The information the map shows isn’t a surprise to Zimbabweans, who since 2000 have watched about 4,500 large and commercial farms, the majority of them owned by white farmers, taken over by people who for generations were severely limited by colonial-era laws when it came land ownership.
Nearly all those farms are now controlled by people who call themselves “war veterans,” referring to their supposed experience during Zimbabwe’s liberation fight. While many of the war vets likely are legitimate conflict survivors, the group as a whole is eyed with suspicion by some Zimbabweans, because many of its members are too young to have served their country during that era.
Farm seizures are often violent. White farmers report being suddenly and forcibly evicted, their homes looted and their livestock left to an unknown fate. Agriculture experts say most of the seized farms are no longer productive. There are serious food shortages in the country.
This is stuff that Zimbabweans and anyone who watches the action from afar know to be true. But the elusive verifier, a map detailing the land that has been seized, can’t be found. Rumor has it that Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmer’s Union keeps an updated map, but that organization didn’t respond to GPJ reporter Kudzai Mazvarirwofa’s request for it.
I obtained my map through a U.S. government worker who has spent time in Zimbabwe. We began to plan to have the map vetted and designed, for publication with Kudzai’s story about farm seizures. But when I circled back to the U.S. government official to confirm its provenance, he told me that he didn’t know where it had come from. That was odd, since the U.S. government actually published the map on an obscure corner of a website, albeit in a way that highlighted not the farm seizures but land use. The U.S. official also expressed a deep fear of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his top deputies, despite living thousands of miles away.
A few land use experts based in the U.S. and in Europe told me they were confident that the map is accurate, but expressed dismay that the U.S. government published a map of unknown origin.
There are rumors that other maps might show the information we want to highlight, including satellite-imaging maps tracking irrigation systems. As publication time ticked closer, I still wasn’t able to verify the map I have or find a suitable alternative.
I can imagine why the Zimbabwean government doesn’t wish to make available a map showing the totality of the farmland that has been seized since the Fast Track Land Reform program began. This is an authoritarian regime that turns a blind eye to any negative consequences of its policies, and such a map might show the extent of once-fertile farmland that is now barren. On the other hand, it seems that it could serve the government to show, in a celebratory manner, the land that was reclaimed from people who many Zimbabweans would say are the last pieces of a colonial era built on racism.
It’s disappointing that we don’t have a map to publish with Kudzai’s story. I am confident that the map I have is accurate — it matches all the other research about the program — but without full knowledge of its creator and a date that would show how recent it is, we can’t risk running it.
It’s possible that the map’s creator worries that publicly claiming his or her work would bring retribution from the Mugabe administration. That’s a legitimate fear. An unknown number of people have died in Zimbabwe, some on mere suspicion that they don’t support Mugabe. And, of course, most Zimbabweans already know the information the map would show.
But there’s a certain power that comes with the printed word, or the printed map, in this case. It often takes a strong piece of evidence — such as a map showing the extent to which Zimbabwe’s farmland is un- or underutilized — to galvanize power brokers to create change.