Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Conflicts over urban agriculture in Harare, Zimbabwe – by Anna Brazier

Conflicts over urban agriculture in Harare, Zimbabwe – by Anna Brazier

July 10, 2012

Winter in Harare is almost over. Walking my kids to school in the morning 
across frosty vleis, strewn with festering rubbish, we see the first signs 
of the agricultural season awakening. Litter is being raked into piles, 
maize stalks cleared into heaps and the dried weeds levelled to form little 
patchwork fields most about 100m2. You rarely see the farmers. They must 
emerge at dawn and dusk between their working hours. Many are probably local 
domestics. They have developed a system for dividing up the land between 
them, a natural autopoesis. There are no kraal heads in the city to allocate 
land and the municipality certainly don’t have any official mechanism. It is 
the same in urban areas all over Zimbabwe.

Soon these tiny fields will be meticulously cultivated and weeded and the 
rubbish dumpers will be shamed into reducing their practice until the maize 
has grown tall enough for their piles to be concealed. Maize, pumpkins and 
sugar beans will replace piles of cans and plastic bottles. The more 
enterprising will make mounds for sweet potatoes but this is hard work and 
in drier areas groundnuts and nyimo beans may be planted. People of 
Mozambican or Malawian descent often grow pigeon pea and cassava on field 

When the rains come, the black vlei soil will turn from cracked concrete 
into a great organic sponge drawing water into it. The maize will struggle, 
as it does each year. The humble applications of fertiliser bought with 
precious savings, will be rapidly leached into the groundwater (and end up 
causing eutrophication in streams and rivers) leaving the maize stalks 
chlorotic and the plants tottering on their strange support roots under 
up-to a foot of water. Despite this, harvests are better than in rural areas 
where the climate has now become too erratic and the soils too exhausted for 
feasible maize cultivation without irrigation and expensive fertiliser 
applications. According to a report by AGRITEX in 2009, urban and peri-urban 
areas had the highest maize yields in the country.

It is estimated that 10% of land in Harare is used for urban agriculture. 
This is land which belongs to the city or private owners but is undeveloped 
giving it an interesting psychosocial status. The rich see it as unsightly 
wasteland. Judging by the number of Scotch bottles and disposable nappies, 
which I view on my walks, the people dumping here are far from poor. The 
poor view it is as a resource. Small wooden or plastic shacks creep up in 
secluded spots, apostolic churches clear little demarcated patches for their 
congregations and urban farmers divide up the rest.

Much of this land is wetland – stream margins and seasonally swamped areas. 
These areas have been protected by the authorities since colonial times – 
controlled through legislation because of their ecological vulnerability and 
left undeveloped because of their challenges for construction. The vlei 
soils have a dynamic personality, ballooning with moisture during the rainy 
season and shrinking to become cracked and rock-like during the dry months, 
making it very expensive to build here. As the city expands and as people 
desert an increasingly harsh rural lifestyle, this land is becoming a hot 
spot of urban conflict between farmers, developers (both legal and illegal), 
conservationists and the authorities.

Urban Agriculture is as old as urbanisation. As Yoshikuni (2007) explains, 
when black workers were finally allowed to live in towns, most wanted 
settlements which resembled their rural homes where they could cultivate 
crops. The colonial administration felt that “the urban African worker ought 
to be half-ruralist” and thus attempted to provide model “garden village” 
suburbs to encourage “positive values such as family, community, peace and 
order, as against the supposed growing evils of urbanism and 
‘detribalisation’”. This vision of neat cottage-style vegetable gardens did 
not tally with sprawling, unkempt maize fields, and the identity war began.

Since independence, ritual crop-slashing has become a regular municipal 
practice despite legislation which actually protects urban agriculture 
(signed in 2003). Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 was, amongst many other 
things, a particularly violent attack on city farmers. Wole and Tungwara 
(2005) describe it as a display of the “technocratic mentality of urban 
aesthetics (cleanliness and beauty), based on the colonial legacy of the 
clean ‘city’”. Harris, (citing Burke, 1996) sees the operation as part of 
the “racialisation of dirt and illness”, stemming from times when colonial 
missionaries instilled in Zimbabweans a deep-rooted link between traditional 
lifestyles, bodily dirt, dirty thoughts and dirty living habits. In 
Operation Murambatsvina, illegal cultivation was seen as part of a suite of 
unsavoury activities, which, according to Comrade Makwavarara’s speech at 
the launch of the operation, had led to “the deterioration of standards, 
thus negatively affecting the image of our City” which had been “renowned 
for its cleanliness, decency, peace [and] tranquil environment.”

Environmentalists have also become increasingly vocal against urban farming 
in their attempts to preserve wetlands. The use of pesticides and 
fertilisers as well as inappropriate tillage methods and poor crop choice 
not only pollute the wetlands. They also threaten wildlife and the vital 
ecosystem services of water purification, hydrological management and soil 
protection that the wetlands provide.

Yet traditional wetland agriculture is in fact a sustainable practice, 
dating back centuries. Before shifting cultivation became the norm, 
communities settled around wetlands where ridges were developed for crops 
such as tsenza, cucurbits, madhumbes (yams) and vegetables; grains and 
livestock were restricted to upland areas. During the 1920s, commercial 
farmers began ploughing and cultivating wetlands for wheat, maize and 
tobacco. Soil erosion and drying-out of wetlands soon began to spread. 
Realising the hydrological implications, the colonial government passed the 
Water Act and The Natural Resources Act, effectively banning cultivation in 
these areas. However during the 1990s, specialists at the Horticulture 
Research Station in Marondera developed appropriate and sustainable wetland 
systems based on traditional crops and organic practices, thereby proving 
that modern wetland cultivation can still be possible without environmental 

Attitudes to urban agriculture are changing. In 2010 Harare Metropolitan 
Governor, Dr David Karimanzira announced that: “Although farming was 
regarded as dirty and only for the rural people, it can also be done in 
urban areas to supplement families’ income…Land reform should not only end 
in the rural areas but also come to the urban areas because we have open 
spaces in the province and we thank the City Fathers for allowing our 
farmers to grow their crops” (Herald, 2010). He reported that in 2009 the 
hectarage under cultivation in Harare increased from 9000 in 2008 to 12 000 
in 2009 with a yield increase from 5,5 tons per hectare to 6,5 tons per 

Urban agriculture brings immense benefits to the city, although it must be 
implemented in a socially and ecologically sensitive way. Through 
agriculture, humans are constantly interacting with nature and thus directly 
learning to value the vital role of ecosystem services. Through 
intergenerational knowledge-transfer in urban fields, parents and 
grandparents pass on knowledge to young people who may otherwise lose touch 
with their rural roots and the natural environment. The complex social 
mechanisms (developed by unrelated, un-governed communities) to divide up 
land between themselves in the city is surely a sign of building social 
cohesion. Urban agriculture undoubtedly provided a safety net of resilience 
to people who endured the economic and political meltdown in 2008.
Urban agriculture is here to stay: its social, ecological and economic 
benefits need to be recognised by environmentalists, governments and 


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