How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Published on: 09:07AM Jun 17, 2014

Wanna wreck an economy or kill a nation? Just toss several thousand farmers off their land and wait a few years for the country to curdle when the inevitable food supply collapse comes. All it takes is a bit of "farmland redistribution" and a nation’s base will go wobbly — sort of like smashing your own ankles with a hammer.

It’s a page pulled straight from Robert Mugabe’s "How To Destroy Your Own Country" playbook. When Mugabe, dictator forever and a day of Zimbabwe, took power as prime minister in 1980, he inherited a thriving economy backed by a treasure trove of natural resources: coal, iron, gold, platinum, diamonds — and rich farmland.

In a few years, certainly by the 1990s, Mugabe had pulled the economic handbrake and Zimbabwe had reversed course in a smoking one-eighty, fueled by massive corruption, bungled leadership and the whims of a tyrant.

When your country is burning, what to do? For Uncle Robert, he threw on more wood and doubled-down in true avuncular fashion, shuffling the agriculture industry in 2000 by seizing white-owned farms in the name of "land reform" and in a racial game of mix-and-match, reallocating the land to black farmers. But despite Mugabe’s posturing, his land grab was not about historical wrongs — it was about Mugabe and his cronies (judges, military leaders, government officials, and loads of Mugabe relatives lining up with open hands) making off with all they could — over 2 million acres of farmland. In short time, most of Zimbabwe’s 4,500 white farmers were forcibly removed by Mugabe’s henchmen and put on the curb with no compensation. Fist in the air, Mugabe assured Zimbabweans that true change was nearing and in one of the rare occasions of his reign, one of his forecasts actually came true.


More from Agriculture's Edge:

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other


Just as Mugabe promised, change indeed soon arrived, dragging with it an absolute economic nightmare.

From the New Republic: "Starting in 2000, Mugabe implemented a land reform program in which thousands of commercial farms were confiscated from their traditional (i.e. white) owners and gifted to Mugabe's friends and cronies. Few of the new owners knew how to run a commercial farm, and some simply fired all the employees and sold the equipment for parts. Agricultural exports, the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, went into free fall … The cratering of the agriculture sector cascaded through the economy."

Mugabe took a sliding economy and kicked it right off the cliff:

  • Per capita GDP of Zimbabwe = $600, third lowest in the world
  • Average monthly wage = $253
  • Unemployment rate = 80 percent
  • "By 2009, the private sector was operating at 10 percent of its former capacity. Other than a trickle of tobacco exports, farms withered back to prairies."


Mugabe’s farm snatch has left 2.2 million Zimbabweans currently needing food aid, according to the World Food Programme. Zimbabwe's economy is in shambles, marked by hyper-inflation and a monetary system desperate for cold, hard cash — any currency but its own. The central bank has opened the economy to a jaw-dropping eight currencies: Australian dollar, Botswana pula, British pound, Chinese yuan, Indian rupee, Japanese yen, South African rand, and U.S. dollar.

Once tagged by Christopher Hitchens as "Africa’s Worst Dictator," Mugabe recently turned 90 and paid $5 million to North Korea for two bronze birthday statues; one will beckon to the crowds in the capital city Harare, and the other will feature in his hometown, but neither is supposed to be erected until after he dies. (Zimbabwe may not have money for food, but at least they’re paid up when it comes to buying bronze.)

Even as Mugabe ticks into his nineties, age and ineptitude haven’t weakened his grip on power — despite monthly predictions to the contrary. Western pressure has held little sway with Mugabe and he tends to relish criticism, as he did in 2003 when the British press compared him to Hitler: "I am still the Hitler of the Time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold."

Mugabe has taken a country once described as the "Breadbasket of Africa" and turned it into a state with bare shelves that imports everything. The irony couldn’t be much greater in VOA’s description of Zimbabwe: "Agriculture in the nation, once a major corn exporter in the region, was decimated by violent state-backed land invasions starting in 2000 that dispossessed white commercial farmers of about 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres).

"Ironically, the nation is importing corn which is now being grown in neighboring countries by the same farmers that it dispossessed."

Robert Mugabe — tyrant to the end.


For more, see Michael Hobbes’ New Republic article, How Did Zimbabwe Become So Poor — And Yet So Expensive


More from Agriculture's Edge:

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other