How peasants lose their land

From time immemorial, the rich and well connected have devised ways and means to grab peasants’ land for various motives. In this article we are going to examine what happened in the past and what is happening now or is likely to happen in the future. But first let us define peasants.

Peasants are “low-status cultivators who are trapped in a double bind of material poverty and political marginality. … Peasants labor in a subsistence economy that is typically precarious and subject to the predation of powerful elites. As a result, peasants in otherwise diverse cultural and historical contexts share a common vulnerability to natural and human made disaster that constrains peasant strategies in the direction of an emphasis on subsistence security and family survival” (Joel Krieger 1993).

There are many examples throughout the world showing how peasants have lost their land. In early 16th-century Europe, rising prices and bad harvests led landowners to squeeze peasants by raising rents, enclosing common lands and increasing feudal dues.

In Eastern Europe lords grabbed peasants’ land and imposed heavy labor obligations forcing peasants to work for as many as five or six days in a week for free. In Europe as a whole, peasants paid heavy royal taxes, the church’s tithe, and dues to the lord. These heavy taxes and dues left peasants with very little food. Life was hard and poverty was common among peasants (Robert Stewart 2002 & John P. McKay et al., 1996).

Inspired by the vision of social equality and justice which were later enshrined in the United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and subsequent instruments peasants defended their rights and ultimately won.

The Green Revolution has displaced peasants in large numbers. A combination of government policies that favored large farmers and difficulties to rent land because of rising prices forced peasants to sell their small plots and drift into urban areas. Because of their low purchasing power, the landless rural laborers or the urban unemployed found it difficult to feed themselves and their families even though grain prices had come down because of increased total production (Eric Kashambuzi 2008).

The situation in Rujumbura of southwest Uganda

In Rujumbura county of Rukungiri district people particularly in Kagunga sub-county where the majority of Bairu people live are on the verge of becoming landless. There are reports that minerals have been found in the area and subtle plans are being methodically implemented to get rid of voiceless Bairu people whose ancestors entered the area 3000 years ago. This continues the systematic impoverishment and dispossession of Bairu of Rujumbura County which began with losing their grazing land to Batutsi/Bahororo refugees from Rwanda through short-lived Mpororo kingdom. Now the effort is to make Bairu lose their cultivation land.

Methods being used to get Bairu cultivation land

First, the government without consulting the people decided to provide water to urban areas by gravity technology. The catchment areas are in Kagunga sub-county. The water authorities sank pipes into the ground that have drained water into tanks for urban use causing water shortage and environmental problems in both downstream and upstream areas. As a result, there are serious consequences on water supply for domestic use and farming purposes with serious repercussions on Bairu livelihoods.

Second, area politicians have deliberately incorporated the same Kagunga sub-county into Rukungiri municipality under mysterious circumstances. Major General Jim Muhwezi the area Member of Parliament deliberately left his area out of the municipality which is closer to Rukungiri town than many parts of Kagunga sub-county that have been incorporated. This has raised concerns about the potential of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the medium to long term. It is clear that the peasants will not manage to pay new taxes and other charges and meet terms and conditions of the municipality such as the requirement that all buildings use baked bricks.

Third, Major General Jim Muhwezi announced in June 2010 that Kagunga and some other rural areas in Rukungiri district will be provided with electricity to pull peasants out of poverty. He did not elaborate on the costs involved although he confirmed that there will be charges that peasants will have to pay.

Studies on appropriate and affordable energy for peasants have recommend activities and various technologies. In a UNDP report (2009) titled “Expanding Energy Access in Developing Countries: The Role of Mechanical Power” it was noted that “The basic energy services provided by mechanical power include agricultural operations such as irrigation, water pumping, food and agricultural processing, and basic value-addition activities at the household level. Others include, running of micro-enterprises including timber industry, small-scale mining, food and agriculture, and village cottage/micro-enterprises.

Examples of common mechanical power equipment include: wind pump, water wheels, hydrams, stationary engines, manually operated pumps such as treadle pumps, manually operated lathes, home and farm equipment sharpeners, corn threshers, rice de-huskers, oil press and machines for producing building materials (brick presses)”. This is the type of energy technology that peasants in Rukungiri need. This UNDP report shows further that under increasing propensity and development electrical power is suitable for high income groups. What Jim Muhwezi is proposing is therefore not suitable for Rukungiri peasants.

Jim Muhwezi should have studied and reported on the extent to which peasants have utilized the electricity that is already available from Ntungamo to Rukungiri. My knowledge is that none has been used by peasants largely because of cost constraints.

Once rural electricity has been installed, all sorts of fees will be charged as Jim Muhwezi announced and those peasants who will not pay – and most of them will not – will be forced to sell their land cheaply and disappear as landless people because of decisions that are being imposed on them. We suggest that Jim Muhwezi and those on his side suspend this decision and give residents time to reflect on what sort of energy is appropriate and affordable by peasants. This suggestion should not be interpreted as frustrating NRM development efforts for the sake of continuing with what has already been decided upon that is not appropriate.

Piece of advice to Rujumbura people

The people of Rujumbura and especially those Bairu who have been directly affected as outlined above should be vigilant and make their stand known. The trajectory presented above does not augur well for Bairu in Rujumbura in particular. Bairu need to be blunt about it lest they are misunderstood as being ignorant about what is happening. There is a deliberate attempt to wipe out Bairu from the area. Bairu must prevent this from happening and they should appeal to their friends and sympathizers – Ugandans and non-Ugandans – for assistance in this worthwhile effort.

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