Monday, 20 June 2011

Land, land everywhere and not an agricultural revolution in sight...

(with apologies to Coleridge)

The issue of land reform, or more accurately, land redistribution, is on the table again in South Africa. And the debate probably needs to happen. This great piece by @StephenGrootes gives a sense of the mood in which calls for nationalisation (including nationalisation of land) are being made. 

The argument is simple: colonialists stole our land and we want it back. It's also both historically suspect and an increadibly simplistic view of a complex and crucial industry. The latter is probably more problematic in practical terms for two reasons.

1. Land is not the solution
The above argument is supported on several assumptions. First, that land is equivalent to wealth. As the recent cases of unproductive redistributed farms, having land does not automatically translate into having commercially viable, well-utilised land. The second assumption is that farming is easy. Farming is a bad poverty-alleviation strategy when all you're handing out is land, because successful farming (particulalry at the level of commercial small- or large-scale operations) is a high-risk, high-cost enterprise. There is an awful lot of skill and capital, as well as labour and land, that goes into making a piece of ground produce a profit. Drought, pests, too much rain, rain at the wrong time, poor seeds, not enough weeding, too much weeding, under-fertilization, over-fertilization and a myriad other problems can cause crops to fail, whether they're a single field or a huge farm. Livestock are also high-risk. Animals die. Farm animals die often. They need vaccinations, dipping and vets visits. Sometimes they still get caught up in animal-disease epidemics, like the Foot and Mouth that is currently restricting South African exports or the rindepest epidemic of the late 19th century. And animals (particularly high-quality, high-yield animals) are expensive in the first place. Land, on it's own, is simply empty space. Without a whole range of other investments, it will not redistribute ownership of production or wealth-generation at all.

2. Land is not the problem
Although the majority of agricultural land in South Africa is in the hands of a wealthy majority (which, for the record, is a lot less uniformly white than many of the land redistribution advocates assert), the idea that there is a nation of landless people eagerly awaiting their chance to be successful farmers is baseless. The majority of South Africans live in cities and the majority of them show no interest in becoming farmers, partly (perhaps largely) because it is damned hard work, quite high risk, takes ages to make a profit and means you have to live in the middle of nowhere with limited access to modern conveniences. However, there are some poor rural people who show a keen interest in farming. Almost across the board they, and this is important, already have (or have access to) land. Some of this land is communally owned. That means (broadly) that it is owned by the community. Some of it - quite a lot of it, in fact - is owned by the government. They don't need land - at least until they've built up sufficient capital and experience to go large-scale, by which time they can access funding to buy land. What they do need is skills (training), assets (livestock, seed) and access to markets. Possibly even preferential access to markets. Also, veterinary services that don't cost more than the price of an animal. And improved animal stock, through processes like AI. All of which the government is ideally placed to provide. On paper, the government is already mandated to provide it.

What South Africa's rural people need is not a land revolution, it's an agricultural revolution - the revolution bit here being the important idea of action, rather than on-paper policy. The number of old, commercial farmers in South Africa decreases every year. Natural attrition, along with the growing threat of radical land reform, is changing the face of farming. Without large-scale investment in a new generation of farmers, the only result of this process is going to be less national food security. Government should be investing disproportionately in developing a healthy, commercially viable emerging farming sector with the potential, power and capital to take over productively from those who leave. No amount of land reform or land redistribution is going to do that. Which is perhaps why, even within the land reform debate, the voices of those working on the land (whether rich or poor, black or white) is conspicuously absent - silenced by a debate that ignores their primary concerns?

Land reform may be a philosophically important debate which needs to happen but it should not be confused with a debate about how best to address food insecurity, poverty, the future of poor, rural families or the transformation of farming in South Africa. Until a true agrarian revolution, with the commensurate investment that is so desperately needed, conflating land with agricultural reform simply ends up being political points-scoring at the expense of the rural poor.

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