Last week land minister Betty Amongi got a rough reception from the people of Amuru. The minister had gone along to launch the surveying of land intended for a sugar operation in the area.
Protracted discussion with the political and traditional leaders had been going on for some time up to that point and it seemed as if agreement had been reached. Or so It must have seemed for Amongi and her people.
On arrival they were greeted by an agitated population – mobilised by area MPs, who thought all their issues had not been addressed.
It was back to the drawing board for the government.
On the weekend maverick army man Kasirye Gwanga on his own admission sent developers scurrying for cover when he claimed they were trespassing on his land. Setting ablaze an earth mover that had already started levelling the land.
The common denominator is land.
"We have kicked this tin so far down the road and now it seems it has come to a point where we have to handle it one way or another....
To unlock the full value of our land we need to resolve the land issue.
It is one thing that our land tenure system is complicated but also that our land is largely untitled. One of the major fallouts of this is that we are wasteful and unproductive with our land.
Because our yields are so low we need more and more land to produce not much more than before.
To illustrate. According to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) the average yield per hectare of coffee on our farms is half a ton. However over in Mityana there is a farm which produces 2.5 tons a hectare. The difference is that our farmers not only use poor farming methods but then go ahead and lose a significant portion of the crop through inferior post-harvest handling.
"When land rights are not clear either because many people are actually squatters on the land they are on or because land is held through some community consensus that is hard to defend in law, it becomes difficult to invest in it and therefore push up the productivity of the land...
As a result we are in the interesting situation in Uganda where eight in every ten Ugandans own the houses they live in but we still have a per capita income of less than a thousand dollars.
The two facts are related.
If land is properly titled it can either be leased or sold or invested in to extract its full value. So I can sell it or if I can’t till it but still want to hold on to it, I can lease it to someone with means to make it more productive. Or I can borrow money against the land to invest in fertilisers, better workers or capital equipment to improve yields.
Interestingly the more productive the land is the less people will be dependent on the land for a livelihood, as increased incomes will allow people to educate their children who move on to better paying jobs or mechanise their farms and hence need fewer workers.
The challenge is that land reform of any sort is fraught with political risk. It often means going against the entrenched interest around land, which in Uganda’s case is not really the big land owners but the millions of small holders hanging on to their holding like grim death for lack of an alternative asset to call their own. Who look on attempts to regularise the tenure system with a jaundiced eye, scared that you might be trying to dispossess them using cunning and smoke screens.
Of course there are the elite who are not averse to exploit this mistrust to earn leverage against the government or establishment.
"The point is we are going to have to bite this bullet, sooner rather than later. If we are to transform the economy away from a largely agricultural to a modern one based on industry and services. If we think we can do this without resolving our land question we are living in a fool’s paradise...