Livelihood pathways after land reform in Zimbabwe

landhungerUnderstanding livelihood pathways requires sustained fieldwork in particular sites in order to understand what changes and why. Systematic longitudinal studies are sadly rare in many developing country settings. Project grants for a few years are insufficient to sustain the research effort required. Long term studies are especially important when major changes have occurred. We cannot understand their impact unless influences are tracked over time, discovering new pathways as they unfold.

Such long-term work has been ongoing in Masvingo province in Zimbabwe since 2000, led by myself with a team of Zimbabwean colleagues – BZ Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Joseph Mahenehene. Over the last 14 years the team has been tracking 400 households across 15 sites, and finding out what has happened to people’s livelihoods in areas taken as part of Zimbabwe’s radical land reform that unfolded from 2000.

There is no simple story, and there’s much complexity. Diverse livelihood pathways can be identified: some have gained from land reform, while others have not. Outcomes are dependent on access to assets, income from off-farm activities, as well as hard work and luck. Livelihood pathways are constructed from many sources, and while patterns exist, there is huge variation across and within sites.

As processes of differentiation occur, new livelihood pathways are forged. Some are now moving into more commercial agriculture, while others are diversifying to off-farm activities, while some are combining farming on their new plots with selling labour to other farmers. Understanding agrarian change through a pathways lens helps link livelihoods – the specific day to day activities and strategies people employ to sustain themselves – with wider structural patterns of class formation, and the implications this has for patterns of accumulation and investment.

The results of the research to 2010 were published in the book Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities. But much has happened in the years since. The economy has stabilised, and the disastrous hyperinflation was stopped with a new currency regime from 2009 and some level of political and economic stability has followed, even if disputes between the Zimbabwe government and the international community persist. The Masvingo studies are regularly updated with on-going surveys and focused studies, and the latest results were reported on the Zimbabweland blog in the last few months. A series of four blogs give an overview, starting here:

Understanding new livelihood pathways is best done when comparing with others. Another set of studies has compared the Masvingo resettlement sites with nearby comparators. These are communal areas – rural areas where many of those in the new resettlements came from. The results show how gaining access to land has been an important boost to livelihoods, creating new pathways, when compared with communal area comparators. Again, another series of five blogs was recently posted, highlighting the results:

While a focused provincial study cannot tell us about what has happened in other areas of the country, the longitudinal and comparative studies offer important insights into new pathways of livelihoods following land reform.