Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Parsing out Zimbabwe

Today I heard on NPR a report of inflation topping 1000% in Zimbabwe. The NPR story was mostly a human interest, let's-count-our-blessings-with-5%-inflation story. What struck me as remarkable was only about one sentence of the interview was devoted to the cause of the inflation: fallout from the land reform in Zimbabwe, in which President Robert Mugabe forcibly seized land from white landowners and gave it to unlanded black peasants. It seems that, while the farms were profitable and productive under the white farmers, they have been running at huge deficits in the hands of the new owners. The government keeps heavily subsidized the new farmers to keep them on the land, but of course the only way they can do that is to keep printing money. The result is less and less food to go around (the word "famine" was mentioned a few times, which just feels weird when you don't have a war or natural disaster to blame for it) and more and more currency getting pumped into circulation.

On the surface, the story seemed to be easily construed in racist terms: "black farmers can't run the farms as well as whites." This just seemed too inflammatory to let lie . . . I smelled a story beneath it. And, as it turns out, the truth is more complicated. I googled around for a while, and found scathingly partisan websites on both sides of the issue, all of them so deep into the argument I couldn't even tell exactly what they were arguing about. The Wikipedia article on the land reform in Zimbabwe proved to be good background reading.

Most credible sources seem to agree that the Mugabe's land grab really screwed things up. But there was a legitable, well-precedented attempt to redistribute land in a fair fashion for many years . . . it was just that Mugabe wanted to rush things along. Perhaps he just wanted to muscle out the powerful opposition to his rule, or perhaps he wanted more goodies to dole out to his friends (which is, in fact, what happened to a lot of the land).

The reasons the black farmers are failing are logistical and economic, more than racial. You can't take large agribusinesses, chop up the land into tiny parcels, hand them to people who may never have even farmed before, and expect them to have the same output. The value wasn't really in the land, per se -- it was in the business, the relationship with the land. Mugabe flushed that down the tubes when he kicked out the white farmers. Also, the new black farmers still don't have title to the land -- they only have 99 year leases, and the government still owns the land. No bank will lend to these farmers, when there is no ownership that will appreciate. The farmers themselves have no big incentive to make long-term investments in land they don't own. (That is, in fact, part of the reason for the whole land inequity to begin with -- the original British white colonist were allowed to own their land, while the blacks were most confined to tribal collective plots, leading to a tragedy of the commons.)

The lesson from all this? It's really, really hard to undo unjustices, especially if you try to do it with further injustices. Wealth and prosperity are not hard commodities, like gold or diamonds, that you can arbitrarily take from one person and give to another, and all the value is retained. It's more like . . . well, like a plant. Rip it up, chop it up, spread it around . . . and something dies. Ironically, giving that land to the poor peasants was the worst thing that happened to them.



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