The land re-distribution exercise has well and truly begun. The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame directed the re-distribution and was in the Eastern Province to supervise the exercise as it kicked off last Tuesday, January 22, in Nyagatare District. The President stayed there till Thursday and is expected to go back as the exercise resumes this week. And if the land re-distribution exercise continues at this pace the many, previously landless people will finally own a piece of Rwandan real estate.
Land has and always will strike a raw nerve in any agrarian society, and Rwanda is not any different. Many of the conflicts in Africa are based on land. One can start with the pre-colonial Maji-Maji and Mau-Mau rebellions in present day Tanzania and Kenya respectively, and continue with the recent Darfur, Sudan issue.
All these conflicts were and are based on land and the lack thereof. This conflict over land, whenever it rears it ugly head, very often reveals the dark side of humanity; for example, some of the existing thought on why the Genocide in Rwanda was so thorough, without discounting the other reasons, was because many of the people in the rural areas were told that the victims’ land would be given to them if they killed them. It gave the land-starved populace an excuse to kill their neighbours.
The very nature of Rwanda makes a fair distribution essential. Not only are we in Rwanda a hugely agrarian society, we are also an extremely densely populated nation. With about 320 people per square kilometer and with a growth rate of almost 3% per annum, Rwanda couldn’t have some people having farms three square kilometers in size while the other less fortunate were crammed into miniscule holdings, or worse - camps.
That sense of fairness, where everyone shares the meager resources that the nation has to offer, that the government has revealed is something I, and anyone that has a sense of justice totally approves of. But this land re-distribution can’t just end with the handing of land titles to the grateful recipients. This would be hugely counter-productive.
These holdings that the recipients, most of them returnees from Tanzania and people evicted from the parameters of both the Akagera National Park and the Gabiro School of Infantry are on average about ten hectares in size. That doesn’t sound too bad at all; I mean, if these recipients were previously landless, then ten hectares of land is a good deal, isn’t it? Well, that’s a question that isn’t as black and white as it seems.
Let’s first do a bit of math. When you convert ten hectares (which sounds impressive) into better understood square meters you get an interesting answer; you find out that every family is, in fact given one hundred thousand square meters!
Well, you can argue that the government did its duty as a body that guarantees social equity but I beg to differ.
One hundred thousand square meters in urban Kigali City would have been a windfall of marvelous proportions to anyone but would the same heady feeling reign in rural Eastern Province? The climatic nature of the majority of the Eastern Province causes it to be an area of low rainfall.
These low rainfalls, in comparisons to, say those in the Northern Province, have made it an area where animal husbandry has been especially prevalent. Planting crops in this area is often unproductive and a waste of time. Cattle will thrive in this region, feeding on the relatively un-nutritious pasture only if they have enough space to roam about to get sufficient amounts of grass to eat.
That’s why the huge ranches were economically viable…the poor quality of the grass was neutralized by the plentiful amounts of it.
But, since the previously huge tracts of private land are now being cut down into small tracts, the mechanics of getting something out of the land has changed.
Either the small holdings will have to be heavily invested in (e.g. planting highly nutritious pasture and making sure that the farm has a water source) or the land owners must link their small holdings into a larger entity in a move of land consolidation. Trying to get something meaningful out of the land without either of two options would render the whole land re-distribution process impotent. So, what’s my suggestion?
Further government involvement. The government has to train the landowners in modern animal husbandry; it must urge voluntary land consolidation and farmer’s co-operatives and it should help the farmers seek financing so as to help them develop their land into financially sound entities.
If these measures aren’t taken and these new landowners are left to their own devises, the fight against poverty, which this whole land re-distribution exercise is based on, will come to naught. Instead of poor landless people, we shall instead have people with land…but poor people nevertheless.