Land debate in Kenya marred by politics

Debate over a new land policy for Kenya is mired in controversy, fuelled by civil society activists and reflective of the country’s political divide.

A recreational park in Kiambu, just north of Nairobi. The privately-owned park was once a coffee farm.

A recreational park in Kiambu, just north of Nairobi. The privately-owned park was once a coffee farm.

A new national land policy proposes a ceiling on individual land ownership to ensure no single individual owns too much land. The policy proposes the repossession of idle land for the settling of the landless and reduction of colonial era 999 year land leases to 99 years. There will also be a tax on idle land, especially in urban areas. Foreign ownership of land will be restricted in order to give greater opportunities for Kenyans to own land.

If the new land policy is implemented, powers of allocation of land will be devolved to local authorities. Under current laws, the President and the Commissioner for Lands can allocate public land without involving local authorities. In past years, the law was used to reward political cronies of past presidents with public plots. Land set aside for schools, roads, churches and sanitation facilities was literally up for grabs. The result was a growth in unplanned settlements lacking playgrounds, parking areas or space for mains services.

Critics of the new laws say that universal ownership of land is a myth that Kenya is attempting to achieve at the expense of land rights. There is little idle land in the country, says representatives of land owners, and it cannot be enough to settle all the landless in Kenya. The Kenya Land Alliance, a body representing land owners, says the law is a threat to property rights and likely to stifle investment.

Ranchers in Laikipia and Machakos have also come up against the proposed land laws. The ranchers say that most of their land is semi arid and therefore unsuitable for the settlement of subsistence farmers. In Taita Taveta, owners of expansive sisal estates also cite the harsh climate of the area as unsuitable for settling the landless. “If you settle people there, they will be depending on famine relief every year,” a resident of the area told the Nairobi Chronicle.

Land owners have asked the government and civil society activists to observe global trends in land ownership in order to avert a catastrophe. Statistics indicate that though the number of farmers in the United States declined in the 20th Century, American food production went up. By 2006, there were less than 3 million farmers out of a total population of close to 300 million. “It just goes to show that it is not necessary for every Tom, Dick and Harriet to own land,” argue land owners, “politicians are using land as a scapegoat for poverty, because it is easy to blame land owners for the poverty of the majority.”

Tied with the ownership of land in Kenya is the controversy over ancestral land rights. Minister for Lands, Dr James Orengo is quoted as saying that the constitutional provision that gives Kenyans the right to live and work anywhere is, “not right.” According to Dr Orengo, people should only own land within their ethnic homelands. It is this kind of logic that is largely blamed for ethnic and political clashes that have rocked the Kenya intermittently since the 1990s. This year, close to 1,500 people died when disputed elections led to ethnic clashes. Over 350,000 were evicted from their homes on grounds that they were not indigenous to those areas.

Further to the debate on land laws, Dr Orengo, said last week that the government will not renew leasehold titles that are currently expiring. Most urban leaseholds run for 99 years, meaning the leases expiring today were issued in the 1900s. Many parcels of land within the Nairobi city centre were issued back then. The announcement sparked anxiety among property owners, forcing Dr Orengo to clarify that extensions will be given especially if the land had been extensively developed. For instance, said Dr Orengo, if there was a skyscraper on the land, then an extension was likely to be given.

A growing population still clinging to traditional values is exerting pressure on the land. Every household desires to own a piece of land for psychological security and satisfaction. Consequently, forests have been cut down to make way for settlements with drastic results on weather patterns. Encroachment on forest land has resulted in the drying up of rivers and longer dry spells. In other parts of the country, populations are spreading to low-lying drylands where food harvests can never be enough even with good rains. Land parcels, traditionally handed over and divided among sons, have become to small for meaningful agricultural activities.

Politicians in Kenya use land to win over voters, hence the politicization of the land debate. Few politicians have the courage to tell their people that the era of free land is over. Its hardly surprising, then, that politicians are in the fore-front in demanding that the government confiscate land from ranchers, multinational plantations and commercial farmers. Some politicians even threatened to lead “Zimbabwe-style” land invasions to recover what they refer to as ancestral lands.

As the land debate rages, agricultural production in Kenya has been in steady decline. Kenya produces less of most commodities than it did thirty years ago. This includes coffee, tea, milk, wheat, barley, cotton and pyrethrum. From being a net exporter, the Kenya of today is a net importer of food. Even maize has to be imported to satisfy national demand due to a larger population.

The only agricultural sector that has grown in recent years is the export of flowers and french beans, collectively referred to as horticulture. The horticultural industry is wholly private-sector driven. It was began by commercial farmers who used fresh water from Lake Naivasha to irrigate the volcanic flatlands of the Rift Valley floor. Currently, horticulture has become so huge that it earns Kenya more money than tourism.

Lake Naivasha is a unique terrestrial phenomenon: its a fresh water lake without an outlet. But apart from geographical lessons, Kenya’s politicians can take home vital truths on the management of Kenya’s land resources for the ultimate benefit of all its people.

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One Response

  1. Land is a very emotive issue in Kenya. The government should clean up the lands registry so that aspiring Kenyans can buy land without the fear of being swindled by cartels.

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