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Pressure builds over slow pace of land redistribution

[Namibia] Land a contentious issue in Namibia.
PFS

Fifteen years after independence Namibians are still grappling with the issue of sustainable and effective land reform in the arid Southern African country.

Pressure has been building over the slow pace of redistribution, but the government argues that too few properties are offered for sale at reasonable prices under the current willing-buyer, willing-seller arrangement.

According to Frans Tsheehama, permanent secretary in the ministry of lands and resettlement, the government intends acquiring 15 million hectares by 2020 to resettle the 240,000 people it has on its waiting list.

"The landless in Namibia are not happy with progress made with land reform and their feeling is that the willing-seller, willing-buyer process is too slow," said Tsheehama at a national symposium organised last week by the University of Namibia.

Since launching the land reform programme in 1996 to correct colonial-era discrimination in land ownership, the government has bought a total of 146 commercial farms covering 932,864 hectares.

"Each year government puts aside N$50 million (US $8 million) to acquire farms, but there are not enough farms offered for sale," he commented.

Raimar von Hase, president of the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU), which represents about 3,000 of Namibia's 3,800 mostly white commercial farmers, responded by saying, "Each farm up for sale must first be offered to the government, which is the land ministry."

He added that "it takes a very long time to obtain a waiver certificate from the ministry, as it has the first option to buy".

According to Von Hase, a more effective mechanism was farm acquisition by black farmers through the affirmative action loan scheme (AALS), which offered preferential loans via the state-owned Agricultural Bank.

"Over the past 10 years, black ownership of land increased from 2.7 percent to 15.6 percent through this loan scheme and the [government's] resettlement policy," said Von Hase.

"Since the land reform [began] in 1996, five million hectares of the total 36 million hectares of agricultural land in Namibia changed to black ownership," he pointed out. White farmers who in 1991 owned 94 percent of all agricultural land, now held 80 percent.

Citing government statistics, the NAU president said 741 previously white-owned farms had changed to black ownership through AALS - substantially more than the 146 farms the government had bought for resettlement.

One key obstacle identified at the symposium was the importance of post-resettlement support to newly resettled farmers.

"Adequate response mechanisms to attend to the needs of the resettled farmers from the part of the government is mostly lacking," said Manfred Rukoro, president of the Namibia National Farmers' Union (NNFU), which represents 1,500 mainly small-scale communal farmers.

"Beneficiaries that are resettled are meant to maintain the existing farm infrastructure and sustain themselves on those farms, but most of the current beneficiaries are not in a position to do that," said Rukoro.

The illegal fencing of communal land by wealthier people living in rural areas also came under scrutiny. "The law is clear on that, but nothing has been done by the authorities so far to bring the culprits to book and to remove those illegal fences," Rukoro contended. "The poor people and their livestock suffer, because their animals have reduced grazing areas."

At a ministerial workshop on resettlement issues last month, land minister Jerry Ekandjo disclosed that the ministry had resettled a total of 5,890 families. "So far, 1,538 families were resettled on freehold land and 4,352 families in communal areas - altogether 38,000 people," he said.

Meanwhile, the first expropriation of a farm in Namibia has entered its final phase.

Last month the land ministry told the owner, 69-year-old Hilde Renate Wiese, it would pay N$ 3.7 million [$600,000] for the farm, known as Ongombo West.

Hilde said that according to independent estate agents specialising in farm sales, the farm was worth around US $1.5 million.

"I have accepted this price very reluctantly," Wiese said. "I want to get this matter behind me now - it is dragging on since May 2004, when I received the letter from the ministry [saying] that they want to buy my farm."

In accordance with the country's constitution, which allows for expropriation "in the public interest, with fair and just compensation", the government sent letters to 15 farmers last year, notifying them of the expropriation of their farms.

"I still wonder what the public interest was regarding my farm," Wiese said. "The government has always said it would first target foreign landowners who are absent form their farms." The Wiese family has been farming on Ongombo West, about 40 km from the capital, Windhoek, since 1904.

As a consequence of the expropriation of Omgombo West, the 12 farm workers and their dependents, 70 people in total, must also leave the farm by the end of November.

Ministry of land and resettlement spokesman Crispin Matongela told IRIN that "in general, when the government buys a farm for resettlement the farm labourers do get accommodated, if not on the same farm, then they will be considered for resettlement on another farm".

However, observers noted that the government's policy regarding the relocation of farm workers was sometimes not fully implemented.

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