Justin Morris proudly displayed the slip of paper that proved his illegal squatting on government land had been worthwhile.

Government officials had just assigned his family of three wives and seven children to a 30-acre plot in field 62 of Village 17 at Chinyike, a vast agricultural resettlement project 80 miles southeast of Harare, capital of Zimbabwe.

The friend he was visiting, Joel Chivunga, had not been so lucky. Chivunga's family of 10, including three wives and six children ages 1 to 8, were living in fear that the police would evict them from the small plot they had been occupying for four months.

Their two huts had a look of impermanence and were placed out of sight of the road to Chinyike, which is scheduled to provide a new home for 4,000 landless families in the largest resettlement project in this southern African country.

The different fates of the two families illustrates the dilemma faced by the young government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe as it strives to reverse decades of land discrimination against blacks by the previous white government of Rhodesia.

Half the farming land--the most fertile part--was reserved for about 5,000 white farmers. The other half was slowly worked out by about 750,000 black peasant farmers.

Mugabe has launched an ambitious program designed to resettle about 10 percent of the country's 7.5 million population on land purchased by the government from the whites and yet not disturb Zimbabwe's enviable status as one of the few black African countries that is self-sufficient in food. The white farmers produce about 90 percent of Zimbabwe's marketed agricultural output.

The plan calls for more than half of the white-owned farmland, about 20 million acres, to be bought by the government and then farmed by landless blacks on private plots, cooperatives and state farms.

If Mugabe moves too rapidly, Zimbabwe could shift from the elite ranks of food exporters to the common African pattern of food importer. If he goes too slowly, he will face mounting political opposition because to hundreds of thousands of blacks the bloody war that brought independence three years ago was fought over land.

So far, Mugabe has acted cautiously with only about 18,000 families resettled, mainly on individual plots, in 2 1/2 years. The government, however, has now set a target of resettling 162,000 families, if possible, in the next three years, a goal that is almost certainly unreachable. The current rate of settling 1,300 families a month would have to almost be quadrupled to attain the goal.

"We are definitely behind schedule," said Langford Chitsike, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rural Development. He blamed water shortages for most of the delay, but also cited organizational difficulties and dissident violence.

The squatters maintain pressure on the government and they also devastate the land by farming on steep terrain and riverbanks, cutting down trees and grazing cattle indiscriminately.

Although no firm figures exist, one official estimated that there are 75,000 squatters in the mountainous eastern highlands near the Mozambique border, a stronghold of Mugabe's political support. Most are urban residents who are not eligible for land.

Most of the squatting is on government land not yet allocated for resettlement, but one white farmer had about 800 squatters for two years before the government moved them to a new settlement or back to a mission.

For Mugabe to solve the squatter problem by force is "like spitting in the face of his own voters," said Morris Mtsambiwa, a veteran official in government and private resettlement projects. One official noted that squatters often accompany their demands for land with contributions to Mugabe's party.

Such political pressure is of great concern to Jim Sinclair, head of the commercial farmers' union, which represents the white farmers.

"The resettlement program is far too much a response to political pressure rather to economic reality," he said.

To resettle 162,000 families under the program means the government will have to buy 60 percent of the 40 million acres of white-owned farmland, he said, or 24 million acres. That would put some of the most productive acreage in the hands of novice farmers, since the program is for the landless and jobless. Experience in farming is not a requirement.

It will also mean, according to Sinclair, that most of the 300,000 families currently working for the commercial farmers will either have to be moved or accommodated in the resettlement schemes.

"What's the point of destroying something to replace it with something that doesn't work as well?" Sinclair asked.

He also said the projected plots for individual farmers, which have been progressively reduced from 200 acres to as little as 12 in some cases, are too small to be viable. The farmers will not have title to the land but only the use of it on a renewable annual lease which, he maintained, will block expansion and individual initiative and hamper productivity.

The ministry's Chitsike responded that officials "are trying, as much as they can, not to disturb highly productive farms," which provide "a bankable source of supply."

State farms, he said, operate on the same basis as commercial farms and can supplant them in some cases, although in many African countries such ventures have failed.

Rather than fragmenting good farmland, the sites can become cooperatives, supporting 50 or more families, he said. Although most of the farmers resettled so far have been placed on individual plots at their request, the government hopes eventually that more than half will be on cooperatives.

He also challenged the assumption that black peasant farmers will be less productive. Under the old regime, he said, whites got all the advantages while blacks "were cut off from anything that modernized agriculture."

The average white farmer received $18,000 a year in short-term credit while the figure for the black peasant farmer was $2, he said. Blacks had the worst land, did not receive agricultural extension services and were cut off from market by lack of transport, he added.

Chitsike noted that in 1981, the first harvest after independence, the black communal lands produced a surplus of food, reversing the pattern of food insufficiency.

One place where Sinclair and Chitsike agreed was in the area of cooperatives.

"If cooperatives are properly run, they are a better answer to resettlement than individual ownership" because of the economies of size, Sinclair said.

The problem for the government is that most of those resettled have resisted cooperatives, opting instead for their own plot.

"We think it is better to work individually," said Victor Nyamurera who recently moved to the Delta project about 70 miles south of Harare. "People in cooperatives think differently. I don't think it is necessary to join a cooperative."

The government hopes to lure settlers by providing electricity, better transportation and more schooling at cooperatives, to which Nyamurera responds, "The government can provide it for them; why not for us?"

Twenty miles away at Shandisayio-Pfungwa cooperative where 84 families are now living, there was a different point of view.

Mike Gombere, 21, the deputy secretary, said, "The cooperative is both employment and a home." Vivian Maeresea, the district administrator for the area, said that in general young people are the only ones interested in cooperatives since they have never had any land before, even in the worked-out communal areas.

One exception is Simon Paulis, 52, who worked for 18 years as a "garden boy" for the white owner, J. W. Klobers, before he sold the 6,200-acre farm to the government in 1981 for about $110,000.

Paulis' starting salary was about $9 a month plus housing and food and it had only reached $21 by the time of independence after which a minimum wage of $75 was introduced.

Now, as he puts it, he is "self-management," in charge of of raising the cooperative's chicks.

"It's better than the old days," he said, adding that he'd "still like to have more room" for his family of five children and two grandchildren.

Members of a privately funded cooperative, Simukai, just outside Harare, found that all but seven of the 56 workers on the old commercial farm they are renting left because they did not understand the principle of cooperatives.

"It's quite difficult to come and work and not be paid," said Nkosana Sibanda, deputy chairman, "but the time is going to come when people will be paid."

The cooperative is assisted by the Zimbabwe Project, a private relief organization, but much of the funds come from the ex-combatants who comprise most of the membership. The 40 ex-combatants invest more than half of their monthly $200 demobilization pay, which will terminate this year.

Even though most of the resettlement projects are in their infancy with some just planting their first crop, the government program is already one of the largest in Africa. In the first year and a half, the government bought more farmland than Kenya purchased in the first 15 years of resettlement after independence.

About 5 million acres has been bought or is under negotiation so far at a projected price of $44 million, which includes development costs for schools, roads and irrigation. Most of the land was abandoned during the war and is being purchased on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis. Britain is providing half the money as part of its assistance to the former British colony.

Current plans call for the purchase of at least another 37.5 million acres. Sinclair said there will not be that much land willingly available.

A diplomat familiar with the program said that in the short term there is no way the government can remove that much land from the commercial sector and maintain agricultural production.

He was more optimistic, however, for the long term if the government withstands the pressures to move rapidly.

"So far, they have trod the tightrope of conflicting pressures fairly well," he concluded.