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February 3, 2010 9:15 PM   Subscribe

African land reform, plot by plot, may be the foundation for solving so much else – from famine to poverty to genocide.
posted by lullaby (6 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Worked out great for Zimbabwe.
posted by delmoi at 9:58 PM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting article.

The Rwandan genocide, some argue, was as much about the dwindling land availability in Africa's most densely populated country as it was about enmity between ethnic groups.


Having spent the last couple weeks in rural Rwanda, I believe this entirely - everywhere you go outside of Kigali is literally covered with small sustenance farms. And Rwanda is a damn hilly country, you wouldn't believe some of the views of endless hills, stretching to the distance, and every inch of every one of them covered with these off-angle squares and rectangles.

Since 2004, 2.5 million acres of land have been allocated by five African governments to food production for foreign countries, often without recognizing or fairly compensating farmers with traditional claims to that land.

This burns me to no end. Ethiopia, a country where food crises remain, and have been for most of my life, a major challenge, is a food exporter to Saudi Arabia. And yet still USAID corn-soy-bean, lentils, cooking oils, what have you ship monthly to the country, en masse. DRC is selling off its acreage by the tens of thousands to South African farmers, who will get the tenders for their crops from the Chinese. WTF, world superpowers. If there's one thing I've learned in a few years living in Africa, its been the simply terror-inducing rate at which world population is ballooning, and the affect it is having on our most basic resources. In my head, I see a picture of the population as a whole being pushed towards a large cliff. The small and less powerful get pushed towards the back, and they're the first to go over.

The minute you start [to] document [land] rights, the people who have the most power are going to have every reason to take rights from the people who have the least power." Tinkering with land policy – as in, say, Darfur – "is lighting the match, potentially, that causes the fire."


This, here. What these countries need first is not land reform, but governments that are filled with non-corrupt politicians held to high standards of accountability and transparency. Land reform can only work *after* you create an environment in which it is feasible. Ironically, having worked and lived in most of the countries mentioned in this article - and a few others - Rwanda seems closer to that than any other country on the list, and when I say that, I *include* South Africa. Real, substantial change won't come for these nations unless it first comes through justice in the governments and legal systems.

Worked out great for Zimbabwe.

What happened in Zimbabwe wasn't land reform. And when it comes to first having a just governance structure to make such changes effective, they're about last in line.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:53 AM on February 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


Thanks, allkindsoftime.

What these all countries need first is not land reform, but governments that are filled with non-corrupt politicians held to high standards of accountability and transparency.

FTFY, as they say in Metafilteria. As resources dwindle it seems this goal is receding for all countries. As per usual the venal sociopaths smarm the populace with palliative untruths from one side of their mouths, whilst spewing caitiff alarmist nonsense about the scapegoat du jour from the other. They feel the approach of the impending cliff edge just like the rest of us, but rather than asking what can be done about this for the general good, they are busy trying to cut a swathe through the crowd in an attempt to get to a safer position. Maybe eventually they will be trampled under the feet of the hoi polloi, maybe we will all stop jostling for position long enough to realise what is going on and reverse the tide. Let's hope. Keep up the good work!
posted by asok at 4:13 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


What happened in Zimbabwe wasn't land reform. And when it comes to first having a just governance structure to make such changes effective, they're about last in line.
That's what they called it :P. The thing is, how do you actually manage to do this in a way that's actually fair and equitable? It seems like in the real world, trying to actually implement this is fraught with peril. The article doesn't really present too many solutions either, just "local reconciliation" -- providing a forum for people to work out their differences, I guess. That could be nice I suppose, but I don't see that as being a very quick solution.

The real problem, I think, is that African economies aren't secure enough to provide people security if they don't have land that they can live and farm on. If that was in place then people would be less worried about land. Obviously. Most people in the U.S. just own either a house (usually under mortgage) or rent. Of course we do have very secure property rights too.
What these all countries need first is not land reform, but governments that are filled with non-corrupt politicians held to high standards of accountability and transparency.
Even if the government is totally transparent, it's not going to help unless people can actually understand what it's doing. Before you can have an effective government, you need an educated population.
posted by delmoi at 8:18 AM on February 4, 2010


Great article—thanks for posting it. I suspect a lot of people will be reluctant to read all six pages, so here's a condensed version that hits some of the high points:
"In Africa, most of the population has no documents. They believe they own the land as a group because they have been there for millennia," says John Unruh, a land tenure expert at McGill University in Montreal. "Their mythology about how they came into the world involves that specific location, so identity is often very much tied up in where groups want access."

