August 25, 2004

Zimbabwe v. Kenya, a different approach to land

It seems to me that I write so much about Africa that I ought to have it as a category. But it is such a fascinating topic. Zimbabwe is a country of great interest to me and I have written about it's slow motion train wreck of a system of government and civil society at length.

One of the biggest reasons for the decline in Zimbabwe's standard of living and hard currency reserves and general economic malaise is the manner in which the government has handled the redistribution of land held primarily by white farmers before. This land was the source of the main exports -- coffee; flowers; and tobacco. To raise these crops for international markets required a high level of sophisticated technical expertise. The people the government resettled on these farms had no such technical knowledge and, to cut this short, the economy has been devastated with the effects reaching beyond the export to the internal chemical industry (pesticides not needed any longer for farms not growing anything) to the heavy machinery industry (who has money now to buy farm equipment or to have existing equipment serviced?). The effects ripple and are bad.

Kenya is now faced with demands for the redistribution of land which was settled during colonial times and according to treaties of dubious character. Kenya, however, has taken lessons from Zimbabwe and has gone the other direction. According to the article in the NY Times* this morning, the Kenyan government is forcibly resisting the Masai squatting and land invasions. They are arresting and relocating the squatters.

Kenyan officials have no intention of following Mr. Mugabe's example. Uprooting the ranchers, government officials said, would be disastrous for the economy, which relies heavily on Western assistance and on tourism, a major source of hard currency.

On top of that, acceding to the Masai might encourage similar demands by the scores of other ethnic groups in Kenya, many of which have historic grievances of their own, officials added.

The government has adopted a cautious approach to land reform. A new constitution that is being drafted proposes that the long leases granted to some wealthy ranchers, some of which exceed 950 years, be reduced to 99 years. When those leases expire, Mr. Kimunya said, it is possible that the land may be reallocated.

A small round of applause for the cautious Kenyans and their sensible approach. They may yet avoid the calamity that has befallen Zimbabwe.

* Should you go read this article, please ignore the exceptionally stupid whitewash -- "But while President Robert Mugabe backed - and even encouraged - the forced redistribution of land in Zimbabwe as a way of righting colonial wrongs" -- of the land redistribution as Mugabe's one great chance as an historical reformer. Mugabe was trying to hold onto power and he did it through land redistribution. That is the reason, no matter what protestations to the contrary you may see in the press. This kind of off handed treatment of Mugabe just drives me nuts.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 25, 2004 07:54 AM
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