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February 09, 2012

Is Ethiopia repeating Zimbabwe’s colonial-era land tenure mistakes?

by Chido Makunike

Ethiopia seems to feature more than any other African country in the charges of accommodating large land deals or land ‘grabs’ (choose depending on your bias) by foreign farming investors.

There is controversy about almost every aspect of them. Are the terms of the deals not too much in favor of the investors? What are those terms exactly? Will the host countries benefit much from them, or will they mostly be another type of resource plunder? How can Africa’s mostly communal land tenure systems be made compatible with commercial land leasing and ownership systems? Does the big new role of foreigners in answering that long outstanding question not create resentment and foster resistance to these deals?

Controversial as the deals may be, is it not necessary and unavoidable that at least some communal land gives way to high-intensity commercial use of one type or another? Has this not happened everywhere else in the course of ‘development?’ In respecting traditional communal land tenure indefinitely, would governments not actually be condemning many of their most vulnerable citizens to perpetual poverty, given declining soil fertility, increasing population pressures, climate unpredictability and so on; all factors that increasingly threaten the viability of rural life?

But then again, in countries where many have little else on which to sustain themselves except subsistence farming, is removing rural communities from their lands and livelihoods, no matter how basic, to make way for commercial farming not condemning them to an even more uncertain fate in new, unfamiliar territory?

These are just a few of the questions that face nearly all African countries, even those not currently in the news for ‘land grabs.’ These are issues that long preceded the current wave of land deals. None of the range of answers is as easy or straightforward as either supporters or opponents of the current deals would suggest.

Governments, investors and many others in between have often taken very simplistic positions on the land deals that leave out many of the complicated nuances. Media and various non-government organizations with their own rigid ideological or commercial interests at stake in supporting or opposing the land deals have only added to the confusion.

In making aggressive moves to develop a commercial agriculture sector, in many ways Ethiopia is going where Zimbabwe has been.

In certain media, any mention of Zimbabwe must automatically go hand in hand with phrases such as ‘Mugabe’s land grabs’ and the country ‘went from regional farming breadbasket to basket case.’ The idea is to emphasize the recent disruption of a system of title deeds-based farmland tenure that was long taken for granted, and a sophisticated, thriving commercial farming sector that was widely admired. ‘Mugabe’s land grabs’ from white farmers from about the year 2000 changed much of this. The country experienced several years of economic decline which it only arrested a few years ago, and is still  battling to rise from.

As successful as the ‘breadbasket’ was, the considerable emotion that events in Zimbabwe elicit in a surprising number of people even far removed, means that there is little interest in going back a little in history to see the roots of the eventual dismantling of the land tenure system that gave rise to it. How did that commercial, Western-style farmland tenure system come about?

It came about in ways somewhat similar to what is being alleged the present Ethiopian government is doing in displacing rural communities to make way for foreign farm investors.

From the early 1900s, white settlers in the then Rhodesia were given by the colonial governments huge parcels of land from which Africans had been uprooted. The ‘villagization’ that the Ethiopian government is said/accused to be embarking on today sounds vaguely similar to the ‘tribal trust lands’ to which Africans were forcibly moved by colonial governments from the early days of Rhodesia.

In both cases, the main reason was to give prime land to the favored elite of the time, whether white settlers then in Rhodesia or investors in Ethiopia today. However, incidental benefits for the displaced communities were also cited as justifications for the land grabs. In Rhodesia, it was said that the concentration of once widely scattered communities into fewer, smaller areas would make it easier for the colonial government to provide them various services, such as agricultural extension, schools and so on. In Ethiopia today, relocations which critics say are forced and violent, but which the government insists are voluntary, are explained as being to better enable access to schools, clinics and other basic social services.

Few of Rhodesia’s early white settlers had any farming experience at the time of getting land which had been grabbed from Africans. Many were rewarded with land for their role in African conquest, and some as thanks from then colonial power Britain for their service in Europe’s early 20th century civil wars.

