EDITORIAL COMMENT: Legal changes can resolve miner-farmer disputes

The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which has to deal with some of the problems and damage when people disagree has come up with a raft of recommendations in its latest annual report.

One major set concern the need to standardise the steps that have to be taken when miners or other investors move into a community.

The disputes between miners and farmers are old and go right back to the days of the British South Africa Company, but with more intensive farming and the conversion of much private land to State land leased out or allocated to individuals the problems can become worse.

Mineral rights in Zimbabwe were first owned by the BSA Company, which acquired them admittedly by deceit and conquest, and were then bought early in the days of the Responsible Government by the Government of Southern Rhodesia in what is generally agreed to have been a first class investment.

But this has always meant that the miner is granted prospecting and mining rights by the State.

The law at the moment dates from 1961, but that was just a rewrite of earlier law, all the way back to the BSA Company days. Under this law the miner has priority over the farmer. 

There are some protections, such as miners cannot prospect too close to buildings and are not allowed to dig up crops, but generally the farmer has to deal with someone else on their land. In the days of large title deed farms, the general practice was for the miner to buy out the farmer when there was a major strike on a farm. 

The farmer usually got top dollar and more than they would have got on a farm market, simply because the miner wanted to be shot of all comebacks, claims for damages and the like.

With smallholder agriculture built either on communal land or on offer letters for State land this is not longer an option, and the commission has a point that we need to find solutions. 

The idea that a valuable mine should have priority over farming is sensible, since a decent mine will produce far more wealth from its few hectares than any farming operation, but in the modern age this means the farmer, if they are to move, needs not just compensation, but also suitable new land for farming.

There are other investment inroads into farming, again making excellent sense nationally and even locally, but requiring people to move. For example if gas and oil condensate is struck in commercially viable quantities in Muzarabani this will be a very big deal for Zimbabwe and for most of the community.

However, a modest number of farmers might have to move. They need to be able to stay near their old homes and have new homes built, and then they are able to benefit with the rest of their community from the new jobs, new business opportunities and the like. 

There will be need for two sets of negotiations, one with the community as a whole ensuring they get the employment priority and other benefits, and one with the small fraction who have to be given a new farm.

Obviously one approach to legal changes is to have a standard process that can be applied, each point ticked off, so that the farmer is not cheated and can continue farming, even if they have to move. 

For practical reasons this means that the new farm, as close as possible to the old and definitely within the same community, needs to be allocated and the new house built before the farmer leaves the old place. It is no longer possible to sell the old place and buy a new farm with the compensation; the new farm needs to physically exist first.

In the old days with more temporary housing and plenty of land moving was not that major an operation. Now a family may have spent a decade building a reasonable house, burning bricks and the like, and cannot suddenly build a new one in a couple of months, especially when they have a farm to run. So new systems are needed.

This can be sorted out reasonably easily. The mining authorities need to be closely linked to the lands and agriculture authorities once prospecting, which can be carried out on a working farm, moves to production, which will disrupt or end farming activities. Once the farmer can be shown the new land, and has seen the new buildings, they will be less despondent over the switch.

There are now other investments in infrastructure and operations coming up that involve farming, starting with irrigation schemes and plantation crops. A dam floods someone’s home; irrigation plots are generally smaller than ordinary farms because they are so much more productive; plantation schemes can transform an area and a community for the better but need to be agreed.

We have seen in Chiredzi area a first class opportunity for a community with a major investor coming in. Most people just benefit. A few have to move, sometimes just a few hundred metres, but obviously they are nervous. Once they can see, staked out, where they are moving and have seen, why they are still living in their old house, the new house being built, then a lot of fears vanish and they are now in the same boat as the rest of their community, being just the winners.

This agreement is not that difficult. We have examples of where everything worked well, examples of where things worked very badly, and quite a lot of where things were not a disaster but could, with very little extra effort and money, have worked rather well. We need to put together all the best practice into a standard operating procedure that can be easily costed and easily applied. This makes it better for the miner or investor as well. If a major mining company knows that along with the 100 plus houses and other development they need to put in place for their own operation they also have to build half a dozen new houses for the displaced farming families, this is something simple and a small fraction of the total project cost.

Even if it is just a small mine, the cost of building one new farm house to get exclusive access to a small farm to convert into a mining operation is trivial compared to the difficulties that could otherwise open up.

The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission is moving from the theory of how we all need to be at peace with one another to the practical steps that are needed for that to happen, and there suggestions for legal changes make a great deal of sense.

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