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Shashe Agroecology School
Shashe Agroecology School

Farmers of Shashe, a village in Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe, are becoming an African inspiration for agroecology and emancipation.

Shashe was the first area to be occupied in Masvingo Province when the popular land occupation movement began, in the early 2000s, before spreading throughout Zimbabwe. Today, hundreds of beneficiary families have been resettled in Shashe, transforming a former cattle range farm, previously owned by a – white – commercial farmer into a vibrant agroecological village, as a result of the government’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP).

Hundreds of peasant families share the farming and grazing plots in Shashe producing a variety of food crops (grains, cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruit trees), medicinal plants, roots and livestock (cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys). A significant number of them save, reproduce and reuse their own seeds (mostly for grains and cereals). Farming is the most important source of income among their livelihood strategies. Some of surplus produced by the peasants is exchanged locally or sold in the nearest town (Mashava). When maize and millet yields are high, a number of Shashe peasant families supply Masvingo City markets, through the state parastatal body known as the Grain Marketing Board.

The ideological position of these families, training and education led to the establishment of the “Shashe Agroecology School”, a centre of agroecology. A national peasant movement, the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers’ Forum (ZIMSOFF), with a strong membership base in Shashe, is spearheading a self-proclaimed “agroecology revolution”. As Nelson Mundzingwa, ZIMSOFF National Coordinator, resident in Shashe explains, what is evolving in Shashe is a “deeply emancipatory initiative” that “challenges the pre-land reform dominant models [that] only large-scale cash and monocrop options were sustainable in Zimbabwe”.

Elizabeth Mpofu in her farm in Shashe. Photo by: Boaventura Monjane

Zimbabwe’s land administration contextualisation and dynamics

In 1979, the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement put to an end the Zimbabwe’s second Chimurenga and led, in 1980, to the independence of the nation. By virtue of the compromise Agreement, the British and American governments reneged, post-independence, on the compensation of white landowners based on the agreed framework of a wiling-buyer-willing-seller. However, with the advent of Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1990s, “even the market initiative became more problematic and foreign land ownership expanded, reinforcing historical land alienation”, write Sam Moyo and Walter Chambati, from Zimbabwe.

During the 1990s, conferences to resolve the land question were held led by Western countries and these failed to resolve the land impasse. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were very much critical of land redistribution and this ensued in a context of droughts, economic crisis, Structural Adjustment Programmes, deceleration of land redistribution as well as Zimbabwe’s military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the socio-economic environment deteriorated, the land occupation movements grew from strength to strength while the government’s attempts to re-launch a more ambitious land reform programme failed. By 1999, political polarisation around the land question began to threaten the Zimbabwe African National Union -Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)’s rule and the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change began to threaten ZANU-PF’s stranglehold to power, particularly in urban areas. On its part, ZANU-PF turned to rural areas to consolidate its power by seeking to address rural grievances such as the land question.

The power-game between rural-based organisations, a divided national political arena, and interventions by international institutions was resolved through a countrywide land occupation movement initially tolerated, and later supported by the government. This course of events resulted in what has come to be one of the most debated episodes in the history of agrarian studies: the FTLRP, also known as the Third Chimurenga. Notwithstanding its internal contradictions, for some academics the FTLRP is “the only instance of radical redistributive land reforms since the end of the Cold War [and] it reversed the racially-skewed agrarian structure and discriminatory land tenures inherited from colonial rule”. For others, even if in their view it compromised the principles of democratic rule, the FTLRP still represents the “culmination” of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, as Mahmoud Mandani puts it. The FTLRP has also been subjected to heavy criticisms pointing, amongst others, to the widespread land capture by political ‘cronies’, or to the total collapse of agricultural productivity and the rural economy.

Available statistics show that from about 15 million hectares of land previously devoted to large-scale farming (most of it white owned) only five million hectares remained, while the remaining white farmers are estimated to be approximately two or three hundred. With regards to agricultural production, debates about the effects of FTLRP on total national output, production diversification, food security and income redistribution continue unabated. Undoubtedly, Zimbabwe has been suffering an economic and political crisis of an unprecedented scale since 2000. However, it is debatable whether such a crisis, mostly in the form of currency instability, can be imputed to the economic effects of the FTLRP.

According to the Sam Moyo African Institute of Agrarian Studies (SMAIAS), currently there has been a shift from the previous administration’s standpoint in terms of land administration. Under the “new dispensation”, SMAIAS contends, the state is pushing for the return of massive investments, which will likely lead to land concentration by capital and land alienation of smallholder farmers, particularly women who do not take part in decision making. It is suggested that the renewed drive for industrial capital to take part in mineral exploitation will, undeniably, have devastating effects on the livelihoods of peasants.

Taking a neoliberal populist stand, the new administration is eager to raise capital via rents and in the process boost agricultural productivity. This has prompted the new administration “to push for smallholder farmers to embark on joint ventures with foreign capital, while simultaneously crafting a new narrative that land should be given to those who are financially and materially resourced and can fully utilise it”, according to SMAIAS.

Agroecology Shashe experience and the revitalisation of indigenous knowledge

One of the stunning features of Shashe, which makes it a unique case, is that the foundations of its vision were built over the years, prior to the FTLRP. Some of the Shashe community members – who participated in the first land occupations – in their youth were part of the Association of Zimbabwe Traditional Environmental Conservationists (AZTREC), thought to be an outcome of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle “Chimurenga” by some analysts. AZTREC’s philosophy was grounded in the revitalisation of indigenous knowledge and cultural traditions. In early 2000s, some of those members founded ZIMSOFF, with a vision to continue with AZTREC philosophy and expand it by building conceptual and practical ties with agroecology and food sovereignty.

