On planet earth, land is every economy’s basic building block. Even supposing a final actualization of human settlement on mars or any other member of the solar system owing to increased human ingenuity, it is hard to visualize technologies that would permit the privileges of development independent of land. Perhaps a breakthrough could come through when humans learn to construct buildings that defy gravity without floating away. Kenyan land is in many ways like the proverbial rug that gets pulled from under the weakling’s feet. Kenyans know, land can ‘literally’ be pulled even from under your house or your ‘feet’ actually, in a land grabbing fashion.
This vice is so unrestrained in fact, that one scholarly observer earlier remarked that Kenya is a country built on land grabbing, but is it? It turns out that even the colonial masters when they arrived here, couldn’t resist the urge to grab some of our prime land, and when their time was up, they passed the button to our post-colonial masters. More than 50 years after independence, the streak is unmatched.
Whether it is public land under state corporations and ministries, community land or protected areas, the bigger hands can’t get enough of the scarce resource, public and civil society notwithstanding. The sovereign boundaries of Kenya only stretch so far, which implies there is only so much land up for grabs. But what are the costs?
Kenya’s total land area is about 56.9 million hectares and only about 5.3 million of these is arable land, agriculture being a major contributor to the economy. By current population estimates, every Kenyan could be allocated at least 1 hectare of land if shared equally. However, despite its significance as a primary factor of production, a study by the International Land Coalition a few years ago found that only 28.9% of Kenyans are landless, with 27% having access to less than one hectare of land and 88.4% of Kenyans having access to 3 hectares of land. Although there are other factors involved, some of these adverse variations in the distribution of land resources can be traced to land grabbing where there has been no restraint in the illegal acquisition of any seemingly potent piece of land by some of the elite.
The study by the international land coalition a few years ago estimated the public losses from land grabbing of parastatal land and protected forest alone land to be Ksh. 53 billion in financial terms. Among other consequences, land grabbing has been part of the reason for increased demand especially in urban areas which has driven the price of land beyond ordinary many people’s affordability range. Other economic costs have been the prohibitive effects of speculation, increased rents, foregone development opportunities, corruption and corporate crimes, land and environmental degradation and the mushrooming of slums due to landlessness.
Perhaps the greatest loss has been that from the conflicts occasioned by disputes over land related issues, which are beyond economic quantification. Again, there is only so much land up for grabs, but until we come to that point, ‘what do you think of that piece of land next to the military base’?
So much for land grabbing.