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Columnists

We need more sustainable use of land

Land is a finite resource. It is also an emotive subject especially in countries like Kenya that are largely agrarian.

Any legal or policy framework on land should aim at increasing agricultural production while at the same time trying to remove elements of exploitation and social injustice from the agrarian economy.

Land reforms in many parts of the world have had two main objectives, that is, efficient use of land and social justice.

Historically, land in Kenya was communally owned until the British colonial government introduced the concept of individual land ownership.

Although there often was zoning of land for agricultural and other uses in traditional Africa, there were no restrictions to what size an individual could own.

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You could take as much land as you wanted, but a natural limit was often dictated by availability of hands to work on the land, as agriculture relied solely on human labour.

Independent Kenya leaders took advantage of this laissez-faire tenure system and allocated themselves large tracts of land at the expense of many citizens who did not have any rights to land.

To date, this has remained a thorny issue and perhaps why the writers of our Constitution thought it wise to address our social injustices by seeking “to prescribe minimum and maximum land holding acreages in respect of private land.”

This, in my view, came too late. Land in most counties had been sub-divided into uneconomical pieces that undermine the essence of sustainable development. What we need most are new methods of land ownership that would enable land consolidation into larger portions that would justify mechanised farming.

Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute for Agricultural Economics, in a study on maize production, lists inefficient use of land and low productivity as some of the main challenges in the agricultural sector.

The study finds that productivity from smallholder maize farming has remained stagnant due to archaic methods of farming. Every four years, Kenya faces severe shortage of food. As a result, there is a widening gap between maize production and consumption in the last decade.

As for social justice, we must look at it from the lenses of the Bill of Rights and the current migration trend. Today, more than 32 per cent of Kenyans live in urban areas and almost 300,000 people are moving into urban areas yearly.

We must see this as an opportunity to eventually deal with the land use problem by encouraging consolidation to allow for mechanised farming for greater productivity.

It means, therefore, that we also must focus on provision of basic necessities, that is, shelter, food and clothing as enshrined in Section 43 of the Constitution. We can never achieve these fundamental rights if we continue to use and manage land inefficiently.

On matters of land, Parliament is heavily conflicted to the extent that it cannot make the right decisions. Many leaders are stuck in outmoded cultural fixation towards land.

They are some of the people who insist that their own should only be buried in their ancestral homes. It will require selfless transformative leadership to attain a fair legal and policy framework on land.

Available evidence should be informing policy makers that there is much more to land policy than coming up with arbitrary numbers on minimum and maximum land size. The more we promise people with land, the greater the greed we develop.

Game reserves that were meant to be home for animals have been subdivided into private land. It is only a matter of time before all the animals move to Tanzania, which has a fairly stable land use and management policy.

There should never be anything like freehold land when all of us are just temporary tenants on earth. Our policy making today should be cognizant of future generations to come and environmental sustenance of those living today and in the days to come.

The Constitution demands that we live sustainably for the sake of future generations. The rate at which we are depleting our forests is alarming. To reverse this, we must increase public land and ensure that it remains so for us and generations to come.

We must, therefore, allow Kenyans to debate the issue of land much more openly before coming up with any legal and policy framework because land belongs to all of us.

Aldo Leopold, an American conservationist, and environmentalist, once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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