Our country has a new villain: the land grabber! In the popular imagination, this is a rich and powerful individual grabbing land from poor helpless victims. There are strong incentives for journalists, academics, politicians, activists, pundits, etc. to position themselves as champions of the poor masses against the rich and powerful. Their views are cheered by the hordes, making them feel that somehow they are the moral conscience of our society.
However, like all popular beliefs, this vision of a land grabber is only part of a much bigger story. The more troubling – and destructive – land grabbing is by poor people. They invade and occupy public land such as game and forest reserves and wetlands. This may lead to an environmental catastrophe. Some invade and forcibly squat on rich people’s land. In all cases, and because of the power of their vote, politicians protect them by stopping the police from enforcing court orders.
President Yoweri Museveni formed a “land protection unit” at State House to protect peasants from land grabbers. He also formed the commission of inquiry on land chaired by the tough-talking Justice Catherine Bamugemereire to hit rich land grabbers on the head. But he has done little to protect game and forest reserves and wetlands against encroachers, who are poor. The opposition cannot criticise the poor who grab land.
From a humanitarian perspective, Ifeel deep sympathy for those whose land is grabbed – whether it is the poor being dispossessed by the rich or the rich being dispossessed by the poor colluding with our populist state. However, from a transformational perspective, the rich land grabber may not be the villain we think he/she is. The history of the transformation of England – and its offshoots in North America (the USA and Canada) and in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) is instructive.
In England, the industrial revolution was occasioned by the enclosure movement. This was a large-scale confiscation of common lands (lands meant for use by everyone) by powerful individuals. Wool had become profitable and the powerful wanted to rear sheep on a large scale. So they began enclosing huge tracts of land and denying access to ordinary peasants. These peasants were reunited to the land through the agency of capital as agricultural labourers. Others moved to towns. Destitute, they were willing to accept substandard wages. This provided cheap labour to emerging factories thereby launching the industrial revolution.
In America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the story was worse. The extension of the commercial motive into agriculture was achieved at the price of genocide against native peasant populations whose lands were forcibly confiscated by white colonists. I do not find in the history of the development of the Anglo-West today’s vision of abenign, kiss-and-hug-everyone version that dominates development thinking.
Nearly 70% of Ugandans depend on agriculture for a livelihood. No country in the world (or in history) that has/had so many of its people living off the land achieved a per capita income of more than $1,000. So if Uganda is to become rich, we need to see a transition from village tillage to urban industry and services. This means ending peasant agriculture, even if through land grabbing. In defending peasants’ rights on land, Museveni, Besigye and all the kind people of Uganda are doing something humane but it is equally economically retrogressive.
The primary motive for peasant agriculture is subsistence i.e. produce what to eat. The market is only secondary, for goods to supplement their survival. Peasants are inherently risk averse. Their ecology makes them prefer low but stable yields to high but risky undertakings. Thinking we can transform them into risk-taking entrepreneurs is a pipedream. Joseph Schumpeter estimated that innovative entrepreneurs form only 4% of the population, another 16% are imitators. The rest are ordinary masses who are better off working for someone else.