Title deeds-based land tenure on the grabbed land replaced the traditional communal tenure system of the dispossessed Africans. It was on this grabbed land that successive colonial governments supported the new land holders to develop into the impressive commercial farming sector that powered Rhodesia’s economy, and later Zimbabwe’s.

From a distance and from outside, and for a while even in the country itself, all that appeared on the surface was the farming and economic success. Below the surface, the sense of  grievance on which these successes were built was muted as long as the Africans enjoyed some of its crumbs, as farms workers or in the many downstream industries that resulted. But it never went away. It might have appeared as ancient history and finished colonial business for the then well-established descendants of the original white settlers, but it was a quietly present and continuing ‘issue’ for many Africans. The period from the colonial land grabs of the early 1900s to independence in 1980 was short enough that there were still many people alive who had personal memory of how they were chased from family lands, their cattle expropriated; forced labor and various taxes imposed on them. These stories were passed on from generation to generation in every African family.

The sense of African grievance that continued to fester over the land issue meant that all recognized the need for some type of land reform after 1980. One reason mostly polite discussion dragged on about the issue was the difficulty of how to raise the money to compensate the white land owners for any ceding of land to Africans they might agree to. In other words, the title deeds they held on land that had been grabbed from Africans several decades before were by most people seen as inviolate.

There was no talk, or very little, of invalidating the land deeds of black-ruled Zimbabwe because the land had been grabbed from Africans several decades before. It was sort of accepted that land reform negotiations would start on the basis and from the starting point of the colonial, title-based land tenure system, not the traditional African communal system that existed before that.                    

One of the reasons that ‘Mugabe’s land grabs’ have been so controversial, even emotional for many people, including those not directly involved, is that he invoked not the colonial title deed as the basis for land ownership legitimacy, but the land ownership rights of Africans before that; the ones that were grabbed from those Africans by the colonial governments. This was a very new post-colonial precedent that worries and outrages many people for all sorts of reasons not necessary to get into for the purpose of the present discussion.

Zimbabweans of all types were proud of their relatively developed, diversified economy and the ‘breadbasket’ commercial farming sector that underpinned it. All Zimbabweans suffered from the economic crisis that followed the recent land ‘re-grabs’ that were not well thought out. But it is interesting and important to note that there wasn’t/isn’t any  significant African sentiment for those land re-grabs to be reversed. Most Zimbabweans  want the land reform process and commercial agriculture fixed, but probably very few would advocate for the status quo to go back to the system of title deeds that originate in the era of colonial land grabbing.

If the old system of title deeds-based security of tenure is deemed illegitimate on the basis that they were issued on grabbed land, how is a new system of security of tenure to be built to give people the incentive to invest in land and ‘commercial’ farming again? Once today’s communal land has become a fully tradable commodity, how do poor rural farmers gain access to land and avoid being further marginalized by the few who can afford to buy it and acquire title deeds?  Despite the increasingly apparent problems plaguing it, is Africa’s communal land tenure system really outdated and to be discarded, or does it still serve useful functions that no other system can fully do? Could the traditional communal system and a new title-based system co-exist in the same area?

There are many answers proffered, but none that are universally accepted or that address all the related historical, legal, cultural, political and economic issues easily. 

It is easy to see the mess that this presents. For example, suppose you were a white farmer with a title deed in 2000 that lost his farm to the most recent ‘land grab.‘ What about if you had not inherited the land from an early 1900s British settler ancestor, but had bought it from the son or grandson of such a settler? Is ‘Mugabe’s land grab’ not clearly, obviously illegal and unfair to such a title holder? But what about if you were an African farm laborer on that same land, whose grandfather had been the early 1900s land holder from whom the land had been grabbed by the colonial government. It was then given, with title deed, to the white settler whose progeny then eventually sold the land and its title deed to today’s white farmer of my example.

Whose ‘ownership’ and whose ‘justice’ should prevail, and why?

