Sunday, October 22, 2006

Third world eminent domain

I was cleaning up some links I'd left on my PC's desktop this morning when I ran across an article published in August telling the story of Robert Mugabe, the leader of Zimbabwe, and the progress of his vaunted, yet much-criticized land reform program. Mugabe began to take land away from white farmers and give it to blacks native to Zimbabwe:
Around 4000 white farmers have lost their land, often violently, since Mugabe launched his ... programme ... to redress the imbalances in land ownership from the colonial era.

A noble idea, what? But here's what's happened. Mugabe has found out that taking land from one group and giving it to another doesn't produce the results one was hoping for:
...Mugabe on Monday warned new black farmers to either produce food on farms taken from whites or have the land seized by the government.

"Those with land should use it to prove they were indeed interested in farming in the first place,"

Mugabe said at a Heroes' Day celebration."Those who can't produce, be warned, we will take the land back. We now need to distinguish capable and committed farmers from holders of land who are mere chancers and who should be made to seek opportunities elsewhere," he said.

Why does he say such threatening things to the people whom the program benefitted. Aside from the fact that it's in his nature to say and do threatening things, there's this:
Fewer than 600 farmers remain on their properties in Zimbabwe, once called a regional breadbasket, and the programme has been widely criticised as a failure.

"If farming is not in your blood, switch to what you are good at. We want those with land to use it. We don't want to keep begging for food," Mugabe told thousands who gathered to celebrate Zimbabwe's fallen liberation struggle heroes.

Critics blame the land reform programme in part for the country's economic woes, saying the majority of its beneficiaries lacked the skills and means to farm and relied instead on state handouts.

The octogenarian leader also warned [about] stiff punishments for cash hoarders and black market currency changers following the a series of currency reforms aimed at fighting world-record inflation.

"On this day, let it be known that wrongful self-enrichment will not be allowed to go unpunished.

"Whoever is caught on the wrong side of the law in the ongoing currency reforms will be charged according to their crime," he said.

Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank slashed three zeroes from its currency two weeks ago and introduced new bank notes in an effort to reduce inflation and snuff out a burgeoning parallel foreign currency market.

Police say at least 3 000 people have been arrested and billions of dollars in local currency seized in a blitz on cash hoarders and those dealing illegally in foreign currency.

Mugabe called on the crowd to compare "the patriotism and sacrifice" of the country's heroes "to the character of our people who have chosen to worship the god of wealth and who have shown unbridled greed, corruption and self-aggrandisement."

"These economic saboteurs should take heed that we are determined to fight the scourge of corruption and do honour to the dignity and integrity of our nation," he said.

Zimbabwe's annual inflation declined to 993.6 % in July from 1184.6%, while reeling under spiralling unemployment and severe fuel and food shortages.

So, yet again, a country run according to communist/socialist principles has turned a "regional breadbasket" into a country that has been reduced to "begging for food".

Why does this matter to us? Well, there's another example of "land reform" going on closer to home: Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez has undertaken a program to take land from the latifundistas, the big, cattle raising land-owners, and give it to landless peasants.

One of the interesting features of the Venezuelan land reform is that President Chavez has demanded that the latifundistas provide proof of ownership going back to 1821, the year that Venezuela was liberated from Spain. It's a Catch-22: there are no land titles going back that far. The fledgling Venezuelan government didn't get around to issuing titles until much later.

However, the government is going to grant permanent title to those it chooses to own the land. I simply have to wonder what will happen down the road when there's a new Venezuelan strongman who, upon seeing the dismal agricultural output from these redistributed lands, will yank the titles and give them to somebody else. I'm not saying that the people given the lands that Chavez has confiscated and redistributed have yet had a chance to prove themselves; I'm merely prophesying what will happen.

Venezuela currently imports 75% of its food. Chavez is proclaiming that the huge tracts of cattle grazing land being confiscated for redistribution will be worked by "those who want to work it", and they will produce enough to make the country self-sustaining in food products. Sounds good, dosen't it? My guess is that these new farmers will need – there's no other word for it – massive government subsidies to succeed even at a subsistence level for many, many years.

There may be more resources in Venezuela than in Zimbabwe to do this. Oil revenues make for a nice cushion. Chavez (or his strongman successor) won't be making speeches like Mugabe any time soon; but since these new farmers will be launched into their new careers with government handouts, I predict that they won't be able to break their dependence on them and that their output will be much less than Chavez thinks.

The amount of fawning coverage of Chavez' reforms is staggering. Not a one of these johnnies seems to have watched what has happened in Zimbabwe or in any of the other nations that have tried to control the ownership, distribution, and use of farm land from a central authority. Here are a few links from the pro-land reform side:

Land Reform in Venezuela
Venezuela: Land Reform Battle Deepens
President Chavez and Venezuela's Land Reform

And a couple that are more cautious:

BBC News
National Geographic (37 MB download)

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