16 August 2017

Uganda: Weighing the Stakes in the Amuru Land Saga


The 2008 global food crisis engendered grave concern over the future of food security, especially for the most vulnerable populations within the so-called global South.

Large-scale land acquisition in arable land-rich states of the global South, Uganda included, has come to characterize one of the ways out of this crisis.

The objectives in seeking long-term large-scale land leases are undoubtedly varied, as are the objectives of governments that extend such leases.

The interplay of these forces can be understood within the context of globalisation and within the debate over what is the best or most appropriate way to bringing about economic development and who gets to make these decisions within societies that still have large percentages of their populations living in rural areas and making their livelihoods off land.

I wish to suggest the unfolding pull-and-push for large-scale land acquisition in the district of Amuru since 2012 as being microcosmic of this broader debate over land governance for development.

Indeed, this case of Amuru demonstrates that there is no single answer to this debate. Some forces within and beyond the district advocate for large-scale mechanised agriculture, and argue that the land is underutilised.

Other forces want to maintain the status quo, and simply argue to be left alone. Within this debate, questions over access to resources, the role of government, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the most appropriate drivers of (economic) development are not agreed upon.

Not long ago, I carried out seven-day fieldwork in two sub-counties of Amuru district - Amuru and Atiak - engaging a host of clan elders (seven), sub-county leaders (eight), local small-scale farmers (16) as well as large-scale farmers (three), and local investors (two).

Within Amuru's quasi-urban settings and along highways to the district headquarters are farmers' stores or produce kiosks with bold words painted on them: "Kica Ber farmers" (loosely translated as 'merciful farmers') or "Pur Ber farmers" (loosely translated as 'good farming').

Uganda's National Development Plan 2010/11-2014/15 asserts that agriculture needs to be modernised.

Expectedly, such a move for modernisation of agriculture could only tantamount to increased mechanisation in the agricultural sector, taking place on large-scale - whether intensively or extensively.

The Constitution asserts in Section XI (iii) of the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy that: "In furtherance of social justice, the state may regulate the acquisition, ownership, use and disposition of land and other property, in accordance with the Constitution."

In Chapter 15 (Land and Environment), 237 (1) of the Constitution, it is stated that "Land in Uganda belongs to the citizens of Uganda and shall vest in them in accordance with the land tenure systems provided for in this Constitution."

The next sub-section asserts the government's right to acquire land when it is in public interest. The tension over what constitutes 'public interest' is remarkably influenced by many factors - local, state and global - and has implications for a myriad of social, economic and political institutions within these societies.

Rhetorically, for instance, one clan elder interviewed during my field visit pondered upon the values which ought to underpin the conduct of a large-scale commercial farming venture in today's Amuru in the following terms:

"Large-scale commercial farming for whom? Why embrace a move benefitting a few at the expense of many locals?

If government's idea to develop Amuru through large-scale commercial farming is eventually undertaken by disempowering Amuru people [indigenous farmers], then they [the government] better stay with their development and leave us alone!"

Looking at specific cases of large-scale land acquisition deals, one, indeed, cannot help ask the following questions: Who are the winners and losers?

By and large, however, there seemed to be no correlation between the embrace of large-scale commercial farming and decrease in food security at household levels in the two sub-counties I visited.

Furthermore, my respondents (small-scale farmers) in Labongogali village pointed out some threat borne out of the embrace of large-scale commercial farming to food sovereignty of the people of the area where such farming takes place.

Indeed, there is every reason to worry about the local community's food security as well as sovereignty when a private entity in the agriculture sector emerges to dictate their whims to the local community. What is even more worrying is the sustainability of such large-scale mechanised farming.

The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.


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