Land reform forms part of Nigeria’s government 7-point agenda, workable as an occupation or way of life. The idea may review farming from a strenuous life since poverty in Nigeria is a largely rural phenomenon. More than 85 per cent of the population of nearly 20 million lives in villages and a quarter of them are living in absolute poverty earning less than a dollar a day. Despite measures to improve rural living standards – including land grants, irrigation water, agriculture extension services, fertilizer subsidies, and guaranteed minimum price for rice – rural poverty persists.
In 2003, the Obasanjo government showed an interest in eliminating the restrictions on land granted in the past 70 years. A Land Ownership Bill, aimed at giving freehold titles to these lands, was proposed as part of the government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. Changes in land use such as deforestation and soil degradation—two devastating effects of unsustainable farming practices—emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere; land-use change alone is responsible for approximately 20 per cent of global emissions of carbon dioxide each year. These unsustainable practices also have profound implications for the health and well-being of local communities and the ecosystems in which they reside.
Yet the land-use sector also has the potential to play a large, positive role in the global effort to address climate change—both by reabsorbing or preventing the release of carbon dioxide and by building robust ecosystems that support adaptation to the impacts of climate change. Sustainable land-management practices such as conservation agriculture, intercropping and sustainable forestry can provide multiple benefits such as reducing erosion, building soil fertility and structure, improving water quality and buffering against drought.
These improved land-reform practices are also cost-effective options that could take effect very quickly. Given that it will take time to transform our energy systems and infrastructure to achieve deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, actions in the land-use sector could have a significant role in meeting short- to medium-term greenhouse gas mitigation commitments. And because the largest and most cost-effective mitigation opportunities in the agriculture and forestry sectors are in developing countries, these countries are likely to play a prominent role in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through land management.
The traditional land use pattern of farms, woodlots, hamlets, villages, and towns that shaped Nigeria’s physical geography over the last three centuries is still evident in the landscape today – and provides an important example of a pattern for managing growth and sustainable watershed management. Changes in land use over the last 50 years, including highway development, suburban development (residential, commercial and industrial), and the decline of farming in the region show a progression of development in the region and reflect steady increases in population. The watershed also has a long history of supporting extractive uses such as rock quarries and public water system impoundments.
If the government of Nigeria should take a bold step in land reforms, it will pay a lot. Reversing the British colonial policy of bringing land under government control, the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 sought to return land to peasant farmers in order to address the acute problems of landlessness and poverty.
If that pattern is sprawling and converts critical open space areas into conventional suburban landscapes of lawns and paved area, then the streams, wetlands and aquifers of perhaps the arable areas can be expected to become drier and more degraded, just as they have in countless other “built-out” communities.
The breakdown of land uses by percentage in Nigeria points to the important fact that the area is still largely rural and undeveloped. This is followed by agriculture, which makes up 35% of the land. These “open space” uses are relatively uniformly throughout the vegetation, with greater concentrations of woodland on ridges at the perimeter and farmland centered in the broader valleys. The remainder of land is devoted to residential, commercial and industrial uses, generally concentrated along major towns and villages or other major roads.
Although subsistence farmers in northern Nigeria have been granted arable land for over 70 years, they are forbidden from selling it. Now the government is considering opening up the land market in the belief that this may boost farm productivity. But there are warnings that such a move may just increase rural poverty. The Nigerian farmers are conservatives and find it difficult to adapt to some of these new technologies. They will tell you that is how our forefathers have been doing it.
Since then a total of 1.5 million hectares of government-owned land has been granted to farmers. These land grants have created a large number of settlement schemes, alongside older villages with traditional land ownership.
A third generation farmer in one of Nigeria’s oldest settlements in Damaturu, an agricultural town lying 200 km middle belt of Nigeria narrated to me that his grandfather was granted land by the government in the late ’90s.Most people inherited two acres of the original four acre plot and still farm on this plot. Although these families have a farm and a home, the land has come to them with certain restrictions – they do not have full ownership and cannot sell it on the open market.
These lands were issued to people as a livelihood asset – to improve their living standards as well as to meet our goal of food security. That time; the land was not considered a capital asset that has market value. As a result, many banks and financial institutions today do not recognize these grants as security for loans, forcing many farmers to access credit through informal means that carry high rates of interest.
Recently, reviewing its poverty reduction strategies, the government came to view these conditions upon land holding as an inhibition to rural development and agricultural productivity.
Reviewing Nigeria’s poverty reduction strategies over the past six decades, the report was skeptical about the impact of land grants on rural poverty. It can be argued in its position paper for the Nigeria4betterrule Development Forum in 2006 that the late President Yar’Adua’s interventions to protect rice farming (through fertilizer subsidies, free access to irrigation water and state maintained extension and marketing structures) had only resulted in lowered agricultural production, while restrictions on the sale and use of granted land has resulted in fragmented small holdings which are not economical.
It recommended that the land market should be developed by issuing saleable or free titles to the farmers. This, it argued, would enhance farmers’ ability to buy up more land and cultivate larger plots using modern technology and machinery, leading to better productivity and more income. A proper title would also lead to better access to credit.
The suggestion to free up the land market has supporters from an influential economic think tank inside Nigeria, points out in their study of land tenure: ‘State ownership and title restrictions have lowered the value of agricultural lands, when compared to private lands.’
But many others dispute what they see as a simplistic economic argument that links land holding status with low productivity and poverty. They fear that loosening present restrictions upon this land may result in large scale rural landlessness. Due to extreme poverty and indebtedness people will be forced to give up their land even when they do not wish to. Farm size is important for income, but productivity is not related to farm size, at least not in paddy growing lands in Nigeria s
Where full title and large farms exist side by side with small holdings with restricted titles, there is no big difference in levels of productivity. The main reason is that irrigation water allocation is decided by farmers’ societies, which have a good representation of small holders.
Experts say many other factors conspire to keep the rural farmer poor – water allocation, high costs of agricultural inputs, lack of proper marketing channels, failure of the extension services to introduce technology and crop diversification, and lack of alternative livelihood options. I have three sons and there is little promise for them in farming. But there are so few choices. I wish they could get jobs in a factory or in town. But jobs are scarce and many are looking for them.
People are forced to remain poor in their villages due to the lack of other income-earning avenues. Better employment opportunities must be made available if farmer’s lands are to be ‘freed’ for sale in the market. Many government officials involved in land, agriculture and rural policies believe that these issues need to be addressed before land titles are freed. The economic and social environment in rural areas is not ready to absorb this shock. Their living standards have to be improved substantially before the lands are opened to a free market.
We have a tradition of integrated, communal land use. We must tackle poverty through other means – maybe a sustainable model for land-use based on traditional, integrated forms of farming – not initiate a process that may well push out the small farmer completely from the rural economy.