December 1, 2011

Pastoralists fear land "modernization" act

Livestock herders in Lesotho are suspicious of the government’s motives for “modernizing” the land tenure system, fearing it will bring about a radical change in their way of life and deprive them of their birthright to land. “This land act is not for us, it’s for people sitting in the highest seats of government and in the fancy chairs in the city,” Khotso Lehloka, secretary general of the Lesotho Herders Association (LHA), which represents between 17,000 and 20,000 livestock herders, said.

About three-quarters of Lesotho’s 1.8 million people derive their livelihood from agriculture, although only around 10 percent of the land is suitable for arable farming. Constitutionally, all the land belongs to King Letsie III and is held in trust by all Basotho males or heads of household. Land acts passed in 1968 and 1979 did not contain a formal lease-based tenure system because land was regarded as communal.

The 2010 Land Administration Authority Act has broken from past practice by allowing security of tenure, in the hope of luring foreign direct investment to act as a stimulus for the rural economy. A growing population and land degradation are also putting greater pressure on a limited resource. “The Land Act is part of an overall strategy to modernize the economy of Lesotho, so that investors can come, start a business and receive mortgage financing and insurance,” planning and finance minister Timothy Thahane emphasised. “This is the kind of process that is necessary in a modern economy.”

The Human Development Index of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) ranks this mountainous country, which is completely surrounded by neighbouring South Africa, at 160 out of 180 nations. Each year about 350,000 people routinely face food insecurity, and falling food production necessitates importing between 60 and 70 percent of the national requirement.

The Act establishes the Land Administration Authority (LAA), an autonomous agency of the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftainship that will be responsible for record keeping, the regulation and allocation of land and rentals, and the approval of foreign ownership, which will now be permitted in partnership with a local national holding at least a 20 percent stake. The goal of these measures is to provide “secure land tenure for all citizens and promote economic growth”. Section 77 of the LAA says “A citizen of Lesotho shall be entitled to the lease free of ground rent of land, which he leases and occupies for his own residential use.” The Authority has conducted pilot projects in a few selected villages and LAA leasing director Letele Mosae says the system will start rolling out in 2012.

According to Tsoeu Petlane, a researcher who works in Maseru, capital of Lesotho, for the Johannesburg-based think-tank, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), the traditional communal system of land ownership had led to inefficient land management. “Every male Basotho is entitled to inherit plots of land, but while families expand, land does not, so the plots kept getting smaller and smaller. Because this was all done informally, eventually there were a lot of disputes” he explained.

The government is constantly involved in resolving land disputes, and the Act will ensure property is surveyed and documented, along with foreign ownership boosting investment, but there are concerns about how the new system will affect pastoralists. “There are some unresolved questions,” Petlane pointed out. “What happens to traditional grazing lands? If those formerly communal grazing lands are bought up, where will herders without land feed their cattle?” And the SAIIA report in September 2011, Implementing the ARPM [African Peer Review Mechanism] Views from Civil Society, noted: “It remains unclear to what extent the new system will also address the conflict between chiefs and the state in regard to land allocation and management, as well as inter-communal conflict over land resources which are managed by chiefs.” (IRIN)


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