June 24, 2003

Land experts point to a lack of progress in land reform

An informal meeting of land experts from southern Africa have expressed concern over a "lack of real progress" in land redistribution in the region. They say governments have failed to come up with viable policies and programmes.

A regional 'think tank meeting', held in Pretoria recently, was called by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) regional office to analyse constraints to sustainable land reform. Namibia was represented by land policy consultant Dr Wolfgang Werner.

The meeting said Namibia has been unable to devise technical solutions to land use problems arising from the high costs of resettling small-scale farmers in a sparsely populated semi-arid pastoral environment. "Namibia has the usual policy dilemmas (economic production versus poverty alleviation) in the communal and commercial areas and of deciding what the role of stakeholders (national, regional, traditional leaders, local users and occupiers) should be," the report said. It added that the policy differences are played out in tensions between the "highly politicised" Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation and the more technocratic Ministry of Agriculture. "Weak leadership, management and chronic incapacity in the former [Lands] have been a major constraint".

This, they continued, is reflected in the comparative performance of two different types of land redistribution programmes: the Ministry of Lands' land settlement programme for the landless, "which has been a dreadful failure", and the Ministry of Agriculture's affirmative action loan scheme (facilitated by the Agricultural Bank) for emerging black commercial farmers, which seemed to be a success in terms of its stated objectives. Events in Zimbabwe and their repercussions, both within the country and for Namibia and South Africa, dominated the discussions.

The report from the meeting said governments have failed to allocate the financial and human resources needed to address the land situation. "At the same time, donors have found it increasingly difficult to justify the allocation of aid resources to land reform in the region. This reluctance is due to the lack of viable policies and programmes and is also a response to policy trends - in practice if not in rhetorical terms - away from the pro-poor agenda that donors feel should be the focus of land reform policies," the report said.

The meeting found that land grabbing by elite groups is evident across the region, even where new legal frameworks protect existing local land rights. "There are also signs across the region that problems are due to a failure of governments which are varyingly authoritarian, centralised and indifferent to human rights issues," the group of 14 experts said. The group said neither Namibia nor South Africa are any closer to finding land reform solutions and expressed concern about "grave consequences" if the two countries allow the current impasse to continue. "The cost of taking no effective action could be very high indeed. The political will to get to grips with land reform is apparently lacking and perhaps best understood in the context of other, more acute, concerns facing these governments".

The think tank said the 'willing-seller, willing-buyer' concept must be dropped if it is found to be a constraint. "We felt that there are several issues around this subject that need more investigation, such as the real nature of the constraint it imposes, and whether it is the supply of land or the other conditions (price and who gets land once it is redistributed) that are the real problem". According to the group, donors in the region see assistance for land reform as politically sensitive and complex, likely to result in negative consequences whatever the moral foundation, and therefore best avoided.

The report urges donors not to "walk away when things turn sour, but [to] rather tread carefully and maintain a base flow of support. Nor should they give up on promoting a redistribution agenda, notwithstanding the disaster unfolding in Zimbabwe, which seems to have become the reference point in spite of it really being the worst case scenario". (The Namibian, Windhoek)

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