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Land issues under the spotlight

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The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa SubRegional Office (UNECA-SRO) convened an Ad Hoc experts group meeting together with country representatives from the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The meeting was held from 28 to 29 November 2018 in Livingstone, Zambia under the theme “Land, identity and socio-economic transformation in southern Africa”.

Indeed, for successful and sustainable socio-economic transformation to happen in the SADC region and many other parts of Africa and beyond, the land question needs to be dealt with decisively and conclusively. The reason why land matters are critically important is because of the agrarian nature of most African societies.

Land ownership creates opportunities for individuals, families and communities to be able to produce their own food and where possible, surplus production allows for income generation. Thus, the meeting tackled issues on how land reform processes in the region can catalyse the much-needed socio-economic transformation especially with respect to rural poverty reduction and economic empowerment.

Amongst the highlights of this meeting were heavy contestations against national governments putting land policies in place that allow for secure land rights for land owners and let land markets determine transferability. The general view was that all land should remain state land to control and keep land ownership patterns in check.

The need for a comprehensive land database was unanimously agreed upon by all meeting participants. The meticulous Land issues under the spotlight data collection on who owns the land, the size of the land, where the land is, soil quality, land use and other parameters is usually a good starting point to produce a comprehensive land database. Once the database is completed, it should become a public good that is accessible to all citizens. The database will assist governments to manage and control land ownership more efficiently.

Furthermore, it was highlighted that the land reform processes in the region should be informed by research and thorough studies. In this case, calls were made by country representatives for researchers and experts to do more research, including research on other successful land reforms done in other parts of the world.

The success of land reform hinges on either evidence-based land redistribution or land tenure reform. Evidence-based land reform processes are usually sustainable and are enablers of productive utilisation of land and in turn could lead to rapid socioeconomic transformation. Citizenry participation can also not be ruled out, people who work and live on the land are a wealthy source of useful knowledge that can be used to assist government decisionmaking on what to do with the land.

The other issue raised was around the idea of a land tax in the form of use-it-or-lose-it bases. This land tax is often a useful tool to curb the phenomenon of land owners who do not use the land but continue to keep it for speculative purposes. The other two key discussion points revolved around women and youth land ownership and the need for harmonisation of land policies in the region.

One of the conclusion from the meeting was that land reform is not a once off affair and therefore reviewing and modernisation of land ownership models is a continuous process. Population growth and other human socioeconomic dynamics will always create opportunities for necessary adjustments to be made. Land is a finite resource and therefore fair and equitable distribution of the available land minimises unnecessary tensions and conflicts in communities.