Take these elements away and all progress in innovation, economic activity and development suddenly become impossible. In Africa, I have long argued that one of our greatest shortcomings is the failure to give people security of the assets they create or use. Our cultures were created in an era when land was free and in abundant supply – people used simple technologies to clear and exploit it for a few years until it was exhausted. Then they simply moved to a new location and repeated the process.
Now that this system can no longer be sustained, if we do not give rural populations security of tenure there is little or no chance that they will be able to develop their land or be willing to invest in it on a long term basis. Only a small proportion of global land resources are held under secure, legal tenure but such land supplies the great majority of global food supplies. Hundreds of millions of people in rural Africa are locked into a system where the equity value of the land they are using is not available to them as collateral. This keeps them in poverty and as their populations grow, their conditions of poverty simply deepen.
During the colonial era in Africa, tracts of land were taken over by settlers and were then held under freehold title rights that were protected by both the Constitution and the legal system. In Zimbabwe the farmers were able to borrow many billions of dollars. The result was the development of a farm system that became a leader in the world in terms of yields and technology. The country not only exported half of its production but maintained food supplies at the lowest cost of any regional state while supplying 60 per cent of all raw materials used by industry.
Elsewhere these historical developments brought major international firms into the agricultural industry. The outcome was large plantations of timber, palm oil, coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar. Despite the turmoil that has gripped the continent in the past 30 years, these agribusiness enterprises have survived and in some cases expanded.
In Kenya, Angola and Mozambique and now in Zimbabwe, settler farms have been taken over by the State and attempts made to circumvent the legal restrictions on such transactions. As these countries have matured, they have started to reverse these early post-Independence policies because of the subsequent collapse and failure to maintain the productivity of these farms. But the damage done has been enormous. In Zimbabwe the total cost of the farm invasions is impossible to quantify but it runs to billions of dollars. It is not farfetched to claim that the collapse of the wider economy after 2000 is directly attributable to the destruction of the commercial farm system.
What is often not appreciated is that the creation of a commercial farming system established linkages with farmers living in the Communal Areas. When the commercial sector collapsed the subsequent decline in output in commercial farming districts (71 per cent) was tracked by an identical decline in Communal Farmer output (73 per cent). Subsequent attempts to support the communal sector by international agencies and the state have totally failed to fill the gap created by the removal of 5,000 commercial farmers.
Case studies from other parts of the developing world, particularly in India where I have personally witnessed an amazing project based on home-ownership, demonstrate that transformation and empowerment for the majority is possible. But we have to take this issue seriously and take steps to ensure that people have security of person and property. This does not need money – just the political will to ensure that people can hold assets securely and that markets are then allowed to function. These are choices for society – already made in many countries, but which Africa still has to decide on for the future.Post published in: Analysis