Sunday, March 9, 2008

Land Reform in Kenya: Which Way?

Land is Kenya’s most intractable national issue. Kenya’s independence struggle was waged primarily on land grievance. But land is not only bound with sovereignty. It also lies at the heart of social, political and economic life. However,

Access and ownership of arable land underlines the deep seated political, socio-economic and regional inequities in Kenya. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, a network advocating for land reform, more than half the arable land is owned by 20 per cent while 13 per cent of Kenyans are landless.

Land is tied with ethnic identity. There are lingering claims to alienated tribal lands. The Pokot say they were not compensated for the alienation of what is now Trans Nzoia district. Similarly, the Maasai assert that they were swindled out of their land through the Maasai Agreements of 1904 and 1911.

The Ndungu Commission report revealed that landlessness among squatters is linked to the failure of the post-independence governments to implement a comprehensive resettlement programme. Because they lack ethnic entitlement, squatters are vulnerable to frequent displacements and dispossession.

The management of tribal land rights is a tripwire for social and political turmoil. In particular, the unresolved grievance of colonial land alienation underlies the risks of social and political conflict. Many analysts have argued that land is the reason why Rift Valley was the epicenter of the recent post-election violence. Unresolved historical claims to tribal territory render existing property rights weak or uncertain.

At independence, arable land was deemed inexhaustible resource. But rapid population growth, demographic mobility and rising land market value have triggered intense competition for land. Today, Kenya’s arable land which comprises only 20 per cent of Kenya’s total land area of 582,646 Sq. Km is inhabited by 75 per cent area of Kenya’s 34 million people.

Many sub-locations in Nyanza, Western and Central province have per capita land holdings of about 0.07 hectares, the benchmark of land scarcity. It is projected that by 2025, Kenya will join the ranks of countries suffering from a scarcity of arable land.

A Draft National Land Policy (DNLP) has been formulated to reform rights and access to land for all Kenyans. The land reform policy is based on the principles of redistribution, restitution, resettlement, and land readjustment.

The approach of the DNLP is redistributive. It is founded on the principles of State-led agrarian reform. There is little empirical evidence that redistributive policy approaches have achieved desired land reform goals. In India, home to a significant proportion of the world’s poor, the efficacy of this approach however, has been limited and much debated.

Implementation of the proposals of the DNLP depends on the availability of suitable land. In reality, runaway population growth, land degradation and declining per capita arable land holding leaves not enough land to go round.

Proponents of Market-led land reform advocate for individual land rights through secure tenure and progressive taxation to discourage speculative land hoarding. This policy approach leads inevitably, to a strong private land market that encourages land sale and supports land rental markets.

Market-led reforms do not favour the landless. However, a reliable land rent market has the potential to attract investors in who have access to capital and skills to invest in agro-business in rural areas. The rural poor and the landless then have an opportunity to offer their labour for competitive wages.

Smallholder farmers must be encouraged through land sale or land rentals to leave the agricultural sector to give way to larger holdings. Larger farms can attain higher production efficiencies, cope with competition and tap the benefits of globalization. Former smallholder farmers should seek employment as farm workers or shift to the industrial or service sectors.

Skeptics ask if this is realistic, especially when there is little evidence of an emerging industrial sector. Their sense is that the government should provide greater support so that smallholder farmers remain a central pillar of our economy.

Kenya will not become a MIDDLE INCOME COUNTRY by 2030 if 75 per cent of us are trapped in peasantry and poverty in handkerchief-seized parcels of land. I doubt that the heavy investment in education and the proposals to revamp science and technology are meant to gear up the next generation of peasant farmers.

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