Q & A: Civil society priority is preserving land rights for the poor – Kayiraba

Annie Kairaba, the Director of the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD), who also doubles as Coordinator for LandNet [Rwanda Chapter], an Africa-wide network that brings together policy makers, academics and civil society to work on land related issues, has participated in the ongoing discussions on the new land use Bill, in parliament.
Annie Kairaba during the interview. The New Times / Timothy Kisambira.
Annie Kairaba during the interview. The New Times / Timothy Kisambira.

Annie Kairaba, the Director of the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD), who also doubles as Coordinator for LandNet [Rwanda Chapter], an Africa-wide network that brings together policy makers, academics and civil society to work on land related issues, has participated in the ongoing discussions on the new land use Bill, in parliament. Last week, she talked to The New Times’ James Karuhanga about the civil society’s aspirations, including protecting the rights of poor rural folk, curtailing land related conflict, as well as the role and influence of civil society in the debate.  Below are the excerpts:

The New Times (TNT): Regarding the ongoing debate, precisely, what does RISD and LandNet, or better still, the civil society, really want?

Annie Kairaba (AK):
What we are trying to do with this wonderful process of land tenure regularisation that has the potential to reduce conflict, is to ensure the revised law does not alter things that were in the organic land law.

The organic land law was protective of the land rights of the poor. We want to see that at least, the meaning doesn’t change, or the protection of the land rights of the majority poor Rwandans don’t change because the organic law was very clear. We had a lot of input in it and it was looking at the rights of the rural people…looking at long term protection, as well as investment. And, yes, it was looking, to a big extent, to poverty reduction.

So, we want to see that this one actually does not change from that approach.

TNT: One might wonder, how strong, or how influential, is the civil society in this debate?

AK:
I think the civil society is well respected. It has been given a good position, in this place, because LandNet Rwanda Chapter started with the process, from the inception of actually putting in place the land policy of 2004 and the current organic land law. And now, when the committee in charge invited us, it means they do have big respect for LandNet.

The ministry of lands is cognisant that LandNet continues to play a very big role and they respect our views, and most of the views that we’ve raised. And, actually, in the current debate in the committee (parliamentary standing Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Environment), there is a lot of respect for the civil society in this process.

TNT: One particular issue you raised during the debate in parliament is that when it comes to the acquisition of land, a ceiling be put up, especially when it comes to how foreigners acquire land. Tell us about this...

AK:
We were wondering because previously, there wasn’t really a strong consideration for foreigners in the organic law. But in the new land use Bill, it is proposed that foreigners are given up to 49 years when Rwandans in the urban areas are given only 20 years of lease. So, we see that imbalance.

And even when we talk about how a foreigner loses the rights, it’s not very clear. It is just like we have a blanket of 49 years given whereas a Rwandan is not given. And yet, we also see openness in this new law, like encouraging foreigners to acquire land like any other person and on competence considerations.

So, we are worried that in terms of competence, Rwandans will maybe not have as much money like foreigners, or will not have the knowledge and technology like the foreigners do. We thus feel that if not well protected, foreigners might buy out especially the small farmer.

TNT: There is also a clause that puts a limit of not more than five hectares that an investor can buy. Do you think this limit on investors is appropriate?

AK:
The limit of five hectares must be clear! There is also another clause where they give a provision that ownership by foreigners should be granted when Rwandans have at least 51 percent shareholding... 

TNT: That is about a freehold title, for foreigners…

AK:
That is some consideration. But, maybe, what we are looking at, mainly, as a pro-poor approach is that the Rwandan population is increasing very fast. It is almost reaching 12 million, from just about seven million in 1994. The population is growing but land is not. So, maybe, the condominiums approach whereby foreigners can base on the nationals’ land in terms of investment so that the rights of the local people are protected [is better]. That is, really, what we are promoting.

That way, in terms of: poverty reduction and long term investment, both parties will benefit. We are not saying that we don’t want foreigners, because we want foreign investments. But let there be an equal opportunity.

