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Zimbabwe: UK Approach to Land Reform

UK/Zimbabwe: Lancaster House and Land Reform Since Independence

Why Land Reform?

At the time of Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, the best agricultural land was owned mainly by large, commercial farms, often of more than 1,000 hectares each. Poor families were crowded into the less productive communal areas, on land holdings that were often less than one hectare.

The British Government believes that land reform is central to Zimbabwe’s development. Britain has been a strong advocate of effective and well-managed land reform in Zimbabwe since Independence. A more equitable distribution of land is essential to reduce poverty and to contribute to the country's long-term economic and social future. But to be effective, the British Government believes that such reform must be carried out within the rule of law; be transparent and fair; and within a well-managed economic policy framework that contributes both to poverty reduction and Zimbabwe’s economic prosperity.

Lancaster House Agreement, 1979

The negotiations which led to the Lancaster House Agreement brought Independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s illegal Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. The Agreement (signed in December 1979) covered the Independence Constitution, pre-independence arrangements, and a ceasefire. The parties represented during the conference were: the British Government, the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Administration and the Patriotic Front led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.

There were discussions on land reform at the Lancaster House talks. The UK understood the need for a land resettlement programme. The UK agreed to contribute to the costs and to rally the support of the international donor community. The UK’s position was set out by Lord Carrington, the Conference Chairman, in a statement made to the plenary session on 11 October 1979. He said:

‘We recognise that the future Government of Zimbabwe, whatever its political complexion, will wish to extend land ownership. The Government can of course purchase land for agricultural settlement, as we all have seen. The Independence Constitution will make it possible to acquire under-utilised land compulsorily, provided that adequate compensation is paid.

Any resettlement scheme would clearly have to be carefully prepared and implemented to avoid adverse effects on production.

The Zimbabwe Government might well wish to draw in outside donors such as the World Bank in preparing and implementing a full-scale agricultural development plan.

The British Government recognise the importance of this issue to a future Zimbabwe Government and will be prepared, within the limits imposed by our financial resources, to help. We should for instance be ready to provide technical assistance for settlement schemes and capital aid for agricultural development projects and infrastructure. If an agricultural development bank or some equivalent institution were set up to promote agricultural development including land settlement schemes, we would be prepared to contribute to the initial capital.

The costs would be very substantial indeed, well beyond the capacity, in our judgement, of any individual donor country, and the British Government cannot commit itself at this stage to a specific share in them. We should however be ready to support the efforts of the government of independent Zimbabwe to obtain international assistance for these purposes.’ There was no provision in the Lancaster House Agreement to establish a specific fund to support land reform. However, as promised at Lancaster House, the British Government did play a full part both before and after the international Zimbabwe Donors’ Conference (ZIMCORD) of March 1981 to encourage Western donors to take part and to respond generously to Zimbabwe’s requirements. ZIMCORD succeeded in raising $Z 70m (£17m) for development in Zimbabwe, including land reform. The Constitution of Zimbabwe agreed at Lancaster House entrenched protection for property rights for the first ten years of Independence. The Government’s acquisition of land was limited to the willing buyer/willing seller principle. Thereafter, the Zimbabwe Parliament would be able to alter the Constitution in accordance with its own legislation.

UK Support for Land Reform in Zimbabwe

Between 1980 and 1985, the UK provided £47m for land reform: £20m as a specific Land Resettlement Grant and £27m in the form of budgetary support to help meet the Zimbabwe Government’s own contribution to the programme. The Land Resettlement Grant was signed in 1981, and substantially spent by 1988.

An evaluation of land resettlement in 1988 by the then UK Overseas Development Administration (ODA) showed that real progress had been made. The report suggested measures for further improving the UK-funded programme. The 1988 report was sent to the Zimbabwe Government, but ODA received no response.

The UK Land Resettlement Grant finally closed in 1996 with £3m still unspent. The UK Government sought proposals from the Zimbabwe Government on spending the remaining balance. A further technical mission by the ODA in 1996 resulted in new proposals for UK support for land reform. The Zimbabwe Government responded towards the end of 1996, but no agreement was reached before the UK General Election in May 1997.

In September 1998, with UK encouragement, the Zimbabwe Government hosted a Land Conference in Harare, involving all major international donors and the multilateral institutions. Issues raised in the ODA’s 1996 report were considered at the Conference. The UK participated constructively and endorsed the basic principles for land reform agreed at the Conference, as did the Zimbabwe Government. Those principles included the need for: transparency, respect for the rule of law, poverty reduction, affordability and consistency with Zimbabwe’s wider economic interests.

The 1998 Conference agreed a two-year Inception Phase, during which Government resettlement schemes would be tried alongside ideas from the private sector and civil society. In May 1999, consultants began work to identify ways in which the UK Government could provide further support for land reform in Zimbabwe. Terms of reference for a follow-up visit were agreed with the Zimbabwe Government in September 1999. Work on UK support for land reform in Zimbabwe was interrupted by the illegal farm occupations and the subsequent violence in the run-up to the 2000 Parliamentary elections.

The UK’s Current Policy on Land Reform

The UK remains willing to support a land reform programme that is carried out in accordance with the principles agreed by donors and the Zimbabwe Government in 1998. This is also the position of the broad donor community. We are not imposing any new conditions.

