About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, June 17, 2018

In defence of land grabbing

Why the greedy Ugandans we love to hate could be the key to our future prosperity

Our country has a new villain: the land grabber! In the popular imagination, this is a rich and powerful individual grabbing land from poor helpless victims. There are strong incentives for journalists, academics, politicians, activists, pundits, etc. to position themselves as champions of the poor masses against the rich and powerful. Their views are cheered by the hordes, making them feel that somehow they are the moral conscience of our society.

However, like all popular beliefs, this vision of a land grabber is only part of a much bigger story. The more troubling – and destructive – land grabbing is by poor people. They invade and occupy public land such as game and forest reserves and wetlands. This may lead to an environmental catastrophe. Some invade and forcibly squat on rich people’s land. In all cases, and because of the power of their vote, politicians protect them by stopping the police from enforcing court orders.

President Yoweri Museveni formed a “land protection unit” at State House to protect peasants from land grabbers. He also formed the commission of inquiry on land chaired by the tough-talking Justice Catherine Bamugemereire to hit rich land grabbers on the head. But he has done little to protect game and forest reserves and wetlands against encroachers, who are poor. The opposition cannot criticise the poor who grab land.

From a humanitarian perspective, I feel deep sympathy for those whose land is grabbed – whether it is the poor being dispossessed by the rich or the rich being dispossessed by the poor colluding with our populist state. However, from a transformational perspective, the rich land grabber may not be the villain we think he/she is. The history of the transformation of England – and its offshoots in North America (the USA and Canada) and in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) is instructive.

In England, the industrial revolution was occasioned by the enclosure movement. This was a large-scale confiscation of common lands (lands meant for use by everyone) by powerful individuals. Wool had become profitable and the powerful wanted to rear sheep on a large scale. So they began enclosing huge tracts of land and denying access to ordinary peasants. These peasants were reunited to the land through the agency of capital as agricultural labourers. Others moved to towns. Destitute, they were willing to accept substandard wages. This provided cheap labour to emerging factories thereby launching the industrial revolution.

In America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the story was worse. The extension of the commercial motive into agriculture was achieved at the price of genocide against native peasant populations whose lands were forcibly confiscated by white colonists. I do not find in the history of the development of the Anglo-West today’s vision of a benign, kiss-and-hug-everyone version that dominates development thinking.

Nearly 70% of Ugandans depend on agriculture for a livelihood. No country in the world (or in history) that has/had so many of its people living off the land achieved a per capita income of more than $1,000. So if Uganda is to become rich, we need to see a transition from village tillage to urban industry and services. This means ending peasant agriculture, even if through land grabbing. In defending peasants’ rights on land, Museveni, Besigye and all the kind people of Uganda are doing something humane but it is equally economically retrogressive.

The primary motive for peasant agriculture is subsistence i.e. produce what to eat. The market is only secondary, for goods to supplement their survival. Peasants are inherently risk averse. Their ecology makes them prefer low but stable yields to high but risky undertakings. Thinking we can transform them into risk-taking entrepreneurs is a pipedream. Joseph Schumpeter estimated that innovative entrepreneurs form only 4% of the population, another 16% are imitators. The rest are ordinary masses who are better off working for someone else.

The poorest country in the world is South Sudan. It has a per capita income (PCY) of $228. Over 95% of its population are self-employed peasants owning land and producing their own food or working in the informal sector as vendors, hawkers, petty traders etc.; in Uganda (PCY $700), this number is 78%. In lower middle income Vietnam (PCY $2,170), it is 65%. Turkey, an upper middle income country (PCY $11,000) the self-employed are only 21%. In USA (PCY $60,000), the 7th highest on earth, only 10% of the people are self-employed.

The evidence is overwhelming: the road to poverty is paved with self-employed peasants owning land and living off agriculture in rural areas. The road to prosperity is paved with peasants moving off the land to urban centres to work for someone else – in homes, factories, etc. It is possible that if peasants are thrown off the land, they could form a destitute under class. But this also means that they would be willing to accept substandard wages, a factor necessary to stimulate manufacturing.

Museveni talks about markets as large populations. This explains his mistaken obsession with the East African federation. Large markets are NOT formed by people per se but by consumers. It is not the size but the purchasing power of a population that creates large markets. Peasants cannot form a large market because they produce and consume most of what they need. It is when they are separated from the land that they form a market – because then, they are left with only one thing – their labour power, which they sell for a wage. Then they have to buy food and pay rent etc. to survive i.e. they become a market.

I am not prescribing that we let land grabbers loose on the poor. It is possible that such action, even if promising in the long term, can cause political contestations that lead to civil war and state collapse. What may have worked for England in the 18th century may not work for Uganda in the 21st. But we should know that kindness and altruism have never transformed nations; historically, greed and selfishness of the capitalist has.

It is important to distinguish the subjective motivations of land grabbers (personal greed) from the objective outcome of their actions. Their interest in acquiring large tracts of land suggests they may be an incipient agricultural bourgeoisie seeking to introduce the commercial motive into agrarian structures. If this suspicion has any truths to it, then stopping their land grabbing may be good politics and humane but it is bad economics. It may be the factor blocking the prosperity we clamour for.

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