Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who owns the land?

The recent headline in the Daily Monitor is not one which most Britons living in Uganda would wish to read: British firm illegally evicts 20,000 Ugandans.

The story, which some of you may have read, first appeared in The Guardian on 22 September this year.The Monitor article drew heavily both on this article and on The Guardian's account of a report by Oxfam, Land and Power, on land grabs in Africa.

Stuart and I don't know the rights and wrongs of this particular case. In a nutshell it involves a British firm called New Forests Company (NFC) which was given permission by Uganda's National Forestry Authority (NFA) to plant trees in Mubende and Kiboga, areas of central Uganda, in order to earn carbon credits and eventually for felling as timber. The NFA authorised the evictions of the local community, which took place last year. It says that the people evicted, 22,500 in total, were illegal encroachers on land which was originally a government forest reserve, and that only 31 families could prove ownership. The Kiboga residents say that they were given the land in the 1970s by Idi Amin. The Mubende residents said they were allocated land as World War II war veterans who fought for the British in Egypt or Burma, or as their descendants. Others say they were given or inherited land during the 1980s and 90s.  Certainly, the communities have been there for many years.

The individual stories quoted in the newspapers are, as you would expect, heart-rending. Villagers describe the Ugandan police and army burning homes, destroying crops and butchering livestock.

Francis Longoli, a small farmer from Kiboga district of central Uganda, is tearful: "I remember my land, three acres of coffee, many trees – mangoes and avocados. I had five acres of bananas, 10 beehives, two beautiful permanent houses. My land gave me everything. People used to call me 'omataka' – someone who owns land. Now that is no more. I am one of the poorest now," he says. (quoted from The Guardian article).

The NFC describes itself as follows on its website. The New Forests Company is a UK-based sustainable and socially responsible forestry company with established, rapidly growing plantations and the prospect of a diversified product base for local and regional export markets which will deliver both attractive returns to investors and significant social and environmental benefits.

The NFC headquarters is now accommodated in what used to be the community's school. NFC says it was not involved in the evictions, that they were voluntary and that no violence was involved. 

The whole situation is a mess. Probably many of those making statements to the newspapers are telling the truth as they perceive it. The NFC may indeed have bought the land in 'good faith', not really thinking through - or wanting to think through - the implications for the real people who already lived there. The politicians who originally gave the land to members of the community may not have ensured that they received legal title. Politicians in Uganda frequently promise land to those they wish to vote for them, sometimes even handing over tracts of national parks. As the NFA says, some members of the community may indeed be encroachers, either intentionally or in error, and the evictions may well be legal, if inhumane. The local people say they have been there for years and developed stable productive communities. If the police and army did indeed evict them without bullying and violence, cynics would say it will be a first in Uganda. The NFC may simply have been averting its eyes. It is challenging Oxfam's evidence.

Behind this particular case lie serious national issues which appear as individual cases again and again in Uganda's newspapers.

First of all, there is the role of major investors in land deals, some Ugandan, some international. Acholi MPs have claimed that local people in Amuru, northern Uganda, have been 'bribed to give away their land for sugar cane growing', mentioning the Madhvani Group. An added twist is that oil has been found in the area. Oddly, surveying of the land was carried out by the UPDF, Uganda People's Defence Force (the army). In Kabale, 2,000 families faced eviction after iron ore investors obtained title deeds for their land. In a different kind of case, the government is said to have leased thousand of hectares of land to two Bangladeshi companies, an arrangement under which the firms would receive 60% of the produce for export, in return training Ugandan farmers in cultivation, seed conservation and irrigation. Nothing illegal about this, only disquiet, with the government denying that any deal was made.

Land grabbing, however, isn't just about powerful national and international companies buying up tracts of land and evicting the inhabitants. Land grabbing is also carried out by ordinary Ugandan citizens. Encroaching, or illegal settlement is a continuing problem across Uganda. Here, most people own some land, whether as individuals, families, clans or communities. Land means food, even if it is just an acre or two of cassava, maize or sweet potato with which to feed your family. City dwellers often talk of 'going to the village' and when things go wrong may move back because at least there will be some food there. To lose your land is a personal disaster. Sometimes people sell their land to start up a business, for example to buy a motorbike so that they can become boda boda drivers, or to set up a small shop. When the boda boda crashes or is stolen, or the shop is burgled or fails, it is a financial calamity. Few are insured and people may be left with nothing. This not only brings shame on the individual, but can threaten the survival of your family. To lose your land is to go hungry. 

The landless, whether through misfortune or poverty, are at the bottom of the social heap, hence the prevalence of encroachment. 
  • Forests belonging to the Bunyoro Kingdom (west) are being encroached on at a rate of 80,000 hectares per year (a hectare is 10,000 square metres). Encroachers develop farms, cut timber and burn charcoal for sale, threatening water catchment areas and the survival of chimpanzees and other animals. In Wambabya Forest Reserve in Hoima, encroachers have ignored warnings to leave. Some of them are victims of the insurgency in northern Uganda and conflict in DR Congo. 
  • In April two ministers survived attempted lynching by angry UPDF veterans armed with machetes and clubs, who claimed the President had given them Namanve Central Forest Reserve near Kampala. Some of the encroachers had already started selling parcels of land to others.
  • In Mayuge in Busoga (east), encroachers have destroyed 40 hectares of trees belonging to a Norwegian company licensed by the NFA to plant trees, and constructed grass thatched houses. They claimed to have been given the land by the President while he was campaigning, which the NFA accepted but said the directive hadn't been put in writing.
  • Encroachers have invaded wetland in Wakiso, outside Kampala, cutting down papyrus and other plants and erecting structures, claiming they had clearance from State House. A similar situation has arisen in Mbarara, where the River Rwizi is being threatened by illegal clearing and farming. The eucalyptus tees planted by encroachers drain the wetland. The President stopped the evictions and said that people should be educated instead. 
  • And there is the ongoing saga of Mount Elgon National Park, which used to be the homeland of 6,000 people, members of various clans now living in makeshift slums. Some have illicitly returned to the endangered higher slopes They cut trees, grow crops and increase the deforestation, leading to further landslides. Duikers, buffaloes, leopards, antelopes, elephants, red-tailed and blue monkeys and other animals have now gone over to the Kenyan side of the mountain because of the destruction of their habitat.

