Land Reform in Namibia: Slow Pace, Debatable Benefits

by United Nations IRIN

JOHANNESBURG, February 19, 2004 (IRIN) Namibia’s land reform process is being questioned by some who find the pace too slow, while others argue that its benefits are debatable.

The Agricultural (Commercial) Land Reform Act of 1995 provides for the acquisition of agricultural land by the government, for redistribution to Namibians “who do not own, or otherwise have the use of, agricultural land, or adequate agricultural land and, foremost, to those Namibian citizens who have been socially, economically or educationally disadvantaged by past discriminatory laws or practices”.

The land reform process in Namibia is based on a “willing-seller, willing-buyer” principle, with the government having first option on any commercial farm for sale.

Only 30,720 people out of an estimated 243,000 landless Namibians were resettled by 2003, and critics have said the country’s piecemeal land reform had moved far too slowly since independence in 1990, and delivered far too few tangible benefits to its land-hungry citizens.

The government has countered that its hands were tied, as some of land offered by the commercial agriculture sector was unsuitable for resettlement.

On Monday the authorities launched a Land Tribunal to “determine the purchase price in instances were there is a dispute between the owner of commercial agricultural land and the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation, once that land has been offered for sale to the government,” the ministry said in a statement.

Researchers have suggested that many beneficiaries were unable to sustain themselves on their allocated land, which has led to calls on government to provide more long-term support to new small-scale farmers.

Just 15 farms, a total of 6,483 hectares, were acquired for resettlement in 2001/02. Figures for 2003/04 are not yet available, but in late 2003 the government had acquired just 124 farms, totaling more than 700,000 hectares, since land reform began in 1995. Well below the target of 9.5 million hectares in five years.

Pressure has mounted for more radical measures, with newspaper headlines drawing comparisons to Zimbabwe’s controversial fast-track program. In recent months Namibia’s farmworkers’ union threatened to invade commercial farms in what they dubbed “land-sharing and not land grabbing”. The union said the move was prompted by the eviction of farmworkers from farms across the country.

In a statement condemning the planned land invasions, the Lands and Resettlement Minister, Hifikepunye Pohamba, acknowledged that the “pace of acquiring land meant for resettling formerly disadvantaged landless Namibians is not moving fast”.

He said this was because “some farmland offered to the government [was] totally unsuitable for resettlement purposes. Some of these farms offered are very stony and desert-like areas. Therefore, the ministry cannot buy these unproductive farms and put people on them”.

Pohamba noted that land was a sensitive issue in Namibia and the entire southern African region, and had to be handled “with the utmost care”. Upon launching the Land Tribunal, he said the land question in Namibia was both crucial and complicated, “in that it is the most important and primary means of production, because every development activity takes place on land”.

His ministry was about to complete a database of all beneficiaries resettled over the years, their dependents and livestock.


In its “Vision 2030” statement, the ministry said the annual average resettlement rate was 2,222 people, and it was hoping to resettle between 68,000 and 70,000 by 2030. An amount of N $50 million (US $6.5 million) has been set aside over the next five years for the purchase of farms.

It admitted that the “acquisition of land and the subsequent process of land distribution and access, through resettlement and rehabilitation programs, have so far proved to be a hard nut to crack. Its complexity stems from various inherent factors, such as land availability in relation to the skyrocketing demand for it”.

Namibia is very dry, making much of the land suitable principally for pasture and leaving farmers who receive relatively small holdings from the land reform unable to earn a living.

The ministry is now questioning whether the current mode of land reform is the best one for the country. In an overview of its work, the ministry asked: “Does resettlement and rehabilitation (as part of land reform) contribute positively to the overall goals for national development, and if so, how much?”

Analysts have pointed to a lack of post-resettlement support as a major stumbling block to successful implementation of land reform policyA report by Namibia’s Legal Assistance Center (LAC), ‘One Day We Will Be Equal … A socio-legal perspective on Namibian Land Reform and Resettlement Process’, said “the only reason that rampant starvation and malnutrition do not ravage the resettlement projects is because the government operates a food-for-work program in virtually every resettlement project”.

