Livestock herders in Lesotho are suspicious of the government's motives for "modernizing" the land tenure system, fearing it will bring about a radical change in their way of life and deprive them of their birthright to land.
"This land act is not for us, it's for people sitting in the highest seats of government and in the fancy chairs in the city," Khotso Lehloka, secretary general of the Lesotho Herders Association (LHA), which represents between 17,000 and 20,000 livestock herders, told IRIN.
About three-quarters of Lesotho's 1.8 million people derive their livelihood from agriculture, although only around 10 percent of the land is suitable for arable farming.
Constitutionally, all the land belongs to King Letsie III and is held in trust by all Basotho males or heads of household. Land acts passed in 1968 and 1979 did not contain a formal lease-based tenure system because land was regarded as communal.
The 2010 Land Administration Authority Act has broken from past practice by allowing security of tenure, in the hope of luring foreign direct investment to act as a stimulus for the rural economy. A growing population and land degradation are also putting greater pressure on a limited resource.
"The Land Act is part of an overall strategy to modernize the economy of Lesotho, so that investors can come, start a business and receive mortgage financing and insurance," planning and finance minister Timothy Thahane told IRIN. "This is the kind of process that is necessary in a modern economy."
The Human Development Index of the UN Development Program (UNDP) ranks this mountainous country, which is completely surrounded by neighboring South Africa, at 160 out of 180 nations.
Each year about 350,000 people routinely face food insecurity, and falling food production necessitates importing between 60 and 70 percent of the national requirement.
The Act establishes the Land Administration Authority (LAA), an autonomous agency of the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftainship that will be responsible for record keeping, the regulation and allocation of land and rentals, and the approval of foreign ownership, which will now be permitted in partnership with a local national holding at least a 20 percent stake.
The goal of these measures is to provide "secure land tenure for all citizens and promote economic growth". Section 77 of the LAA says "A citizen of Lesotho shall be entitled to the lease free of ground rent of land, which he leases and occupies for his own residential use."
The Authority has conducted pilot projects in a few selected villages and LAA leasing director Letele Mosae says the system will start rolling out in 2012.
Tsoeu Petlane, a researcher who works in Maseru, capital of Lesotho, for the Johannesburg-based think-tank, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), told IRIN the traditional communal system of land ownership had led to inefficient land management.
"Every male Basotho is entitled to inherit plots of land, but while families expand, land does not, so the plots kept getting smaller and smaller. Because this was all done informally, eventually there were a lot of disputes" he explained.
The government is constantly involved in resolving land disputes, and the Act will ensure property is surveyed and documented, along with foreign ownership boosting investment, but there are concerns about how the new system will affect pastoralists.
"There are some unresolved questions," Petlane pointed out. "What happens to traditional grazing lands? If those formerly communal grazing lands are bought up, where will herders without land feed their cattle?"
A SAIIA report in September 2011, Implementing the ARPM [African Peer Review Mechanism] Views from Civil Society , noted: "It remains unclear to what extent the new system will also address the conflict between chiefs and the state in regard to land allocation and management, as well as inter-communal conflict over land resources which are managed by chiefs."
"Use it or lose it"
In a direct challenge to land as a Basotho birthright, the inclusion of a "use it or lose it" clause permits the authorities to take land that has not been cultivated for at least three years.
"Sometimes you cannot use land due to economic reasons - it's not fair that it would be taken away from you just because of that. Governments are supposed to empower people to teach them to use the land to produce food more effectively, rather than enabling outsiders to come in and do it," said Lehloka.
"The possibility of land being bought and sold, and the payment of ground rent, are highlighted as a possible cause of poverty and landlessness. Those who cannot afford the rent will be forced to sell, which will leave them landless and even more vulnerable. The 'use it or lose it' principle, which gives powers to authorities to dispossess lease holders of their right to land for not using it, is seen as another effect of the act that will promote poverty," the SAIIA report said.
Mosae said it was wrong to term it a "use it or lose it" clause - it was a reference to "abandoned land".
He said, "Where land is required for either public purpose or public interest, there is a stipulated procedure whereby, among others, the occupier of the land in question must be consulted and agreement must be reached. Thereafter, an amount of compensation must be agreed."
News of the new land tenure system does not appear to have reached rural communities. Victor Letlaka, 33, a herder and subsistence farmer providing for his wife and five children, told IRIN he was unaware of the new Act and the changes it may bring.
"We were given this by our chief," he said, pointing to his half-acre plot on the side of a hill in Mokhotlong, the main town in Mokhotlong Province, about 150 kilometers from Maseru. The local chief has the authority to dispossess Letlaka of his land at any time, but he is unconcerned.
"We are grateful that he gave us this piece of land. If we had to move we would probably get given another... I don't think there's a problem with how this happens, it works fine without Maseru government rules."
The LHA intends to raise greater awareness of the Act. "The government didn't do enough to talk to people when they were debating and signing the Land Act. People simply weren't made aware of the Act and what its impact will be, so we feel the government may use these laws to hurt or take advantage of the very poor or marginalized." Lehloka said.
"The herdboys feel like their autonomy and freedom is jeopardized by this formalizing process, but the reality is we need to coordinate grazing and land recovery better," said minister Thahane. "Land issues cast against so many vested interests is always controversial, but it is necessary for Lesotho's modernization."
- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.
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