Land grabbing in Uganda has received a new ally, Andrew Mwenda. According to the Observer Paper, while addressing a Policy Think Tank, he said that, “it is through land grabs for commercial agriculture that Europe managed to industrialise, a thing that should occur in Uganda.” While I had chosen to dismiss this as another attention seeking gimmick by this seemingly expired economic and political pundit, an afterthought led me into crafting a response.
Some people think that Mwenda’s statement is merely aimed at courting controversy. I say, NO. Mwenda is dead serious. He represents a group of nouveau riche whose unending primitive appetite for resource accumulation is mind boggling. These so called elites will stop at nothing to centralise wealth in order to be the Russian Oligarchs of Uganda. They want at whatever cost to create legacy families akin to the Kennedy, Rockefeller, Ford families this time using crooked mechanisms that will control the nation’s resources for centuries to come. To them, the end justifies the means. Mwenda is simply spilling the secrets of their private chats to the general public.
Late last year, I did interact with a moneyed young man who came to Kampala by hitching a lift on a milk truck a few years ago and is now worth billions of shillings. He told me off the cuff that, “I don’t see why peasants still hold onto land. We should take it away from them and instead employ them to work on the newly created larger farms.” An attempt at reconciling his rags to riches story with his new found mindset left me reeling in shock. This moneyed young man is a true reflection of what Mwenda is saying. This trend of thought is highly justified by a significant section of the elites that are having it all smooth sailing after choosing to be politically correct.
Does Land size really matter?
My brother Mwenda quoted the example of Europe in the middle ages and how land grabbing was used to boost agricultural production. I would like to encourage him to desist from becoming a slave of relic thinking. What may have worked in the 18th century may not necessarily work today. There is a lot that has changed over the centuries and for one to expect superimposing 18th century Europe onto 21st Century Uganda is very mind boggling a prospect.
Research indicates that land size is not really the issue. Depending on which country you go to, the local circumstances dictate what works best. In the USA, Brazil and Europe, large farms have been associated with increased productivity while in East Asia, a region with similar demographics to Africa, an inverse relationship has been found between land size and productivity. Smaller farms are actually producing much better per unit than the larger farms.
Commercialisation of Agriculture doesn’t necessarily mean having access to large swathes of land. It is simply the production of crops and farm animals for sale. The problem with some of our allegedly exposed elites stems from watching too much TV and seeing the large farms in Europe and USA then expecting that superimposing the same here will automagically work.
After the second world war, Japan broke down land into affordable units for small holder farmers. The country had identified that “landlordism” was a source of a lot of evils to numerous farmers. They then undertook a reform that involved taking land from especially absentee landlords and facilitated the previously renting farmers to become “owner farmers.” Prior to these reforms, Landlords owned nearly 50% of all farmland in Japan hence perpetuating the Landlord-Tenant arrangement that was rife in the rural areas. Of the 5.5 million peasant farmers, a third of them rented land from these landlords and always surrendered half of their produce as rent. Today, these small holder farmers are largely responsible for the high value agricultural produce that Japan exports all over the world.
In Asia, Agriculture is largely characterised by smallholder cultivators. The average size of areas cultivated is as indicated below;
Bangladesh 0.5 hectares
Nepal and Sri Lanka 0.8 hectares
India 1.4 hectares
Pakistan 3.0 hectares
In China, 95% of the farms are smaller than 2 hectares while in Bangladesh 96% of farms are for small holders cultivating 69% of the arable land. If you are a regular in supermarkets, Asian processed foods litter our shelves and one might be fooled into thinking that their source is large scale farms. Smallholder contribution to the total value of agricultural output is significant in many Asian countries. Globally, they account for nearly 70% of the food supply.
As opposed to increasing farm size, the reverse is happening in Asia. China’s farm size decreased from 0.56Ha in 1980 to 0.4Ha in 1999; Pakistan from 5.3 Ha in 1973 to 3.1Ha in 2000; Philippines from 3.6Ha in 1971 to 2Ha in 1991 and India from 2.2Ha in 1950 to 1.33Ha in 2001.
Interestingly, this drop in acreage coincided with the successful green revolution in Asia that saw a bumper growth in the production of largely rice, maize and wheat. This implies that Uganda’s increased food production can still occur even in the current dispensation of smallholder farming. It has happened in the rice industry where our rice production has steadily grown over the years from a mere 26,000 tons in 1990 to 231,000 tons in 2012. Remember, rice growing in Uganda is largely a commercial farming engagement. The success it has registered can be replicated to other crops.