“Beneficiaries of resettlement projects are caught in a vicious [cycle] because of their poverty: they have to sell agricultural produce to obtain some cash, which in turn lands them in a food deficit situation.”

It added that “one of the main criticisms against the resettlement program has been that it does not provide sufficient training on how to effectively utilize land obtained from the government, nor does it provide access to modern farm equipment”.

LAC researcher Willem Odendaal, who co-authored the report, told IRIN that “there’s a definite lack of capacity building programs”. There was “a lack of transferring skills, basic technical skills and basic managerial skills to the beneficiaries on these projects”.

“Another problem is that people are not close to markets. Also, if they are lucky to produce some produce for the markets, they don’t have the means, the organisational or managerial skills, to organize themselves,” he explained.

“It’s very difficult for people to have access to credit to make improvements on the piece of land they are allocated, as there’s definite insecurity in terms of the transfer of ownership of title deeds,” Odendaal said. Many beneficiaries of land reform were unable to secure loans because they had a long-term lease agreement with the state, and not title to the land.


The ministry has argued that “long-term lease agreements with the incumbent beneficiaries … give new impetus to the resettlement program in general, and will raise revenue to secure the long-term sustainability of the program”.

“Lease agreements will encourage beneficiaries to increase the productivity of their respective plots and add value to the resettlement program,” the ministry said.

However, the research conducted by LAC indicated that “lending institutions, inherently conservative in nature, are not likely to lend money based on collateral of uncertain legal title, although (in theory) a loan might be given on a properly registered 99-year lease which had some marketable value”.

But there “is no substitute for clear and unambiguous legal rights to land [which was] absolutely necessary for [new] settlers to compete in a modern agricultural economy”, the report added.

“If your property is not registered, then it has complications – in the sense that you cannot get a loan to improve your land, you cannot put land up as surety to improve the land and buy basic equipment,” Odendaal said.

“Thus, the reality of life in the resettlement projects is of settlers being dumped on a few hectares of poor land, equipped with hoes and shovels, and expected to earn a living. This is a process certain to fail – a viable resettlement program requires an infrastructure to support settlers while they gain access to the kind of substantial agricultural enterprises that can support a reasonable lifestyle,” the report concluded.

With all this in mind, many resettled beneficiaries have opted to lease their plots, mostly to communal farmers from overgrazed areas, for as much as N $200 (US $30) a month. Some, said Odendaal, had opted to abandon their plots for a chance at a better life in urban areas.


A newly created Permanent Technical Team (PTT) on Land Reform will undertake a survey of 40 percent of the 124 farms acquired by government that are earmarked for resettlement, to “establish the socioeconomic profiles of the resettled people or beneficiaries”, and review the existing policy and legal framework dealing with land reform and natural resources management.

The PTT hopes to develop “a comprehensive Land Reform Plan of Action”. Pohamba has said this “Action Plan would then map out the future direction of land reform in Namibia”.
Germany, the country’s former colonial power, announced last year that US $7.8 million of a recent development aid package of US $25.66 million would go towards the country’s land reform program and to finance the PTT.

The LAC study argued that “the land reform and resettlement process must be carefully evaluated as a poverty-amelioration measure”.

“Simply put, the future of small-scale agriculture in Namibia, as well as in the rest of rural Southern Africa, may be economically very limited. Therefore, resettling 100,000 or more Namibians on small-scale agricultural schemes may never be an effective way to reduce rural poverty,” the report concluded.

The country is currently in the grip of a food security crisis, with some 650,000 people in a population of around 1.8 million said to need food aid this year.

A combination of ongoing drought and flash floods has severely eroded the coping ability of rural dwellers and subsistence farmers.

According to Odendaal, “in Namibia there’s a history of how commercial farmers were supported with subsidies in the old apartheid days … and in the dry season their subsidies just increased”.

“It’s very difficult to farm in Namibia, and I think government has been under-estimating climate conditions in this country,” he noted. “People need to be able to sustain themselves, and [more than] 10 years into the resettlement program, they have not been able to do so.”

IRIN is a United Nations humanitarian information unit. This article may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All materials in this article copyright by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004.

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