By Michael D. Higgins
Last September, speaking as chairperson of the African Union, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn1 told the UN General Assembly that “the 21st century will be an African century.”
He referred to Africa’s immense natural resources, its fast-growing middle class, the commitment to peaceful democratic elections in many countries, and the increasing will of African governments to take responsibility for the peace and security of African people, under the umbrella of the African Union.
This phrase – “Africa’s century” – is often used by commentators to highlight the extraordinary potential of the continent. Yet, the challenges facing the peoples of Africa are no less extraordinary. The continent’s population is expected to double, from around 1 billion to over 2 billion by 2050, and the most fundamental task of finding appropriate ways to feed such a booming population is rendered even more critical, in this century, by the additional, and largely uncharted problems posed by climate change.
There is an urgent need for the scholarship that addresses these challenges to be open to new paradigms, connecting economic development, trade policy, ethics and environmental sustainability. It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for the necessary re-integration of scholarship, but the case has to be made.
As one explores the relations between agriculture, food and security – the triptych chosen by the African Union as its theme for 2014 – the question of access to land emerges as a pivotal issue, not least because of its essential relevance to the welfare, indeed often the survival, of the poorest in Africa’s rural areas.
Here I would like to salute the United Nations’ decision to declare 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. Let us hope that this gesture can contribute to highlighting the vital role played by smallholder farming in sustaining the livelihoods of so many, in nurturing the social and cultural flourishing of rural communities, and in taking care of natural resources – care and renewal of the land.
This initiative will remain, however, as a gesture, and a cynical one at that, if it is contradicted by the policies and practices of international monetary bodies.
The need to relocate family farming to the centre of African national agendas, including trade policies, is all the more pressing in light of a major source of concern – namely the phenomenon of ‘land grabbing,’ whereby large swathes of the countryside that are considered “idle” are being sold or transferred through long-term leases to (usually foreign) investors.
The notion of ‘the empty land,’ ‘the underused land,’ bears for me so many resonances of colonisation, dispossession and imperialist notions of superiority – the long and ideologically laden assumptions of Modernization Theory.
According to Professor Ruth Hall, from the University of Cape Town, some 56 to 227 million hectares have changed hands globally over the last 5 to 10 years, with African land making up 60 to 70% of those large land deals.
There is no question that the demographic challenge, in particular the need to provide for growing demand in the continent’s mushrooming cities, calls for pro-active policy responses. It can also be asserted with some substance that the industrial, or commercial, model of agriculture offers attractive productivity gains.
However, one might rightfully interrogate the rationale underpinning those massive transfers of land, organised in the name of the ‘modernisation’ of African agriculture and the need to achieve more ‘efficient food production.’ Are these objectives to be pursued at the expense of the food security of the local farming population?
If one is to develop a commercial sector that is sustainable, that moves on from sufficiency, and is responsive to cultural and intuitive wisdom, then more is needed in addition or, more accurately, as alternative to, the expansion of large plantations. Investing in the infrastructure, resources and services that might enable small farmers to access local markets and distribution channels is surely important. But so also is access to discourse on the journey from one form of connection between economy, society and culture to another.
These problems are complex and largely exceed the scope of my remarks. I shall limit myself to responding to the title – “Imagining Land” – and offer a modest reflection on some ideas about the meaning and value of land.
In his book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else,2one of few bestsellers from the field of Development Economics, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, addresses what he feels to be obstacles to development in potentially developing countries.
According to de Soto, the poor are not really poor: poverty does not so much arise from a lack of resources as from a lack of proof of ownership. In other words, what the poor lack above all is an officially registered right of ownership of their assets. If informal capital, e.g. unregistered farmlands, could be formalised – and hence sold, bequeathed, or used as collateral for the mobilisation of credit – the economies of poor countries could follow in the footsteps of the rich Western world.
Thus, the contribution that has given de Soto a place in the textbooks of development economics is that he has dared to put a value on the “dead capital” that resides within the limbo of the informal economy. As Staffan Granér put it: “His method is unconventional but sufficiently heroic and laborious to impress some econometricians who have themselves been restricted to the limited horizon of statistical indicators.”
Ever since the publication of his famous book, in 2000, de Soto’s analyses have mesmerised high ranking policy-makers. His ideas are retained as tools to be transmitted to young scholars and policy-makers alike as uncriticised, taken for granted versions of development theory.Yet, many scholars and practitioners in the field have convincingly pointed out the dangers of de Soto’s policy prescriptions, and their consequences, notably for the poorest. In that regard, I very much look forward to Professor Howard Stein’s keynote address.
I would like to highlight just one aspect, pertaining to de Soto’s focus on land parcellisation (i.e. the notion that for each delineated property there is one corresponding owner. This approach is particularly problematic from the point of view of rural common property resources, which have fluid boundaries, likely to be continuously adapted to fit people’s social needs, and are rarely exclusive to one person, but involve, instead, multiple layers of relative rights. Several users may thus have access to different resources on the land simultaneously according to different social and generational cycles.
Moreover, while it is true that people’s customary rights can be vulnerable to abuse by both traditional and elected bodies, the formalisation process can end up excluding weaker rights, e.g. the rights of women or those of strangers, which are recognised under customary law.
