25 December 2012

Rwanda: More Land Reforms Need to Ensure Food Security


One in every seven people in the world went to sleep hungry, last night as high food prices pushed 70 million more people into extreme poverty, a recent World Bank reported says.

At the root of this deplorable situation is declining yields per acre of farmland due to global warming and soil degradation.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, says 80% of the current fertile farmland in sub-Saharan Africa will turn to "dustbowls" at the turn this century. This will certainly make the situation dire.

The new land law, passed in 2005, gives the government of Rwanda authority to manage and regulate the use of all land in the country.

According to Article 3 of this law the state has supreme powers to manage all the national land and "it is the state that guarantees the right to own and use the land." This is a remarkable departure from the past where peasants owned and used the land as they wished. The consequences are now staring at us - land fragmentation, degradation and food insecurity.

Several scholars have correctly pointed out that a good land tenure system is one of the major factors that determine its sustainable exploitation and hence food security and national development. Therefore, effective distribution and regulated use is important in ensuring sustainable land use.

For centuries, land in most parts of Africa has been in the hands of subsistence (peasant) farmers who apply crude tools and methods of cultivation to produce food barely enough for their own domestic consumption.

Save for the few cases especially of 'settler states' like Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa where colonial masters introduced commercial farming of largely cash crops, arable land in Africa remained in the hands of peasants. The result has been massive degradation due to poor farming methods, unregulated destruction of forest cover and draining of wetlands.

With high population growth rates, peasants have further eroded land productivity by fragmenting it.

In the case of Rwanda, one of the most densely populated countries on planet earth, official statistics from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning show that there is one hectare of land for every nine Rwandans! And is this is diminishing due to high birth rates with the country's population is expected to hit 16 million by 2020.

After centuries of progressively degrading and fragmenting the land, peasants can no longer feed themselves and cries for government assistance and foreign aid are becoming louder and persistent in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Time is therefore now to institute bold land reforms to remove a peasant farmer from the land to allow proper and sustainable management by the sate whose role in ensuring food security has now become more critical.

These days when people don't have food, they accuse the government of negligence.

Time is now for the state in Africa to take full control of land by expropriating it for commercial food production. This will require not half-hearted measures but a very elaborate agricultural revolution that will see peasants relocate to planned settlements from where they will commute to work in farms and the agro-processing industries that will emerge as a result of commercial products.

The dictates of urban and semi urban life will help reduce the birth rates that are currently rising in rural areas.

Luckily for Rwanda, a new law that points to that direction is already in place.

With the new law that gives nationals only leasing rights on the land they occupy, this country can indeed put an end to land fragmentation. This is possible because a father of 10 sons who is currently living on a hectare, no longer has the right to sub-divide it into plots and distribute to his sons. He needs the permission of the landlord (the state) to transfer his lease rights.

It is now up to the government to come up with a more enabling legislation that will move this process ahead by designating certain areas for planned settlements so as to free most of the land for commercial farming and industrial production.

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