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Land Reform in Africa by Eddie Cross

Most of Africa has a very fragile natural environment - the Sahara Desert was once open Savannah with rivers and lakes. It is now the largest desert in the world and is expanding every year. Even in the tropical forest areas, the natural environment is very fragile and needs careful management.

Africa has always been sparsely populated - even today, by Asian standards we are an empty continent. Because of this, traditional agricultural systems have persisted in most of the continent. These systems were based on a "slash and burn" culture, which involved moving to new virgin land every few years. Housing was generally built to suit this form of agriculture and was easily abandoned and replaced when the village or the family moved. Where cultivation was not possible, nomads moved over vast areas of the continent with herds of livestock on which their lives depended.

So long as the population remains low and sparse, these traditional systems were well suited to Africa. The land was protected by the movement of populations off areas that were becoming exhausted and were then allowed to recover over a period of years until they were again deemed to be able to support human activity. Under these circumstances it was difficult to develop the features of more permanent human settlements which were to be found in other parts of the world. So healthcare and education remained limited and were based on a needs basis. Hunters and gatherers such as the Sen of Southern Africa taught their children about their natural environment and history. Only in places such as Egypt where the environment made it possible for permanent settlement were more sophisticated social systems evolved.

When colonial occupation became the norm in the late 1800's, this began to change. For one thing there was a sudden intrusion of cultures and systems developed in other areas of the world. The conflicts and health epidemics, which had kept African populations down, were curbed and standards of living began to rise in most countries. As the populations grew, so demand for new land to replace exhausted areas became part of the local political scene. This was complicated in some countries by the emergence of a settler class who took up large areas of land for commercial agriculture. Where such activity did not take place, the country remained under traditional forms of government and tenure.

Whatever the situation on the ground, the competition for land became a matter of life or death. If a community, living on a piece of land did not change its agricultural practices, the land they were using became more and more exhausted until it was no longer able to support the population. At that point, any dislocation caused by weather or other activity results in immediate human suffering. Without any domestic social safety nets, this then involves the global community who are asked to come in with food aid and other forms of support.

At the root of this situation is Africa's determination to hold onto traditional forms of tenure. There are three reasons for this - it is what the people know and are used to, traditional forms of government through Chiefs and Headmen are based on the allocation and use of land on a communal basis and now, modern systems of despotic government rely on impoverished rural peasantry as a source of reliable support based on patronage. So when Mozambique became an independent state, it abolished private ownership of land. Angola did the same although it must be accepted that this was partly to do with the Marxist background of many of their leadership.

With populations continuing to grow and already at levels that make traditional forms of agriculture unsustainable, the issue of tenure is the most important single policy issue confronting the continent. If it is not tackled Africa will continue to stagger from crisis to crisis and its main export will be economic refugees fleeing to other parts of the world where they can make a living and send home small sums of money each month to help their remaining families survive.

It must be noted as an aside, that this flow of refugees is inhibiting growth and development in Africa as the outflow is dominated by the educated and skilled minority who are acceptable to the developed countries as immigrants. The outflow is also inhibiting the development of democracy as the emigrants are almost all from urban areas and constitute the core of any emerging democratic systems.

As has been stated elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with African land or its climate or its people. They are hard working and innovative. The problem is the system within which they are required to work which does not allow the accumulation of wealth and the development of enterprise. This is because it does not allow security of tenure over permanent assets. Such rights are taken for granted in all developed countries and are now being adopted in the former Marxist states of Europe. In Asia such rights are well established. Only Africa remains committed in the main to communal forms of tenure.

In Zimbabwe the conflicts are intense as the exhausted communal areas demand "resettlement" in fertile areas of the country presently occupied by commercial farms. This primordial conflict is being exploited for political ends by the Mugabe regime that is using all the "buzz words" of black liberation to justify his actions. He claims this is an effort to "correct the injustices of the colonial era" - over 80 per cent of those who are being forcibly dispossessed in Zimbabwe made their investments after independence. He claims he is settling "landless peasants" on the land being taken from white indigenous farmers by force when in fact 2 million people are being displaced to make room for 300 000 "settlers". Most of these are Zanu PF supporters who are in positions in government or the private sector and are in fact being rewarded with assets looted by the acquisition process. The constitutional, legal and investment rights of these individuals are being violated in the process and some US$6 billion in assets is being stolen from their rightful owners, who have no recourse.

But more seriously, Mugabe is destroying the only system of productive, self-sustaining agriculture in Africa, which has any chance of feeding the continent, creating jobs and raising living standards. Land degradation is far advanced in all communal areas, not because of land pressure (population densities on commercial farms are as great or even more dense than in communal areas), but because the system of agriculture used is unsustainable. This is why the Sahara Desert became established, why it continues to expand. It is the main reason for the growth of Deserts in southern Africa. It is the main reason for the collapse of food systems when minor weather shifts take place in Africa.

Africa is the one continent where poverty, hunger, disease and ignorance are all on the increase. Its also the one continent where the problems of insecurity of investment means that foreign direct investment into the continent is virtually restricted to resource based activity - mainly oil and minerals. It's also the continent where the problems of governance, corruption and the abuse of human and legal rights are most prevalent.

At the root of these problems is not culture, or race or the left over effects of colonialism, it's simply security for the continent business community. Security for the millions of small farmers who live off the land, the millions of small traders, manufacturers and miners who have no secure legal and other rights over the assets they are creating and who are at the mercy of corrupt local and national leaders. Until this is resolved, there will be little progress and Africa will continue to bleed.

Eddie Cross is Secretary for Economic Affairs for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the leading opposition political party in Zimbabwe. Mr. Cross can be reached via e-mail at:

Eddie Cross

Thursday, October 10, 2002

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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