Can Land Policy Serve Capitalist, Pro-Poor Agendas? [opinion]

The indiscriminate ‘eviction’ of people from the railway line in Kampala has been among the recurrent stories in the media recently.

The incident prompted me to think about whether the existing legal and policy frameworks regulating land have any avenues of preventing such events, or handling their consequences in a manner that is more responsive to the rights of those aersely affected by the actions of state agencies in this particular case, and other cases of a similar nature.

There hasn’t been a comprehensive land policy in Uganda since colonialism, making the newly-launched one timely. The years-long scarcity of frameworks regulating settlements, coupled with inadequate physical planning and a lack of an urban policy, among others, led to sprawling settlements, including in areas close to the railway lines.

The Land Policy 2014 takes cognizance of this and in policy statement 145 pledges to formulate a national housing policy and a national urban policy “for comprehensive planning and orderly development”.

According to strategy 146, this will, among others, ensure that land for settlement is properly planned and social services allocated equitably. The valid question, however, is: how will these policies that aspire to the notion of orderly and equitable development be applied within the current framework riddled with land conflicts without violating rights or affecting the livelihoods of some of the involved parties?

And, are the railway evictions that were officially carried out to pave way for a private investing company in line with or a break from the vision of the policy: “a transformed Ugandan society through optimal use and management of land resources for a prosperous and industrialised economy with a developed service sector”?

A close look at the policy shows a narrow understanding of the role of land in Uganda: land is framed as land for economic development and therefore land on the market, available for and serving commercial ends. In the current policy and legal framework, land is to a great extent seen as a vehicle for capital accumulation, particularly for the accumulation strategies of a certain class, i.e. investors, industrialists, and so on.

This policy focus neglects or disaantages the economic and social interests of other classes in society (e.g. peasants) and clouds out other, non-commercial functions that land serves in our country for instance, settlement and small-scale subsistence activities.

It is clear that the policy does not activelyexplicitly support the existence and flourishing of these other forms of land use. Instead, it legitimatises sanctions and aances capitalist land acquisitions instead of questioning them. It is this paradigm that is also seen to some extent in Uganda’s land laws that seem to escalate conflicts in an already conflict-ridden field.

A second issue we need to discuss is how the land policy (or other policies for that matter) was made: was it a top-down process only, or also a bottom-up process that considered the interests and concerns of the poor, and is generally sensitive to the complicated interlocking, contested and legitimate claims to land that are on the ground? If the latter is the case to what extent were the views from the ground incorporated?

Discussions about the same would go a long way in creating amicable settlements in cases of land conflicts. It seems that the current law and policy tend to close or reduce space for discussions about how to treat the interests of the poor and how to deal with the land rights of those that are affected by, i.e. are ‘in the way’ of investors-led development.

What is the policy stand on conflicts between land interests and land rights of investor(s) versus non-investor, rich versus poor? In short, conflicts between those aiming at commercial uses versus subsistencesurvival modes of land use. In the absence of such discussions, all arguments take a “from now onwards” approach, the starting point being that which is stated in the law and policy, closing out other options.

If the law and policy promote land for economic development, any other options promoting land for other functions of a social nature such as survival oriented small scale business or agriculture that might be beneficial to the poor are relegated to the periphery.

Yet, we are made to think that legal and policy agendas are intended to benefit all people, but then a close look at policy content thus far shows that in the end, it aances marketisation of land which benefits specific groups of people. This might hurt sections of local communities with land use modes that are not in fashion, i.e., are in conflict with the agendas of policymakers and their commercial backers.

The current land sector trends clearly show that capitalist transformations at the global level are playing out in our local context in such a way as to promote the private investor (i.e. the capitalist class), and not the poor land user. In as much as the current power configurations in Uganda seem to embrace a more pluralistic conception of the legitimate uses of land the law and approaches used have an effect of undermining the poor’s land use modes.

This hinders socially-progressive development in the interest of the capitalist mode, hence clouding out the poor land users. To avoid an all-too-brief era of land-based development riddled with conflict, we need to devise means that cater for diverse perspectives of land use for all categories of people and entities.

The author is a lecturer at the School of Law, Makerere University.

Source : The Observer

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