When land was then secured, there was already a clear direction, one of the very specific conditions that allowed Shashe to become a successful case post land reform in Zimbabwe. Organised community meetings to mobilise farmers to take over the land, preceded the land occupations, with a clear and specific agenda that included the re-building of development sustained by intrinsic knowledge, ideas and understanding of agriculture. Overall, the dream of total agrarian reform through the revival of indigenous knowledge was at the top of this community’s strategy to achieve an endogenous development programme. In Shashe, one can grasp a number of important features regarding their very particular sense of what development should look like.

A very particular feature of this community is the importance of the incorporation of spiritual and traditional understanding of development and well-being. This has meant resistance to exogenous ways of development with the current strategies adopted by the community being established through spiritual guidance and traditional learnings, which, as they appraise, should not be considered as backwardness. The latter philosophy and practice is deeply embedded in the Shashe Agroecology School, created by eight families around 2008, promoting farmer-to-farmer trainings based on indigenous knowledge systems and working together with the International Peasant Movement, La Via Campesina, in incorporating its principles of agroecology and food sovereignty.

Elizabeth Mpofu in her homestead in Shashe. Photo by: Boaventura Monjane

Another important feature, directly connected with agroecology principles, is the acknowledgement and implementation of sustainable ways of living and reproduction. All of the strategies and production systems within the community are fully aware of environmental issues and constantly re-adjusting due to climate change. Strategies towards a more just inter-generational resource distribution are also followed, particularly, land – from the occupied and redistributed land, some blocks are reserved for the next generation. Last, but not least, this thoroughly planned process of resistance and land occupation was sustained by the existence of an integrated process of endogenous development involving most of its members. This endogenous development is sustained by the efforts to achieve a model of self-sustained community way of living that relies less and less on external forces. The exchange of goods and seeds among its members combined with statements such as “we have become our own shops” or “if we need a building, it is possible to find a builder within the community” or even “we can’t do it alone, we need to work together”, shows the importance of togetherness and community.

An inspiration towards emancipatory rural initiative: Reality, potential and limitations

The Shashe experience offers very relevant insights and useful practices to understanding how emancipatory rural initiatives can take place, emerge and how they should be maintained. This is a valuable experience and lesson which can be shared and potentially followed by many other peasant communities and suited to various local contexts and circumstances in the global South. Shashe presents a visible praxis of emancipation in this rural initiative, suggestive of four main features namely: (1) Self-planning and self-organisation; (2) addressing multiple issues and terrains (agrarian and land reform); (3) renewal of ideas different from dominant narratives; (4) long term sustainability and envisioning of the future.

Firstly, the process of resistance and the construction of this way of living in the Shashe community was possible because of the fact that it was led by charismatic leaders who chose to look introspectively on their roots, knowledge and philosophy throughout history. Based on that, they identified and explored their own needs, resources, ideas, thoughts and feelings and used those as tools to idealise and plan their own future. Self-emancipation calls for this type of exercise. The second feature is the fact that this movement, which led the occupation process was guided by specific goals and objectives addressing more than one issue in a coherent way. As Mudzingwa explained during our visit to Shashe “we had an agenda”, meaning that throughout the process of resistance and land occupation they kept in mind the previously stated goals and agenda issues.  Moreover, the set of goals also included how to address agrarian reform once they settled on the land.

Thirdly, it has been highlighted how the Shashe community re-adopted an ideology and diverged from dominant narratives by implementing the principles of agroecology guided by their own knowledge and experience. The continuous exchange of experiences and knowledge within the community through informal and formal mechanisms (e.g. School of Agroecology) is a process that sustains this whole movement. Although intrinsically based on looking at issues, the renewal of practices is also there when it comes to facing emerging challenges such as climate change. In this context, experiences were shared based on their own practices on how to overcome climate change impacts on their farming (e.g. using organic fertilisers that keep the soil moist enough as a way to overcome the lack of rain).

Lastly, the long-term sustainability must be seen as an outcome of the combination of features discussed above. The great concern of this community in imagining and taking over their own future is the key determinant of successes that they acquire nowadays. Transversally, the continuity of efforts towards their goals has brought about a more “community way of living” where the main aim is to achieve self-sufficiency. With time, the community is becoming closer to self-sufficiency and is able to self-supply an array of products and services beyond farming: woodcarving, builders, and so on. Achievements such as “we produce all that we eat” and “we have become our own shops” as Mudzingwa puts it, is a result of a coherent effort towards an alternative way of living. Nevertheless, there are still quite some challenges that this community has to overcome in order to be considered exclusively emancipatory and free of every form of oppression.

It is important to reflect about the limits to emancipation regarding such type of initiatives. These limits can be both a result of the community’s internal environmental features such as the tendency of unbalanced gender power relations within the household’s division of labour as is the case for most rural Africa. The external environment also limits the power of emancipation. The fact that this community is still embedded in a neoliberal capitalist political and economic environment raises questions related to (1) how this instigates class differentiation within the community, (2) how these processes transform internal labour relations (hiring in and out) and (3) in which way these twin processes shape equality and equity within this community. Overall, Shashe experience undoubtedly offers insights on how the construction of community-based livelihoods through solidarity and cooperation are the key to achieving an emancipatory rural initiative. Notwithstanding, there are still quite some challenges that this community has to overcome in order to be considered exclusively emancipatory and free of every form of oppression. 

* Boaventura Monjane is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, ERPI Africa and a research fellow at Sam Moyo Africa Institute of Agrarian Study; Natacha Bruna is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies, ERPI Africa and Pablo Gilolmo is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra.

**The authors would like to thank Ricado Jacobs and Freedom Mazwi for their valuable comments and proofreading. All possible errors remain the responsibility of the authors.