The Compelling Need for Land Reform

By Mrinal Roy

An independent country cannot be so dependent for the diverse land requirements for its development and the people on the few who own this scarce resource. The present high concentration of substantial land assets in few hands in the country is untenable

The recent hunger strike for land rights has yet again focussed the people’s attention on the burning issue of land ownership in the country in a context where most of the land assets are held in few hands since colonial times. It is also a stark reminder that ‘legal’ dispossession of land has taken place throughout the chequered history of Mauritius as from the 18th century. Bona fide land owners have been despoiled of their lands by unscrupulous landowners very savvy about land laws and taking full advantage of loopholes therein with the help of astute notaries.

The findings of the 2009-2011 Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) have revealed that driven by the insatiable greed for more and more land, this dispossession of land has been effected at the expense of other land owners but also within land owning families from siblings and members of their own families. In his books Le Chercheur d’or and Alma, Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie G. Le Clézio refers to dispossession of their share of the family estate in Mauritius.

During the French period (1715-1810), concessions of substantial areas of land were granted by the authorities to European settlers having the means to develop agricultural production for both the export market and for local consumption. They benefitted from a host of ‘incentives’ such as a quota of slaves to provide labour, seedlings and plants as well as rations of food to the settler and his family and his slaves for one year until he became self-sufficient. According to the TJC report ‘a survey carried out in 1767 showed that 426 land grants totalling 375,000 arpents of land, representing two-thirds of the land area of the island had been granted’ to settlers. Despite this the country could not be transformed into a plantation economy.

In 1816 at the start of the British period (1810-1968) the Surveyor General reported that an area of 432,680 arpents which included 311,680 arpents of land granted to settlers had already been allocated for diverse uses.

Fundamental questions

Against such a backdrop, it is evident that the question of dispossession and research to trace ownership during a period extending over centuries through a maze of sale deeds and in some cases acquisition through prescriptions of properties is unsettling for some. It raises the spectre of uncovering well buried skeletons in the cupboard. It is therefore flabbergasting that some eight years after the submission of the reports of the Truth and Justice Commission in November 2011, its core recommendations are yet to be implemented by the successive governments in place. There are also disquieting claims that access to documents required to research and uphold cases of dispossession is denied to the public. The country cannot allow occult forces to collude to prevent contested title deeds from being subjected to the objective test of legal scrutiny.

More importantly, the country cannot renege on the pledges made at the time of independence to the descendents of slaves and indentured labourers that their rights will be unwaveringly upheld by those in power within a fairer and more just and inclusive new socio-economic order. The onus is therefore squarely on government to urgently take every step necessary to facilitate this cathartic process.

In a context where covert land appropriation continues unabated to this day, it is equally vital to ensure that every title deed provides unquestionable proof of ownership. As is the case in other countries, the registration of title deeds of every parcel of land and estate in the country must be validated by its physical identification on a cadastral map clearly showing its location, boundaries, coordinates and carrying a unique identity number.

Scarce resource

Being a small island state, land is a scarce resource which is more and more expensive and unaffordable to large swathes of mainstream Mauritius. This iniquitous situation has been further worsened by the rise in land prices fuelled by various incentives granted by government to real estate development and smart cities projects principally beneficial to those endowed with substantial land assets in prime locations.

In contrast, the demand for land by the people in an island country for residential, agricultural, business and multiple other purposes is endless. The main sugar groups who own most of the land around the main towns and villages in the country supply the people’s requirements for residential needs by periodically parcelling out some of their lands located near the villages, towns and near the coastal areas of the country. This well dosed supply of land to meet robust demand maximizes return. Investments in commercial malls, business and office parks, property development and smart cities’ projects have thus become a potent and lucrative pole of development of these corporate groups well-endowed with substantial land assets.

Untenable

An independent country cannot be so dependent for the diverse land requirements for its development and the people on the few who own this scarce resource. The present high concentration of substantial land assets in few hands in the country is untenable. In essence, the savings of the multitude are regularly transferred to land owners through the acquisition of land for residential and other purposes. It is major cause of widening inequality. There is also evidence that the major groups owning land in the country are buying more land very often at a premium from sugar cane planters either directly or through associated entities. This further exacerbates an iniquitous situation.

People who own land in the country know that land is an extremely valuable asset which continuously appreciates. Is it not high time to have a precise update on land ownership in the country with a matrix of their diverse uses in the economy to help define an enlightened and inclusive land reform policy?

Miscued opportunities

It must be said that the government missed out on two golden opportunities for the country to get back control over large swathes of prime lands for the benefit of the nation in 1998 when Lonrho sold its estates and its three sugar factories to Illovo, the South African sugar conglomerate and again in 2001 when the Illovo group sold these assets through the much hyped Illovo deal. In 1998, instead of leveraging its position to ensure that these key land assets are acquired through appropriate funding for the nation, the government of the time even granted tax exemptions of Rs 200 million to facilitate the deal.

The 2001 Illovo deal basically further enhanced the already high concentration of land ownership in the hands of groups already owning substantial land assets in the country. It extended their control over some 9,000 hectares (26,325 arpents) of prime land assets in the central Highlands and the southern Mon Tresor and Britannia area. In addition, some Rs 1.8 billion of tax concessions were granted by government to enable their acquisition. In return government obtained 600 arpents of land including 150 arpents in Ebene and purchased 3000 arpents in the Highlands area at a price of Rs 125,000 per arpent. A 20% shareholding in the purchasing company was granted to the State Investment Corporation.

Botched

It is therefore disconcerting that such an important strategic decision so crucial to the interests of the nation was cobbled with the chosen few behind closed doors without wider consultation to ensure that national interests remain paramount and are uncompromisingly safeguarded. There is an enduring and galling sentiment among the people that the interests of the multitude and the nation were callously short changed. It is obvious that with the leverage of the huge tax concessions granted and the mandatory green light required from government, the purchase terms could have instead privileged the interests of the nation at large rather than those of the chosen few. This would have allowed the country to secure a substantial land bank for its current and future needs to provide an impetus to the new pillars of development of the economy through dedicated business hubs and support wider entrepreneurship and innovation as well as stabilize land values in the interest of mainstream Mauritius.

The Illovo deal was thus a terrible let down as those familiar with the international sugar context at the time knew that Illovo was desperate to exit from Mauritius to expand and invest more in Africa and in particular in least developed countries (LDC) such as Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia to take full advantage of the 2001 EU Everything but Arms Initiative which allows duty-free quota-free access to all exports from LDC countries (except arms) into the EU.

The upshot of these missed opportunities is that access to land for a plethora of needs remains a major constraint in the country. This is exacerbated by the decried pillage of scarce state lands including coastal ones amidst allegations of profiteering through cronyism at the expense of the state.

Unity of purpose

The current situation regarding the ownership of land assets in the country is short-sighted and is not sustainable. The growing difficulties of land ownership by vast swathes of people and the impatience regarding the raw issue of dispossession are red flags. They have to be defused through a well thought out and substantive land reform policy which enables the setting up of a sizeable and rigorously managed land bank for current and future national needs as well as addresses the requirements of the country and the people in a holistic and fair manner.

The pledges made to the people during the battle for freedom also have to be unwaveringly honoured. It is therefore high time for national imperatives and unity of purpose to supplant greed. Not to do so is fraught with potent risks.


* Published in print edition on 26 April 2019

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