But often outsiders didn't know – or just ignored – this. When European powers sliced up the continent in the late 19th century, they thought of Africa as an empty mass free for the taking. Colonial rulers brought along the notion of private property. Suddenly, the land system changed. In the old system, an entire community owned land, managed by the elders. With the advent of private property, history meant nothing next to paperwork: Title to land trumped tradition. But as is often the case with indigenous groups around the world – including in the United States – those who walked away with legal deeds for the land and those who lived and worked on those lands for generations were usually not the same people.

As a result, one big tension in today's Africa is about how groups get that access – by tradition or by title. Today, according to the United Nations Development Program, roughly 90 percent of rural Africa – 500 million people – have access to their land because their ancestors did. They trust this traditional system to give them the chance to farm crops and build homes. That utility is what gives their land value.

A title-based system looks entirely different: It starts and ends with money. A title system universalizes value by privatizing land, making it an asset that can be sold – or, more important, used as collateral. Any buyer with enough cash can buy a plot from a willing seller. Prevailing development wisdom says that, under this system, land begets credit, and credit begets wealth.

But that wisdom is driven largely by outsiders with hefty aid packages, and it's problematic for reasons anyone familiar with America's subprime mortgage crisis could understand. Those who push land reform "are asking people who really can't afford to use their land as collateral, who see their land in a completely different way – as their livelihood – to use their land as a source of capital," says Ambreena Manji, author of "The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets."

That land, meanwhile, is increasingly threatened. The UN Environment Program estimates that only 20 percent of Africa's land is arable; the rest – deserts, woodlands, wetlands – can't be farmed. What can be cultivated is quickly being swallowed up by countries like China and India, whose populations outstrip their agricultural capacity. Since 2004, 2.5 million acres of land have been allocated by five African governments to food production for foreign countries, often without recognizing or fairly compensating farmers with traditional claims to that land. Meanwhile, Africa's population is swelling; it's expected to double to nearly 2 billion within 40 years. If those 2 billion people doubt that they will have the land rights needed to feed and shelter themselves, experts say, the continent may yet again find itself overrun with war.

...

Despite constant talk of tribal tensions, experts say that in Liberia – and in much of Africa – ethnicity is rarely the real issue. Mr. Unruh, at McGill, says ethnic conflict, or even drought or famine, are usually symptoms of a deeper land dispute. "Underneath all of that," he says, "is an ongoing land conflict, or different understandings about how land is accessed and used."

But those understandings aren't static. Across Africa, circumstances are changing the way people think about land. In some places, such as Darfur, global warming is shifting natural boundaries, inviting clashes between once peaceful, pastoral farmers and nomadic herders over shrinking pastures; in others, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, war has shifted cultural norms of authority.

...

Liberia's outlook is mixed. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is much beloved at home and abroad. She's taken an uncompromising stand on the land issue, refusing to sign deeds for the sale of public land until the land commission recommends reforms. Because all customary land is considered public, that effectively halts land grabs, at least by large-scale entrepreneurs eyeing rural Liberia's abundance of timber, rubber, and diamonds.

But Liberia's capital, Monrovia, is beginning to crack. The world is in the midst of a sweeping rural-to-urban migration that seems especially stark in Liberia; nearly half of the country's 3.5 million people live in Monrovia.

"The greatest issues in my view are the urban land issues," says Brady. "They involve the majority of our poor people, who reside as squatters" in urban shantytowns. Until they are addressed, he says, they will "bog down the judicial system" and inhibit investment.

The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.

"Some people must make sacrifices. They must," says Brady. "It's as simple as that."
Note to delmoi: Try RTFA next time before starting off a comment thread with a stupid and pointless bit of snark. You're smarter than that makes you look.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The real problem, I think, is that African economies aren't secure enough to provide people security if they don't have land that they can live and farm on.

Good point, but I think this touches on something that the article itself alluded to but didn't really investigate - even in Africa the massive influx from suburban areas to urban cities is ON. This dynamic is changing, if only for a small percentage of the population for whom life is moving forward for, by leaps and bounds.

Before you can have an effective government, you need an educated population.

I don't know that I completely agree with that, or even think its possible, in a lot of African contexts. If you can work with that small population who can get an education and be successful in business and medicine and politics and law and what have you - well, they are still Malawians, or Liberians, or Kenyans, or whatever. Why shouldn't they be the ones to lead positive change for the vast majority of their fellow countrymen who can't have access to such things, but want access for their children, or children's children.

I guess long story short there could be a lot of back and forth on the effective governance vs. populace education spectrum - kind of a chicken or the egg scenario in some senses.

(and, to echo languagehat - thanks for the follow-up comment, I knew you were smarter than the first one made you look ;)
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:05 AM on February 4, 2010


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