30 January 2013

Rwanda: Lawmakers Demand Clarity On Land Bill

Parliament on Monday was a scene of a heated four-hour debate on what constitutes a swamp, with no consensus reached.

This was as MPs, government and civil society officials continued scrutinising the new land use draft law.

As the session by the Chamber of Deputies' standing Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Environment started exchanging views on Article 2 (Definitions), MPs and civil society representatives unwaveringly pushed for clarity on the definition of a swamp.

MPs say once the definition of a swamp-which is often claimed as government land-is not clear, there will be problems, especially since some swamps are not permanent and these usually belong to individuals and cannot be claimed by government.

In addition, artificial and natural swamps should be differentiated, lawmakers said.

Issue of claimants

MPs argue that quite often, people have a tendency of claiming some lands, for instance when swamps or mashlands dry up, or government claims land as its own when some places get filled with water, which is often a source of confusion and conflict.

At one point, MP Spéciose Mukandutiye said even Article 18 does not clarify things as suggested by Eng. Didier Sagashya, the deputy director-general of the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority (RNRA).

Mukandutiye said, "It is stated that all swamps belong to government, but it is not clear if this [Article] is [talking about] a man-made swamp or a natural one. When a piece of land is all of a sudden filled with water and vegetation, who then does it belong to?"

MP Gabriel Semasaka suggested that to avoid "confusion" the Bill should adopt the definition contained in the current organic law [of 2005] determining the modalities of protection, conservation and promotion of the environment.

The environment protection law defines a swamp as "a flat area between mountains with much stagnant water and biodiversity, with papyrus, cypress or other vegetation of the same family."

The same law defines a wet land as "a place made up of valleys, plain lands and swamps."

Eng. Sagashya laboured to persuade the session that his office consulted the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (Rema) on a suitable definition, but it was ultimately decided that more consultations are required.

"It is clear that it would be difficult to define what you don't understand: the technical government institutions do not understand it in the same way. Rema has a different understanding from the RNRA, which means that it is not even clear how many swamps exist in the country," Annie Kairaba, the director of the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD) and the coordinator for LandNet Rwanda, an Africa-wide network that brings together policymakers, academics and civil society to work on land issues, told The New Times after the session.

No firm definition

Kairaba added: "Article 18 in the normal law does not even help any better because it is not clear enough. During land tenure registration, some people were allocated swamps and registered as 'own' for lease! It's important to have more clarity before confirming the definition."

Kairaba told the session she feared that if they adopted a definition, Rema could later reject it since it was not participating in the debate.

MP Marie Thérèse Murekatete said clarity must be given as they too will have to "knowledgeably explain and convince the full plenary on the definition issue" when debate in the committee is over.

When participants gave examples of what other land related laws provide on different matters, MP Joseph Désiré Nyandwi, the deputy chairperson of the Committee, said, "That is why there must be debate. All these issues must be ironed out. Let us consult further on everything."

Efforts to get a comment from Rema by press time were futile.

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