‘Follow the law, or change it’: Zimbabwe’s biggest farmers’ union sees no land reform reversal under compensation deal

Blazio Dengu, a commercial farmer, tends to his wheat (pic: Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe)

Zimbabwe’s largest farmers’ union says it sees no reversal of land reform under a controversial government move to offer land as compensation to former farmers that were protected by investment treaties.

The Ministers of Finance and Agriculture recently announced that foreign white farmers who were protected by Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreements (BIPPAs) could apply for farms they lost under land reform. Black farmers who also lost their farms are to be offered land, the government said.

The announcement drew outrage from critics who saw this as a reversal of land reform, under which thousands of white-held farms were distributed to landless black farmers. But farmers do not see this as a reversal, according to Paul Zakariya, executive director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, which says it has a membership of a million farming households.

“Our understanding of this matter is that ground was laid in the 2013 Constitution for such considerations. The constitution, which was overwhelmingly voted for by citizens, carries the provisions to allow, where possible, indigenous Zimbabweans who lost their land in the land acquisition process, to apply to be reinstated or resettled elsewhere,” says Zakariya, quoted in the Independent.

“The same constitution is also quite clear on how land secured under BIPPA arrangements would be handled. These were very contested issues during the Constitution making process”.

The constitution, he says, was the outcome of compromise to bridge two extreme positions on how land compensation should be handled, Zakariya believes.

“The major parties that participated in the process were coming from extreme views on this matter. One advanced a position not to entertain compensation of any kind or form (not even to speak of reinstating former farmers), while the other pushed for a complete reversal of the land reform programme or compensation for both land and developments,” he says.

[Click to read: Zimbabwe is offering land back to BIPPAs and black farmers. Betrayal or the law? Here are the facts]

Follow the law, or change it

Under measures announced on BIPPA farms, government will offer previous holders of BIPPA farms their land back, but only where this was “practical”. Alternatively, the farmers would be offered land elsewhere. Critics of the measure say this step may see the eviction of resettled farmers and a reversal of land reform itself.

However, the ZFU says Zimbabwe must either respect BIPPA agreements, or change the law.

Says Zakariya: “Judging by the commitment that has already been made to compensate dispossessed farmers and the progress that has been made to date on addressing issues around the BIPPA secured farms, it is our considered view that fulfilling on this moral obligation, as enshrined in our Constitution, is not in any way, a reversal of the land reform itself. It is also our considered view that, if Zimbabweans feel that they want to renege on the provisions of their own Constitution, then due process must be followed by amending the Constitution in as far as that provision is concerned.”

Only black farmers and foreign white farmers protected by BIPPAs qualify for compensation for land. Local white farmers, who held most of the land taken for redistribution, are only paid for improvements on the farms, and not the land itself. They are required to apply for long-term leases, just like other farmers.

On Thursday, the main opposition MDC said the compensation deal was illegal and ignored farm workers. In March, a group of displaced black farmers said the compensation deal was inadequate.