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How Land Tenure Systems Are Sowing Seeds Of Hunger

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It is 6:37pm, April 8, 2020, Bikompe village, Kasanda district, 130km from Kampala city; weaver birds sing away in a crescendo as the evening sun goes deeper behind the famous 99 hills of Mubende. For several years now, the noisy birds have been living on a musambya tree, located over 50 metres away from Erias Batanudde’s house.

The birds normally feed on the maize grain from Batanudde’s garden.  The disappearing sun was always the signal for Batanudde to gather his maize grain, drying away on a tarpaulin in the small compound and take it back to the house.

“We have been growing a lot of maize. I harvest an average of 5 tonnes each season on four acres of land,” he says. But two days before, his farming life was shuttered!

“I have five children, I have a wife to look after, so what will I do without land to grow food?” the lanky 40-year-old says. 

“They came and destroyed our crops. They said it is their land,” Batanudde says. After destroying his crops, they gave him a one-month ultimatum to leave the land.

Batanudde, just like over 100 of his fellow farmers does not know what is next. Hunger, strife and famine stare at them.

“This area alone has been producing over 100 tonnes of maize per season. Now that we have been evicted, all this is lost,” Batanudde says.

Whether it is in Acholi, Kayunga, Mubende or Bunyoro, land ownership is one of the leading causes of poor food production.

According to a Vision Group Citizen’s manifesto survey, land shortage and other land related issues are some of the biggest challenges to agriculture. This was reported by respondents from every region of the country.  Farmers reported that farming land was not only small and scarce, but also a source of strife among farming communities.  

“If you do not want to die in Africa, keep away from two treasures of man; land and a woman,” Ramathan Goobi, formerly an economics lecturer and researcher at Makerere University Business School (MUBS), but now in the permanent sectary in the finance ministry once said.

According to records at the lands ministry, 20% of the land in Uganda is registered and mapped, while the rest is held under communal systems. According to the 1998 Land Act, there are mainly four recognisable land tenure systems in Uganda. These include the mailo land system, the Lease hold, customary and communal land systems. These, however, evolved through generations and have contributed fundamentally to the performance of agriculture in Uganda.

Dr John Kigula, a senior legal consultant on land, says Uganda’s land legal framework consists of several legislations. These include the Constitution of Uganda, The Land Act, the Mortgage Act and The Registration of Titles Act.

Kigula summarises a good land tenure system as one that should be able to support agriculture; and in Uganda]s case, should not force people off land and should protect the rights of the citizens.

“A range of challenges have risen in the course of the application of the main land tenure and administration law, the Land Act 1998. There are related challenges arising from the implementation of related acts,” Kigula says.

These challenges have affected agriculture in the country. For example, while the laws enable some investors to own huge chunks of land even when not using it for any development purpose, the laws also facilitate disintegration of land to tiny plots that are barely useful for agriculture. 

Farming on plots

Eighty-three percent of Uganda is covered by land, giving a total of 200,000 square km of land. If this land is divided equally amongst the entire population of 42 million people, every person would get at least 0.3 acres. If it is, however, divided amongst all 8 million households, each would get around 0.25 decimals or quarter of an acre.  This is certainly too small for agriculture and perhaps only good for an urban homestead.

 In some farming places like Busoga and other parts of the east, the average farmland holding per farming household is just 1acres of land. This is almost the same as in most parts of central Uganda. This, of course, is gradually reducing as the population becomes bigger. It was therefore not surprising that both the central region and the east reported land issues as the second biggest challenge to agriculture.

In western Uganda and the north, there are still some larger pieces of land that can be used for agriculture. Average acreage for the two regions stands at 2.2 acres per homestead. In the survey, the two regions put land issues as the 3rd biggest challenge to agriculture.

But still, this is too small for commercial agriculture, compared to developed farming countries. For example, in the US, average acreage for a farming household is 200 acres. In South Africa, average acreage for a farmer is 100 acres etc.

To make matters worse, even the small plots which are available are segmented further, especially after the father dies.

“We must stop land fragmentation when our parents die, if we are to produce enough food,” President Yoweri Museveni has argued on several occasions. But then, some of the land tenure systems may not allow it.  

Urban farmer Charles Kiwanuka from Iganga municipality says for farmers with small plots, using intensive farming practices that includes applying better seeds and fertilisers is key.

“When you use these improved practices, yields increase and the small piece of land is used maximally,” he says.  

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