If the colonial land tenure system was widely seen as unjust and illegitimate, clearly it is no longer possible or desirable to go back to the pre-colonial communal system, at least not on what had become ‘commercial’ farms. The people and times have largely changed. The need for that land to remain ‘commercially’ useful is recognized by all. Having demolished the system that existed for decades for its political/historical incorrectness, how do you build a new one that is politically correct while also giving land holders the room and incentive to invest and be productive? It is very far from straightforward.

To get back to today’s Ethiopian ‘land grabs,’ what is or isn’t happening in that country is from a distance very murky. It is almost impossible to accurately gauge the objectivity of the reports of those who slam or support the new land deals.

However, part of the lesson of Zimbabwe is that particularly in mostly agrarian societies, perceived ‘land grabs’ can set up a multiplicity of new problems decades after it appears they have been accepted as irreversible. Regardless of what impressive modern edifice is built upon land that there is majority consensus was unfairly ‘grabbed,’ especially in favor of ‘outsiders,’ there for a very long time will remain the explosive potential for conflict. All it needs is some small spark to set it off. 

Leading Indian agro-investor in Ethiopia, rose grower/exporter Karuturi Global, has been perhaps the most prominent beneficiary of what many people say are the government’s ‘land grabs ’ from its citizens.

Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, the company’s founder, dismisses the attacks. In a recent interview, he gave some of his perspectives on land and farming in his host country.

”Land is an emotive and contentious issue. Of the 300 million hectares of land we have, only one-third is arable. Africa is better in terms of productivity, costs, taxes, duty-free access to European markets because of their least developed country status. A rose from India, when it lands in Europe, will cost about 14 euro cents and it will be about 30% less from East Africa,“ said Karuturi.

Clearly he is a bold entrepreneur, and no doubt that alone rubs some people the wrong way. As he repeatedly points out, his company is doing nothing without the approval of the Ethiopian government. But if the investment is seen by many Ethiopians as being because of a closeness to the sitting government rather than as being of benefit to the country, Karuturi is inevitably breeding long-term local resentment in addition to roses.
As seen in Zimbabwe, the ‘security of tenure’ and economic success that is built on the mistreatment of the local people may not be as secure as it seems, even if the comeuppance is many decades later. If the political situation suddenly changes, land tenure based on a perceived crony relationship with the previous ruling political dispensation will be one of the first things to be reformed.  

Karuturi has also been quoted as scoffing that many of the attacks on his and others’ land investments in Ethiopia and other African countries is by Western critics who have yet to come to terms with how China and India are displacing the West in many areas of engagement in Africa. While this cannot be dismissed entirely, Karuturi is ironically also making some of the same colonial - style moves that created long-standing resentment not only in Africa, but in his country India as well.

For example, it is quite likely that even for Ethiopians who basically support the investment thrust of their government and welcome the contributions of companies like Karuturi, the company’s widely publicized plan to bring in thousands of Indian tenant farmers to its Ethiopian holdings will be seen as a step too far. It suggests thinking and attitudes that are amazingly reminiscent of the origins of the complicated mix of land-related problems that plague Zimbabwe today.

In the land grabs from Africans of a century ago, the colonial governments obviously did not need to worry about the ‘public opinion’ of the dispossessed, disgruntled Africans. Today, no matter how autocratic a government may be, it is neither advisable nor entirely possible to ignore public sentiment. From a distance, in this regard the Ethiopian government seems to have contributed to the negative perception of the current land deals/grabs by poorly explaining them, and riding roughshod over critics. For both investors and host governments, these too are issues that may have an expensive belated political cost.

Zimbabwe is just one and perhaps the best known, most notorious example of the explosive potential of long unresolved land issues that Ethiopia could learn some lessons from on what to do and what not to do as it seeks to develop and ‘modernize’ its agriculture. It will be fascinating to watch how Ethiopia tackles the clash of land-related issues that have defied easy solution in many other African countries.

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