None of this is really very new. James C. Scott’s work includes reference to cadastral mapping in 18th century Prussia and the transition of what was once held in common into the maw of privatised property.
What interests me here is the intellectual blind spot in de Soto’s conception: his formal property has the characteristic of individual private ownership, and its primary function is the generation of capital, through its use as potential collateral for loans from private institutions.Other functions, such as the significance of property for the social continuity of groups, for example, are ignored. In light of these functions, however, the optimal use of property might often be its non-marketability.
De Soto’s theory is deeply embedded in Western economic and agricultural histories. Ultimately, it boils down to little more than the old modernisation theory, whereby the informal economy and customary law are ascribed to the traditional, pre-modern sphere.
Yet, as Karl Polanyi wrote in a memorable turn of phrase: “What we call land is an element of nature inextricably woven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.”
As an alternative to what I suggest is the reductive, narrow imagination of de Soto’s model – and I accept that mine is but one view, even a minority one – I would like to refer briefly, by way of illustration, to the work of anthropologist Parker Shipton in Kenya, which may help to illuminate some of the implications of making a market out of land – implications that are cultural, political-economic, and ethical.
In his book Mortgaging the Ancestors,3 Professor Shipton considers how the Luo people, who live mainly by farming, face decisions about land, property and finance, and more particularly, how they accommodate the peculiar economic arrangement that is the mortgage.Kenya offers an interesting example because its programme for adjudicating and registering land, launched under British colonial rule in the mid-1950s, has been continued under the national government from the time of independence in 1963 up to the contemporary period. Although it is not the first such programme in tropical Africa, it has been the first of nationwide scope.
The Luo people live on the eastern side of the great lake that some have called Nam Lolwe, others Nyanza, and still others Victoria – a diversity of names which in itself illustrates the diversity of ideas about legitimacy, kinship, ascendancy and power distribution embedded in land.
In Luo country, the dead have, for many decades, been buried outside the doorways of homes. Thus, according to Shipton: “People are likely to consider these spots on the landscape to anchor their membership in families and in larger groups that have been called lineages, clans, and tribes: living, branching groups with illustrious pasts and high hopes for their futures.”4
Yet, when, as has often happened lately, land has been pledged as collateral on a mortgage loan, the lender feels entitled to take over the land – graves and all – from those who live, farm and pray there. As Shipton shows, not just individuals are involved. A mortgager threatened with eviction is likely to have women, children, and other dependents who may never have known about the contract. He (since it has usually been a he) may be a migrant in the city, the labour on the land being provided by these women and children. He is also likely to have kin and friends, who look upon those graves and the land around them as a sacred heritage belonging not just to the dead and the living, but also the unborn.
This account of how a particular people relates to land illustrates how land is so much more than a financial asset, or “dead capital” à la de Soto.
Land tenure has been the subject of too many disastrous experiments in engineering, both physical and social. It is my conviction that any genuinely inclusive agricultural development model should, to the greatest extent possible, take on board the wealth of practices and conceptions which structure people’s relation to land.
One might ask why is there such policy hostility to leasing and co-operative models of land use and production? Why does land use in Africa have to be fitted within a model of private banking and loan dependency? This is somewhat similar to the Western blindness to the clan system as a tool of conflict resolution and prevention.
I know that many alternative models are being developed across Africa, which accommodate the complex nature of rights in some rural contexts. The concept of “adverse possession,” for example, elaborated in South Africa, demonstrates how people’s informal rights of occupation can be secured without conferring full ownership. I very much look forward to learning more about such important innovations during my visit to some African countries later this year.
By way of conclusion, I would like to emphasize, as Parker Shipton does in his introduction to Mortgaging the ancestors, that land is amenable to a multiplicity of imaginings. It is a topic that is no discipline’s territory.
Since it is about our relation to the planet that is our home, and the potential for life it offers, the topic is biological and ecological. Since land, water and air are the elements our food comes from, where our fights are fought – and as often as not what these are fought over – the topic is both nutritional and strategic. It is also political, legal and economic. It is ethological and ethnological. It is historical and geographical.
Land can also be spiritual and religious, relating as it does – I quote Parker Shipton: “not just to the living but also to the dead and immortal – to the placement of bodies and the watchfulness of spirits or divinity, which as some see it are the guardians of our highest ideals and ultimate understandings, and as others see it the outward personifications of our basest and most hidden urges.”
Land has an importance, may I suggest too, that is literary and poetic. It is where our images are sourced, located anew and buried for future recovery and reworking. Like ourselves.
And finally, let me restate simply how land matters because it is inextricably linked with people’s ability to feed themselves and live in dignity and prosperity. The ability to flourish in the time and space of their migratory existence.
By Michael D. Higgins
President of Ireland, at a Conference entitled “Imagining Land: the Significance of Land in African Economics, Politics and Culture.”
 [Pronounce: Heyl-mariam Dessaleguen]
 De Soto; H. 2000.The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. Basic Books.
 Shipton, P. 2009. Mortgaging the Ancestors. Ideologies of Attachment in Africa. Yale University Press.
 Ibidem, p.5.