TNT: When the debate started, it was agreed by different parties that not every Rwandan could possibly own land, given the size of the population and the land we have. What is your take?

AK:
[laughs] Unfortunately, if they say that ‘not every Rwanda should own land,’ yes, it is very factual. It is in line with Vision 2020, with poverty reduction, and everybody can see it. But unfortunately, the bigger population – 80 per cent, in the rural areas, is still depending on land and on agriculture.

And this cannot be easily changed. These are old people who cannot be put into any other business. For the young generation, the people finishing school now, yes. These can focus on other options and, maybe in 30 years to come, not every Rwandan will be depending on land because there will be youth phasing out of dependence on agriculture. Agriculture will become more professionalised, but not now. In the vision 2020, I really don’t see that one being achieved.

TNT: Apart from the definition of a swamp, what other issues have bogged the debate in the parliamentary committee? And, what was it about the swamp anyway?

AK:
Yeah, talking about the swamp, actually, for me I think that the swamp issue is not about the definition but about the level of interest and how it is being used. And there isn’t really enough information about it. Is it a marshland? Is it a wetland? Is it a swamp? What is it?

We are not really talking about definition, because when I asked, specifically about ‘what does the new land use law cover?’- is it wetland, or is it marshland? I was told, ‘it is only wetland,’ because wetland is bigger.

But nobody has really taken into account the need to know – not even in REMA (Rwanda Environment Management Authority) – which one is a marshland and which is a wetland. That is the whole confusion…

TNT: But REMA has always pointed to the law of protecting and conserving the environment, which states that a wetland has elements that include a swamp….

AK:
If you look at the trend of climate change, what used to be a wetland is becoming a marshland. So, I think there is need for more and thorough mapping of what is currently in existence in Rwanda because most marshlands have been utilised for cultivation to the extent of even encroaching on other wetlands.

What is in the law is good guidance but what is in practice is different. Another contentious issue about the marshland is that the marshland is looked at as an investment area because soon, there are some people who will be allowed to register marshland areas for lease.

So, the experience has been only commercial investors – for example people who are growing maize, on a larger scale, are the ones who are given marshlands, while ignoring the small farmers who are depending on this marshland. And that is a big concern for us in LandNet.

TNT: Civil society is keen on a land use law that curbs conflict yet, in the debate, government officials were of the view that issues in this law are not the real source of conflict but matters such as inheritance which appear in other laws. What is your take?

AK:
It is a very tricky one. Currently, the RISD is implementing a project on mapping cases or disputes understood to be related to land.

Although according to land tenure regularisation records, only about 10 per cent of land in Rwanda is linked to disputes, if you really go on the ground, if you look at the Abunzi (community mediators) records, the courts, or Ombudsman’s office, you find that the percentage is very high – 80 percent, 90 percent!

Even today, cases are being registered as related to land. But the land tenure regularisation states that these [conflicts] are not land related, but related to inheritance.

The only gap here which we feel in RISD, that the land tenure regularisation maybe is ignoring, is; for the case of allowing land tenure regularisation to happen, they are correct as they are looking at demarcation. If there is no dispute in the boundaries, then that is not a land related conflict, because for them they are looking at ‘who owns this land?’ but when it goes to [things] internally, in the families, this is where most cases are found.

Most inheritance issues are intra-family related rather than on boundaries because with land tenure regularisation, the demarcation issue has really been covered.

However, my view on what parliamentarians are talking about is that there must be a component in this land use Bill looking at dispute management because most cases, whether they are inheritance related, or not, are connected to land. Land is the main source of inheritance.

TNT: the farmers ’ representatives I talked to, during the first session, indicated that they also wish to see land owners whose plots are cut into by small feeder roads in villages, appropriately compensated just as is done with the bigger highways. What is your take?

AK:
Normally, this compensation should happen, apart from the very small paths which, in this case, compensation would not be realistic. 

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