This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on October 4, 2015
The on-going wrangle between the National Land Commission and the Ministry of Lands highlights the emotive nature of land issues, adjudication and control in the country. This dispute aside, it is important to understand how land issues in Kenya stunt the development of the country and the urgent need for the government and Kenyans to resolve land disputes.
One of the problems with land tenure issues in Kenya is the reality that felt ownership of tracts of land is not necessarily associated with ownership of land title deeds. Further, even if private land has established owners, it is well know that some of these tracts of land have been grabbed as has public and communal land creating outcry in local communities. This further muddies the water with regards to establishing clear proof of land ownership. How do these issues affect the economic development of the country?
Well firstly, in many parts of Kenya, land owned by individuals is usually passed down from parents to children in the traditional spirit of inheritance. Therefore, in some communities if you ask locals to whom a certain tract of land belongs, there may be local consensus on ownership. However, in many cases the owner of the land does not necessarily have the legal title deed proving and establishing him/her as land owner. Tracts of land in rural areas where most agricultural land lies and indeed where most of the land mass is located, is affected by this problem of traditional ownership of land with no legal title. This creates several problems with economic impacts. Firstly, if a rural smallholder farmer for example, doesn’t have legal title but actively farms his tract of land, he cannot use that land as collateral and use the loan to improve inputs into his farm to get better yields and thus income. As a result, the farmer tills his land, often using basic and out-dated methods of farming, unable to afford inputs thereby condemning him to low yields and the vagrancy of unpredictable weather. Further, when legal title is lacking, it is difficult for many smallholder farmers to come together, agglomerate their small parcels of land to create a larger tract of land that can be farmed more efficiently. In short the land cannot be used to its full economic potential. Further, it can be argued agricultural and food security issues in Kenya are linked to the amorphous nature of land tenure in parts of Kenya.
Secondly, if parcels of land exist without legal owners, that land ceases to be an asset that can be effectively traded and used for commercial purposes such as industrial development. Investors may want to build a factory in a certain county but if the ownership of the land in which they are interested has contested ownership, the investors will not make that investment and move on to an area where land ownership is clear. Therefore, counties in which land wrangles are particularly virulent ought to be aware that this fact makes them a county that is less attractive for investors who need land to build structures that will be economically productive. Investors do not want to sink investment into an area only for the land into which capital has been injected to be the source of contention. So again, the lack of clear land ownership of land may impede the extent to which economically productive investments can be made.
Finally, it is a well- known fact that land issues in Kenya were the root cause of the tribal clashes in 1992, 1997, 2002 and even informed the post-election violence of 2007/8. We as Kenyans have proven ourselves willing to kill each other in the name of land. This is a shame because not only is there a loss of precious life, the resulting instability negatively impacts the economic productivity of Kenyans and also scares investors away from the country.
The confluence of these factors makes it clear that there is a need for the country to do the work and have the courage to fairly resolve the land disputes that currently plague a great deal of the country. Failing to do so is a sure way of ensuring land issues in Kenya continue to stunt the economic development of the country.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; email: email@example.com