In the absence of a Government-led programme which we felt able to support, the Department for International Development (DFID, ODA’s successor) established in March 2000 a £5m Land Resettlement Challenge Fund to support private sector and civil society-led resettlement initiatives. Unfortunately, the Zimbabwe Government has not allowed such private sector initiatives to proceed. It has instead pressed ahead with its Fast Track Resettlement Programme, which the international community has been unable to support.

UNDP Initiative on Land Reform

In late 2000, the UNDP Administrator proposed to the Zimbabwe Government a slowing down of its fast track resettlement programme to fit Zimbabwe’s implementation capacity; independent monitoring of the situation in commercial farming areas; the promotion of internal dialogue; and the possible resumption of UNDP technical assistance. UNDP stressed the importance of a transparent, just and fair land reform that respects the rule of law and in accordance with the principles agreed at the 1998 Land Conference and laws of Zimbabwe. The Government’s reply suggested that it was not willing to move on the major issues blocking re-engagement by the international community.


A group of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers (including the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe) met in Abuja on 6 September 2001 to discuss Zimbabwe. On land reform, they agreed that reform must be implemented in a fair, just and sustainable manner, in the interest of all the people of Zimbabwe, and that any land reform programme should be on the basis of the UNDP proposals of December 2000. The Government of Zimbabwe agreed to honour the principles enshrined in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, to prevent further occupation of farm lands, to restore the rule of law, to take firm action against violence and intimidation and to honour the freedom of expression. At that meeting the UK re-affirmed its commitment to a significant financial contribution to such a land reform programme and gave an undertaking to encourage other international donors to do the same.

In November 2001, the Government of Zimbabwe amended the Land Acquisition Act to allow it to allocate land without giving owners the right to contest the seizures. This contravenes the letter and spirit of Abuja.

Regrettably, the credibility of Abuja has been irreversibly damaged by Zimbabwe’s scant regard for its commitments (respect for the rule of law, end to violence and intimidation). The UNDP report of 2002 on land concludes that Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform programme is chaotic, unsustainable and lacking transparency.

The Fast Track programme

The British Government deplores the approach adopted to recent land reform which has disrupted commercial and communal farming alike. It has been violent and unfair to farm owners and farm workers, and damaging to agricultural production and the national economy.  Up until 2000, commercial agriculture accounted for more than 40% of Zimbabwe's national exports, and was the basis for agro-industry which has since collapsed. 

Even the resettled poor will be left in worse circumstances than before for many years. The Zimbabwe Government's strategy has not adhered to the principles for land reform agreed with donors at the 1998 Land Conference in Harare, and neither has it implemented the programme consistently with its own stated policy and criteria, nor with its repeatedly changed laws and regulations.

Why does Britain insist on poverty reduction and transparency in land reform? 

Land reform carried out for political expediency and without reference to its long term effects will tend to fail because it will not make people better off.  Land reform needs to deliver increased prosperity for the many if it is to be credible.  Current policies of allocating land through patronage to politically influential groups will not reduce poverty. The genuinely poor, not just particular interest groups must be seen to benefit through a properly planned programme that ensures that basic infrastructure and services are available for the settlers. Transparency means that there must be objective criteria and proper procedures for selecting settlers for all resettlement schemes and means of monitoring and publicising what actually happens. To date there has been no transparency in the Fast Track programme.

Wider UK Support for Development in Zimbabwe

Since independence the UK has provided more than £500m in bilateral support for development in Zimbabwe - more than any other donor. In total, the wider donor community has provided over $2bn in assistance. The UK continues to provide annual support for emergency relief and to alleviate HIV/AIDs suffering. The UK has also contributed to development in Zimbabwe through the international financial institutions. The UK funds around 18% of EC spending.

Key Points

  • Land reform is central to Zimbabwe’s development.
  • The UK remains a strong advocate of effective and well-managed land reform.
  • Since Independence, the UK has provided £44m for land reform; and £500m in bilateral support for development in Zimbabwe.
  • There was no provision in the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 to establish a specific fund to support land reform. At Lancaster House, the UK Government made clear that the long term requirements of land reform in Zimbabwe were beyond the capacity of any individual donor country.
  • The UK Government has also contributed to development in Zimbabwe through international financial institutions and the European Union.
  • The UK Government took a leading role with other donors in the 1998 Land Conference in Harare. All participants including the Government of Zimbabwe agreed that land reform in Zimbabwe should be transparent; respect the rule of law; poverty reduction; be affordable; and consistent with Zimbabwe’s wider economic interests.
  • Participants at the Commonwealth Abuja conference in September 2001 – including the UK and Zimbabwe – agreed that ‘land reform must be implemented in a fair, just and sustainable manner, in the interest of all the people of Zimbabwe’.
  • The Zimbabwe Government’s fast track programme is inconsistent with these principles. The United Nations Development Programme’s report of 2002 on land reform bears this out.
  • The UK Government has always been open to discussion on land. It has honoured its commitments at Lancaster House and it remains willing to contribute to a land reform programme in Zimbabwe which makes a sustainable improvement in the lives of Zimbabwe’s rural poor.