Encroachment is such a serious issue across Uganda that the NFA has asked the government to allow their rangers to be armed, like those of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. When UWA rangers spot poachers, they shoot to kill. 

However, as the chairman of a group of encroachers on wetland near Mukono said, 'How can we achieve prosperity for all as President Museveni tells us when we don't have land. Should we eat papyrus?'

The ownership of land is frequently in question. Some people have no documentation to prove they own the land they have lived on all their lives, and their parents before them. People living in IDP camps in the north have lost what ever documentation they ever had and the landmarks identifying their property disappeared during the insurgency. In a recent case in Amuru, some people who had lived on their land since the 1940s, or had  inherited it from their parents had no idea it actually belonged to the NFA, who took it over in the 1960s. The NFA are threatening 11,000 people with eviction. 

On top of this, there are still disputes about property owned by Ugandan Asians, some involving individual families. Some complicated cases involve community groups. One case that is rumbling on just now involves Bat Valley Primary School, which was built in 1957 by members of the Hindu community and taken over by Kampala City Council in 1972 when the Asians were expelled. The Indian Association of Uganda applied to renew its lease in 2006, which was granted. Teachers at the school are now accusing the Asians of threatening to demolish the school. The Asians say they are simply planning to develop a health facility on the same site. 

Often land disputes originate in the complex relationships of Ugandan families. Men may have two or three wives or partners who may not even know of each other's existence. The children of these different families may only find out about each other at their father's funeral. Disagreements about inheritance are almost inevitable.  

Neighbours, families or powerful clan members often turn on the weak, such as the disabled, the poor, those with no political connections, the less educated, the bereaved, the old, the sick and the orphans. Women do particularly badly. In 2011, a report by the Land and Equity Movement  estimated that in Lango 70% of widows had suffered from land-grabbing, and 90% of unmarried and divorced women. In 2008 in Mukono, the International Justice Mission (IJM) found that over a three year period (2005-2007) at least 1,750 widows had had their property grabbed. Of these victims, 28% had been threatened with violence and 26% were thrown out of their homes by force. IJM identified the following triggers: polygamous or informal marriages and misconceptions about the law or women's rights. Of the 119 succession-related cases in Mukono Magistrate's Court, only five resulted in convictions.

In Masindi a 90-year old woman left her home to live at the police station. Her relatives had persuaded her to sell her two acres of land for Shs800,000 (£200) to her cousin on condition that he looked after her until she died. She was subsequently mistreated and starved. The police are keeping her safe. The Monitor has a special section devoted to such land issues. However, most stories never reach the papers.

There are also disputes between clans, for example, the Bagisu and the Sabiny in the east. Raids by the Karimajong forced the Sabiny to relocate onto Bagisu land, which they cleared for crops. The Bagisu retaliated and Sabiny houses were burnt down. And then there are the pastoralists, nomadic cattle-keepers. Uganda's expanding population has increased the amount of land under cultivation, disrupting their traditional access to pasture and water and bringing them into conflict with farmers. In Amudat, in the north east, the locals have succeeded in driving out the Balaalo who allegedly entered the area illegally. However, where will the pastoralists go now?

Elsewhere, minority groups are beginning to ask for recompense for being evicted from their ancestral land when it was gazetted as national parks. 

'Apart from the Basongora pastoralists in Kasese District who were permanently resettled, other ethnic minority groups like the Batwa, Banyabindi, Makenyi and others are squatters on other people's land, who keep chasing them away,' said the coordinator for the United Organisation for Batwa Development at a recent international conference on minority ethnic rights. 

The Batwa, a pygmy group, were evicted from their traditional lands when the Bwindi and Mgahinga forests were declared national parks in 1991, and their thousand-year old way of life as hunters and gatherers outlawed.

So, 'Who owns the land?' is becoming a difficult question to answer in Uganda, as it is in many developing countries where wont and tradition are inevitably giving way to deeds and legal documentation. It happened in Scotland during the Highland Clearances when the clan chiefs evicted their own people from land which had been held in common or under traditional tenancy agreements. Another factor is that of 'agricultural improvements' which bring together large tracts of land for commercial farming, as happened in Scotland and is beginning to happen in Uganda. One question is also to what extent the understandable desire of a community to remain on its 'own' land can be allowed to threaten the survival of whole species or irrevocably destroy the natural environment. Changing family structures and social expectations as to individual and marital rights are other factors. What appears 'right' in terms of natural justice for families and communities may be completely at variance with legal agreements drawn up in Kampala and London. To go back to the case with which this post started, the New Forests Company is probably acting within its rights.  This doesn't mean, of course, that it is 'right'.

You may also find the following posts of interest:

Living together in Kibale Forest
Living on the margins: it's not just people who complain

The Independent recently published a well-reasoned and balanced article about the issues relating to forestry plantations: Tree farms; a mixed bag

Oxfam has also produced a film about the 'land grabs'.

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