NAMIBIA: Land reform reproducing poverty

Monday, November 19, 2007

Namibia's land reform programme is a "zero sum game" that merely swaps one form of poverty for another in its current resettlement programme, according to an independent report on attempts to find a equitable solution to racially skewed land ownership.

The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), a non-governmental human rights organisation based in the capital, Windhoek, said in a report reviewing the achievements so far of Namibia's land reform programme, No Resettlement Available, that "most [resettlement farms] are not doing very well; in fact, it is not apparent that any are."

The size of the farms allocated and the agricultural methods practiced were among the problems identified. "Black farmers get smaller units than white farmers held, but remain stuck with the same plan to be livestock farmers," said the report.

"Since even the larger white farms were not very profitable, this apportionment is both setting black farmers up to fail, and failing to reconceptualise a new Namibian agricultural order that could both feed the growing population and provide reasonable incomes to the new black commercial farmers."

Namibia, which won its independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990, inherited a colonial division of land in which about half the agricultural land is owned by 3,500 white farmers. Farms average about 5,000 hectares in the north of the country and 10,000 hectares in the south, while nearly 1 million black Namibians live on "heavily overgrazed" communal lands.

The report by Willem Odendaal, of the LAC's Land Environment and Development Project, and Sidney Harring, Professor of Law at the City University in New York, said the government's agrarian policy had failed to adapt to the demands of a modern Namibia or benefit African farmers.

"Dividing large farms into units of one-fifth to one-seventh the size [of the original farm] - being the typical resettlement farm size - not only applies the failed colonial model [of cattle farming], but further weakens it, in that farms of such small sizes cannot succeed. The large commercial farm of the apartheid era, an old and inefficient structure of agriculture, is being reproduced in a diluted form."

Namibia is an arid country of about 825,400sq km, of which only about 100sq km are suitable for dry [non-irrigated] crop cultivation; it suffers drought in six out of every 10 years and its growing population of about 2 million people has seen "several hundred thousand blacks ... crowded off ... communal lands and move to sprawling squatter camps surrounding every town in Namibia," the LRC report said.

Slow pace of land reform

The Namibian government, like those of neighbouring South Africa and Zimbabwe, has made land reform a central policy tenet, and "government's resettlement scheme has placed 800 farms in black hands in the 17 years since independence", the report noted.

"This is about 12 percent of all farms, or less or than one percent a year, so the process will take over 100 years to complete, depending on what proportion of white commercial farms the government plans to place in blacks hands before deeming the process complete."

Sakkie Coetzee, executive manager of the Namibian Agricultural Union, which draws it membership from mainly white commercial farmers, told IRIN that according to their records, "more than 1,000 farms" or about 16 percent of commercial farmland, had been transferred to previously disadvantaged people.

He said the agricultural capacity of the country was "overstated" and the "perception of large [farms] is not necessarily the right perception", owing to the country's predominantly dry climate and paucity of surface water, which required economies of scale to produce sustainable farming. The policy of subdividing farms was "devastating" and under such a regime the new "farmers would never make it".

Coetzee, whose farmers' union officially supports land redistribution, attributed the policy of creating smaller farming plots to the influence of such institutions as the World Bank's one-size-fits-all approach, which meant that while a small plot in Ghana might be sustainable, this was not the case in Namibia.

He said the union was attempting to "convince the government to rethink and redesign their policies, as the global practice was seeing farms getting bigger and bigger because of the higher production costs".

New agrarian model required

The report recommends an overhaul of the agricultural sector, from the "apartheid era" agricultural colleges emphasising cattle farming, to new farming methods such as "crop cultivation and tropical agriculture".

Tropical agriculture is usually labour-intensive subsistence farming and cash-crop production, using techniques like moveable cages that confine animals to feeding on weeds, the use of crop residues as litter in the cages, disposal of human waste in deep pits that are later planted with trees, and the use of ashes as fertiliser and in soap production.

The LAC cited numerous failures in the division and resettlement of commercial farms, from not granting land title and "leaving poor people in some kind of tenant relationship with the government [which] is not empowering them," to a lack of transparency, the absence of any support for resettled farmers and the overblown bureaucracy of "the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement - and the government generally".

"Given the small number of people involved, what the ministry and staff actually do is not apparent. For example, resettling 9,000 people in 12 years amounts to fewer than 800 a year, hardly more than 125-130 families. Yet it takes a staff of perhaps 1,000 government employees to do this work," the authors pointed out.

"Almost all of the 209 or so resettlement farms have staff of the ministry on their premises or in a nearby town, yet it is not obvious that these people are well trained and performing their duties."

Resettlement Farms

The "poor record keeping" also meant that the exact number of people resettled on these farms was uncertain, and "many have already left the rural poverty of the resettlement farms, and more leave every day," the LAC said.

While white commercial farmers were heavily subsidised with both capital and large numbers of livestock by past German and South African colonial governments, "resettled farmers have neither, and are left to an impoverished lifestyle which is often as bad or worse than the one they had prior to joining the resettlement programme".

The report identified an unpalatable conundrum: "Any 'average' resettlement process will move five 'disadvantaged' families to a farm at the same time that it removes six farmworkers and their families to homelessness and poverty ... each resettlement process displaces as many as it resettles."

Commercial farms are one of the country's major employers, while farmworkers and their dependents comprise an estimated 222,000 people, but many farmworkers do not want to be resettled because of negative experiences suffered by others.

"Even as poorly paid farm workers, they have their basic needs met: they receive a regular salary, are allowed to have chickens, small stock and perhaps even cattle, and live in reasonably good housing. All of this disappears on a Namibian resettlement farm."

The authors suggest the adoption of a land-reform model used in South Africa as alternative: farmworkers are trained to perform management roles and provided with higher skills levels, with the intention that land title could gradually be handed over to farmworkers or other poor people with the requisite skills to operate the farm.

Both South Africa and Namibia have trod delicately around the issue of expropriation, given the experiences of neighbouring Zimbabwe, and both countries place great emphasis on the rule of law.

The LAC report recommends an "increased pace of expropriation", but that pace "depends on public confidence that land reform is being successfully implemented at grassroots level, i.e., that small black-owned farms are being created successfully."

The Ministry of Lands and Resettlement was not available for comment.

Source: IRIN
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