BlogLand Rights

Mar 24 2014

Commentary Series, Part II: This Land is Our Land

This post is part of a series developed by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Landesa to highlight the importance of securing land rights for smallholder farmers. This series is running concurrently with the World Bank’s 2014 Land and Poverty Conference taking place in Washington, D.C. Follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #landrights

A great worry had barged into the little house of Leonida and Peter Wanyama in western Kenya.  They had been called to the office of the local chief.  There was a demand that they turn over part of their land.

Leonida was fuming as she related to me what they had been told:  another woman in the area was claiming she had purchased the land years earlier.  Peter argued that he never sold the land – never would! – and he had the deed to prove it.  His signature wasn’t on any of the sale documents that were presented.  Peter suspected his identification card had been copied and then used to sell his land without him knowing it.

Leonida is one of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya I profiled in my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  I followed the farmers for a year, throughout 2011, and I came to appreciate their attachment and deep commitment to the land, which created a pride of place and a dedication to sustainable farming that would preserve the land for generations to come.

Land was very dear to all Kenyan farmers, particularly the smallholders.  It was uncertain land rights that had held back agricultural development in many African countries, including Kenya.  Without the certainty of land ownership – if local leaders could confiscate property on a whim – farmers were reluctant to make improvements on their shambas (their farms) and take on the risks of new seeds and planting methods and financial credit.

In the face of the threat to their land, Leonida and Peter dug in their heels; they weren’t about to give in and leave their shamba, which included their little mud-and-sticks house and about two acres of farming land.  They knew land ownership was often at the center of scams and swindles and political intimidation in Kenya.  The Wanyamas reported the case to the police and the courts.  And then they went to the top, filing a complaint with the Land Commission in Nairobi and the anti-corruption office.

It was a costly battle.  It took money to travel to the larger cities to make the claims and hunt for documentation.  Every office she visited asked for money in exchange for help or documents.  The land office, a human rights office, a local magistrate’s office.  They all demanded astronomical sums for a smallholder farmer, impossible to pay, money that could be spent on food or put aside for the children’s school fees.

“Without money, you can’t get help?” Leonida pleaded

“That is the way it is,” she was told.

But Leonida remained determined; this was a battle she believed she had to wage for her family, for her neighbors and for all smallholder farmers.  Instead of forking over money, she embraced Kenya’s new constitution, which guaranteed property rights and the sanctity of transactions.  She knew the law.  “The chief’s office has nothing to do with land anymore,” she said.  “It is an outmoded system.  The Constitution protects us.”

Several months later, I found Leonida beaming when I arrived at her shamba.  A letter had arrived from the director of Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission in Nairobi, which supported Leonida and Peter’s position.

The battle had cost her much, in travel money, time, and anguish.  But it also inspired a new ambition: to own her own piece of land, even if just an acre or two.  It would be in her name, to do with it as she wanted, to one day pass it on to her daughters, a plan fully supported by her husband, Peter.   (The new constitution also protects the rights of women to own land, something that had been rare in rural Kenya; wives and daughters had been routinely passed over when it came to land inheritance.)

Acquiring land was a long-range goal, for the price of land was steep; Leonida would have to manage the family’s current land to be as productive and profitable as possible.  With additional land, she could fulfill one of her dreams: a shamba big enough to grow plenty of food to help all those in her village who fell short, especially the widows who had no property of their own after their husbands died.

Land, Leonida knew, meant independence and security.

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