Land Grabbing: A Threat to Agriculture

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By Jude Ssebuliba

Land ownership and conditions governing land occupation determine how much and when a farmer can invest in agricultural activities. Long term investments, such as irrigation infrastructure, valley dams/tanks and permanent cash crops like coffee, cotton, tea, vanilla to mention a few, require a guarantee of ownership to remove the fear of sudden eviction from land where infrastructure could be installed. Additionally, strong land tenure terms on top of promoting a strong sense of ownership of a piece of land among farmers, would motivate them to take good care of the land through sustainable agricultural practices. Farmers may even use the land as security for getting bank loans, leading them to develop and invest more in the land in order to improve their incomes as well as to pay back the borrowed money.

Today, most of our farmers, majority of whom are small-scale and on whom our economy depends so heavily on, either work on land that is not really theirs or that they cannot legally prove their ownership of. In most parts of the central region, farmers are operating on Bibanja at the mercy of a landlord somewhere in Kampala or Wakiso district. In other parts of the country, under customary land tenure systems, farmers own the land they claim by virtue of their customary entitlements but lack the documents they need to prove their ownership leaving them vulnerable to land grabbers, who may use legal mechanisms to evict them.

As a result of this, we have witnessed countless reports of families being evicted from the land which they have lived on for generations as rightful occupants. Most of these families are evicted by rich people, often with the help of security forces wielding documents from courts of law, or by government agencies such as NEMA, UWA, and UNLA. Due to lack of proper documentation it is often hard to tell who is entitled to the land, as the rich people and institutions often claim the farmers attempt to grab their land by occupying it for a long time while the farmers claim that they are being evicted from the land that they rightfully own.

To the agricultural sector, these interactions between land owners, squatters and masquerades has led to short term agricultural investment, as small scale farmers who believe they could lose their land anytime tend to plant seasonal crops that mature very quickly and do not invest in heavy machinery that would be hard to keep in case of an eviction. Their situation is easily summed up in a quote from 2017 from one resident of Apaa county who said “we spend more time safeguarding land than we spend tilling it.”

The situation in Mubende, Kalangala, Nakasongla, Wakiso is not different at all. Due to fear that they may lose it anytime, land owners are often selling off their land while they still can, and choose to start easily relocatable businesses such as shops and commercial motorcycles transportation, unfortunately these often do not last long eventually plunging them further into poverty.

As Uganda prepares to become a middle income country, it is now more necessary than ever for everyone to check their land tenure situation as the demand for land by industrialists increases. This phase is likely going to see increasing demand for land from the large and medium scale farmers and industrialists which will inevitably result into more evictions of the vulnerable.

Historically commercial farming and other large scale land based development has largely been anchored on ruthlessness and crime. “Behind every large fortune there is a crime.” One French novelist, Balzac once said. People crossed oceans and grabbed large chunks of land from the natives of their host continents, committed massacres, and used slave labour to enrich themselves. Today commercial farmers use heavy machines like tractors and combine harvesters on large pieces of land. It is the new trend. Smallholder farmers using hand hoes must therefore be on the lookout. Lest they be put on the losing side.