In Colombia, 11,000 land owners have accumulated 67% of the of the most fertile land leaving the rest to some 11 million people to use. They did this through dispossession and forceful displacement of millions. As a result, in 2013, the country was second to Syria in having the highest number of Internally Displaced People at 6 million. This status-quo is partially responsible for the numerous civil wars the country has faced for decades. I guess having faced years of internal strife in Uganda, our gluttonous elite need to realise that we can very easily descend into anarchy and civil war as a result of these forceful land grabbings.
Coming closer home to Africa, we have good examples of land grabs that have come back decades later to haunt the beneficiaries. In the late 19th century, Cecil Rhodes duped the native inhabitants of Zimbabwe into handing over their land to him. What followed was the dispossession of Africans from their land. Privileged whites gained land swathes in thousands of acres. This injustice stayed deep in the hearts of many indigenous people and when the conditions proved right, the land repossession occurred at the turn of the 21st century. Though handled poorly and largely politicised, it still pointed to the fact that people wanted that injustice addressed.
In South Africa, a similar land grab occurred centuries ago. However, lately, we are seeing a resurgence in the calls for land expropriation from the White landlords to the Black South Africans. One could easily have put this off as the wishful thinking of the poverty stricken masses but that isn’t the case. I am in the know of a number of elites that are warming up to get a share of the land in order to try their hand at farming. Mr. Julius Malema the Commander in Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters has emphasised this as one of the key pillars his party is pursuing.
The question of commercialising agriculture shouldn’t be looked at from the lens of the developed countries. We have our unique ecosystem that requires unique approaches. The Africa Agriculture Status report of 2017 states, “…the type of agricultural transformation relevant today is very different from the kind of green revolution transformation that Africa aspired to in earlier decades. The new agenda needs to be much more focused on a market driven business agenda that encompasses the entire food system, not just agricultural production. But Africa is at crossroads: should it go for a food system transformation led mainly by large commercial farms and large agribusinesses, as in many rich countries? Or should it go for an inclusive transformation based on commercial smallholder farms and SMEs along value chains. A large farm, large agribusiness approach would leave millions of small farms and businesses without adequate livelihoods, whereas an inclusive approach could engage more of them in productive employment, create more attractive jobs for young people, help reduce poverty, inequality and food insecurity…” I fully concur with the observations in this report.
Africa is estimated to have 51 million farms of which 41 million of them are smaller than 2Ha in size and the number keeps increasing. It is also noted that many of these farms are efficient low cost producers which obtain higher yields on average than many larger sized farms and are able to compete in markets given a fair opportunity. So, just like the Asian green revolution, it is plausible for these farms to contribute to a successful agricultural revolution in Africa that is employment intensive and pro-poor.
The radical shift that is being proposed by Andrew Mwenda and his bunch of wannabe bourgeoisies without doubt will lead to the following:
Increased income inequality. The richer get richer as the poor get poorer. Colombia and South Africa are a good example.
Strife. With a populace deprived of its land, expect only mayhem. There might be some semblance of stability for a while due to the political status-quo but when tides change politically, trouble beckons. Liberia, Sudan and Sierra Leone have suffered civil wars sparked off by land grabbing. In 2012, Ethiopian tribes embraced arms against the military in the attempt to halt the diversion of the Koka river to irrigate a Malaysian plantation project.
Removal of identity. Land is not a mere item that is commercially quantifiable like these crude capitalists want to make it seem. Ugandans are attached to their land in more ways than one; spiritual in terms of the traditional rituals as well as physical linkages akin to one knowing that I come from say Butaleja District are of paramount importance.
Food insecurity. People have grown up feeding themselves directly from the land. To take that away and expect them to fend for themselves using alternative means is to invite hunger into their families.
My final advice to Mwenda and his crew is to reduce on the greed. You are what you are because of this very society that you now despise like a plague. You rose through the ranks because of the goodwill of this very society. Most of you have very humble rural upbringings and you benefitted from the goodwill of numerous strangers while on your way up through life. Is this the best way you think that you can repay this same society? You might dismiss me as a moralist who has no business talking to capitalists but of what use is a business that is devoid of human values?
Think again Mwenda. You grew up in a farming family, you saw how many families in your village benefitted from farming. I am sure you are bright enough to reconcile your current mindset with your past experiences. A word to the wise is sufficient!
James Wire is a Small Business and Technology Consultant
Email: lunghabo (at) gmail (dot) com