Land reform in Lesotho

Faced with dwindling donor revenues and a sharp drop in its share of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) pot, Lesotho’s government had no alternative but to rethink how best to utilize the country’s resources. In particular, the country’s empty coffers prompted the government, which desperately needs to propel economic activity and ensure food security, to review the most controversial topic of all – the ownership and use of land.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

November 4th, 2011

Faced with dwindling donor revenues and a sharp drop in its share of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) pot, Lesotho’s government had no alternative but to rethink how best to utilize the country’s resources. In particular, the country’s empty coffers prompted the government, which desperately needs to propel economic activity and ensure food security, to review the most controversial topic of all – the ownership and use of land.

Seeing the communal ownership of land as an obstacle to the commercialisation of agriculture and enhanced food security, the government passed a new Land Act in 2010. “People who have no land but have money and are willing to invest in agriculture are loath to do so as there is no security of tenure. The owner of land might want to evict you after you sink lots of money in the land, and you have no recourse because land cannot be sold,” said Minister of Finance, Timothy Thahane referring to the old Land Act of 1979.

Under the previous Land Act, no one had the right to sell land as it belonged to the king and it was allocated to citizens through chiefs and headmen on behalf of the king. As a result of this traditional system, hundreds of hectares of land lay idle either because they were owned by older people or disabled people or people who had no economic means of utilising it. Or – worse still – people who had no interest in using their land for agriculture.

But as with all land reform, the proposed changes met with strong opposition – from opposition parties, traditional leaders, some rural communities and non-governmental organisations. Many felt that the law was designed to steal land from indigenous Basotho people and sell it to foreign investors. And even though the law was passed, opposition politicians and traditional leaders are still muttering and threatening to fight the law until it is changed.

The law gives the minister powers to regulate ground rent, dictate what the land can be used for and exempt certain companies from being disqualified from holding title to land in Lesotho. Crucially, it also allows for the termination of a lease holding or the right to occupy land that has been declared abandoned – effectively amounting to ‘legal’ dispossession. The law states that agricultural land shall be regarded as ‘abandoned’ when it has not been cultivated for at least three consecutive years.

At the centre of the rising tide of indignation against the law are Lesotho’s high rates of poverty and inequality and the fear that – if land becomes a priced commodity – only the Basotho elite or foreigners will be able to own land. Others argue that taking way powers of the traditional leaders, who hold land on behalf of the king and allocate it free to citizens, is equal to surrendering national sovereignty to foreigners for the love of money. 

Furthermore, there are concerns that the new law allows any company doing business in Lesotho to own land – as opposed to the old law, which stipulated that a company must be registered in Lesotho and must have Basotho as majority shareholders. Once again, it looks as if the law has been designed to favour foreign investors rather than the Basotho people, many of whom are subsistence farmers and totally dependent on the land for their survival.

However, there are people who support the law, arguing that it will let landowners use their property as collateral to secure loans from the banks. In addition, the lack of secure land tenure has been blamed for the mushrooming of informal settlements as people are afraid to invest in land that they do not fully own and do not have the freedom to sell to the highest bidder or use as collateral at the bank.

With national election set for 2012, many people believe that the land issue will be central to the outcome since Lesotho’s agricultural sector is the most important source of income and livelihoods for the country’s predominantly rural population. But there is also a fear that the law might lead to a civil strife in the long run, if locals are not able to own land because they do not have the money – and if they feel it has become the preserve of the rich. And of foreigners.

The government will need to do a much more effective job of quelling these concerns and mobilising people behind the law – or it could find itself facing serious problems.

Bethuel Thai is the editor of the Public Eye newspaper in Lesotho

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