Land ownership is central to Zimbabwe’s long history of inequality and violence. Throughout the colonial era and during the regime of the white-ruled Republic of Rhodesia (1965-1979), land was almost exclusively owned by white farmers, many of them growing for export. Meanwhile, the people from whom the land was taken either labored on commercial farms, or were crowded onto marginal “tribal reserves”. When white rule ended with the founding of Zimbabwe in 1980, there was an immediate discussion of land redistribution. But corrupt politicians, a government crippled by debt to the World Bank, and simmering anger and continued violence between white landowners and the long-marginalized population made land reform a difficult process.
In the years that followed, however, would-be smallholder farmers began to reclaim their land by peaceful occupation. Among them were the farmers of the Shashe community, who turned land that was once the barren holding of absentee cattle ranchers into a hugely productive sustainable farm. Shashe later benefitted from the Fast Track Land Reform Program implemented by the Government of Zimbabwe in 2000, and the land – now the home of the Shashe Agroecology School – has been theirs ever since.
The community at Shashe belongs to the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), a dynamic alliance of hundreds of smallholder farmers from all over Zimbabwe, many of them women. Chairperson Elizabeth Mpofu explains: “We need to go back to indigenous knowledge-based farming systems, now called agroecology, because we know that these systems work peacefully with nature and don’t damage the environment.”
Mpofu is also General Coordinator for the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina, and Shashe Agroecology School is part of La Via Campesina’s network of over forty agroecology schools around the world. These schools promote horizontal or “farmer to farmer” learning, and serve as gathering places for farmers to exchange knowledge about sustainable farming practices.
Yet despite the vitality of the smallholder farming community in Zimbabwe, it faces many threats. Mpofu explains: “Transnational corporations are pushing policies…for industrial farming and the use of GMO seeds, while grabbing our land and [stealing] our natural resources.”
According to Mpofu, the biggest threat of all comes from the new “harmonized seed laws”. The laws require seeds to be officially registered in order to be traded, and introduce intellectual property rights on seeds, ostensibly for the purpose of ensuring seed quality. In reality, Mpofu says, the rules “will increase the availability of commercial seeds, only benefiting corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto. Indigenous seeds are not recognized.”
Farmers, provided with insufficient or misleading information, are then convinced to buy the expensive GMO seed, often leaving them in debt to the corporations — sometimes to the point where they are jailed and their land is taken. Without their traditional diverse food crops, their food security is weakened, and their soil and watershed are left poisoned by the chemicals needed to grow GMO crops. Ironically, even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, which has officially recognized that increasing diverse smallholder farms is the best way to ensure food security in the region, still supports the harmonized seed laws.
This is why projects like Shashe and ZIMSOFF are so important: they provide a forum for the exchange of information, so that smallholder farmers can help each other and take joint action. Mpofu explains: “…we believe in controlling our land and seeds and producing the healthy food that we want, the way we want. Our response is to fight for food sovereignty against these transnational corporations that are connected to the G8, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the World Trade Organization, and free trade agreements that don’t recognize the needs of peasants or the poor… If the money syndrome continues to rule the world, the struggle won’t come to an end. We are fighting this fight together and we must strengthen our resilience together.”
We hope small farmers around the world will draw strength from Elizabeth Mpofu’s determination!
To learn more, visit the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum website.
Or read this excellent interview with Elizabeth Mpofu.