After Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform: Preliminary Observations on the Near Future of Zimbabwe’s Efforts to Resist Globalization, Bill Derman, 2006, Colloque international “Les frontières de la question foncière – At the frontier of land issues”

Benefits and costs of land reform in Zimbabwe with implications for Southern Africa, Klaus Deininger, Hans Hoogeveen and Bill Kinsey

Brief: A Brief History of Land in Zimbabwe: 1890-Today, Charles Mutasa, Focus on Land in Africa

Country Analysis Report for Zimbabwe, August 2010, Gouvernement of Zimbabwe/ United Nations Country Team, published in The Pennsylvania State University platform

Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe, March 2002, Human Rights Watch Vol. 14, No. 1(A)

Interview to Tom Lewis, Senior Advisor at the Boston Consulting Group

Land Reform in Zimbabwe, OMICS International

Land reform in Zimbabwe: context, process, legal and constitutional issues and implications for the SADC region – Chapter 12, 2008, Memory Dube and Rob Midgley, Monitoring Regional Integration in Southern Africa Yearbook 2008

Linking Land Reform and Rural Development to Poverty Alleviation in the Rural Areas, Makgata Makgorometje Augustine, 1999, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement, Government Ministries - Zimbabwe

Overall Impacts of Fast Track Land Reform Programme, Sam Moyo, 13 May 2004,

Post-Independence Land Reform in Zimbabwe – Controversies and Impact on the Economy, Medicine Masiiwa (ed.), 2004, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Institute of Development Studies, University of Zimbabwe

The Rule of Law in Africa, 16 August 2017, Eddie Cross, The Zimbabwean

Zimbabwe's Land Program, Annie Schleicher, 14 April 2004, OnlineNewsHour

Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform, Prosper B. Matondi, 2012, The Nordic Africa Institute

Zimbabwe's fast-track land reform shows little benefit 15 years on, Theresa Krinninger, 19 May 2015, DW

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