Zimbabwe's fledgling unity government cannot agree on much, but when it comes to the land issue President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) share common ground - any return to the pre-2000 pattern of land ownership is non-negotiable.
In 2000 Mugabe launched the fast-track land reform programme, a chaotic and at times violent redistribution of about 4,500 white-owned commercial farms to landless black Zimbabweans; a policy big on patriotic exhortation, but limited in terms of direct assistance to the new small-scale farmers.
"Jambanja" (direct action) was officially aimed at correcting the colonial imbalance in landownership, which after independence in 1980 still left white farmers with the best land, while millions of black Zimbabweans remain crowded onto arid communal areas. But the multiple farms owned by the well-connected, in breach of the government's own guidelines, seemed to undermine the government's position.
ZANU-PF and the MDC, which disagrees with the way that the land redistribution was performed, but not the end result, has called on Britain to compensate white farmers for the loss of their land, based on the Lancaster House agreement which ushered in majority rule. Britain, the former colonial power, has yet to respond to the demands.
Commercial farmers ran Zimbabwe's agro-based economy, producing cash crops such as tobacco and paprika and although they generated foreign currency, they were not major contributors to food security.
That, in the main, was the responsibility of communal farmers. The access enjoyed by small scale farmers to a vibrant agriculture support industry spawned by commercial farming provided access to cheap inputs like fertiliser and seeds.
The 2000 land reform programme saw these businesses crash, and along with successive years of drought, helped tip the country into recession. The UN estimates that more than 5 million people - nearly half the country's population - will require food aid at the beginning of 2009.
South Africa's University of the Western Cape's Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) has been quick to point out that over the past eight years small-scale farmers have been particularly robust in weathering Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil, as well as drought.
Professor Ben Cousins, director of PLAAS, told IRIN that to kick-start Zimbabwe's recovery and to achieve food security, small-scale farmers should have access to some form of subsidised agricultural inputs, rather than any attempt to rollback land reform. The country's main planting season starts in November.
Ian Scoones, a Professorial Fellow at Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies, and a PLAAS partner, warned in a recent paper that "the new government will be offered advice from all quarters - consultants from around the world will arrive by the plane load, and the donor community and foreign think-tanks of all persuasions will forward their preferred plans and programmes".
But Scoones said in his paper: A New Start for Zimbabwe? that research conducted since 2000 in Zimbabwe's southern Masvingo Province "has revealed some important insights that challenge the 'conventional wisdoms' dominating media and academic commentary alike" over the impact of land reform.
About 1.2 million hectares of land in Masvingo Province has been resettled by about 20,000 households, ranging from A1 schemes, or smallholder farms, to A2 schemes, providing for small-scale commercial agriculture. The old agriculture economy, "the inheritance of the colonial era, [was] gone for good", the report said.
The change of land tenure has created five myths, the paper noted: Land reform has been a total failure; the beneficiaries of land reform has largely been political cronies; there is no investment in the new resettlements; agriculture is in complete ruins and the rural economy has collapsed.
|Small-holder farmers have done reasonably well, particularly in wetter parts of the province. Households have cleared land, planted crops and invested in new assets, many hiring labour from nearby communal land|
Despite low capital investment, small-holder farmers have done "reasonably well, particularly in wetter parts of the province. Households have cleared land, planted crops and invested in new assets, many hiring in labour from nearby communal land."
A2 schemes, or small-scale commercial farms, have felt the constraints of the economic meltdown, but there were "notable exceptions" where new farming enterprises have emerged "against all the odds".
While not denying that political patronage was at play in the allocation of "high value" farms close to the capital, Harare, 60 percent of beneficiaries in Masvingo were "ordinary farmers" originating from nearby communal lands.
"This was not a rich, politically-connected elite but poor, rural people in need of land and keen to finally gain the fruits of independence," the report said.
Scoones told IRIN that resuscitating Zimbabwe's agricultural industries, that slumped after the 2000 land reforms, was "just a matter of packaging".
He said that while previously agricultural businesses had catered for commercial farming, and were geared to that scale, there were now more farmers in the market who collectively had the same volume of demand.