Tuesday, August 28, 2012

You’re on top of it: Land Rights in Mozambique

When you read about Mozambique’s agricultural potential it’s hard not to get a sense that the projections are too optimistic. You read about the Beira and the Nancala corridors and their vast swats unused land and wonder why haven’t those corridors become the bread basket of the region already? Why is it that with the growing urban demand, the increasing international commodity prices and the improvements in infrastructure, Mozambique’s agriculture remains stuck on first gear?

It may be the soils – something must be wrong with the soils – you ponder. But then you cross the border into South Africa and the green revolution hits you in the face. (see Google maps for a satellite image). Literally less than a mile away from the border post, the grounds are green with sugar cane crops irrigated with center-pivot systems (those long skeletons that form perfect circles and that are easily confused with the work of a UFO when seen from above). You continue driving and then you see plantains stretching for miles in neatly organized rows. As if this wasn’t enough, suddenly the landscape gets peppered by orange dots on both sides of the highway: citrus season is at its peak and you can buy a whole sack for less than three dollars.

Soils, unlike Colombians, don’t need a visa to cross the border so the bottleneck keeping agriculture below its potential has to be something else. You think about water but then you recall the huge floods this country has faced in the past, so the rivers and their abundant water are definitely there. What about the war, or colonialism, or just culture – aren’t people ‘happy’ just being subsistence farmers? The answer is definitely no, otherwise you wouldn’t hear parent talk about how they want their kids doing something else. And sure, the war and colonialism did affect agriculture quite a bit.

However, you may be standing on top of a more satisfactory answer: the land and specifically its property laws. Well, it turns out that in Mozambique the land belongs to the Mozambicans (aka the government). Instead of buying land, you essentially get a permit to farm it for a fixed amount of years. If land is let fallow, the government has all the right to take it away from you. And even if you are growing bountiful crops, you don’t have legal ownership of the land.

So is that why land in Mozambique remains so underdeveloped? I think it’s definitely a big contributing factor. And it seems that USAID also agrees. Their new version of the Feed the Future Initiative – the so called “Agriculture and Food Security Alliance” is all about partnering with the private sector to give the extra incentive needed to invest here. Mozambique makes part of the second group of countries that will be joining the program. On top of that, the government is finalizing the PNISA, the operationalization document of the agricultural strategy and the action plan for the CADAAP.

Given this willingness to address the bottlenecks related to the disincentives the private sector faces when investing in Mozambique, it seems that the country is heading in the right direction. Although it’s not clear is the actual property law will change, there is definitely a lot of pressure to make it more investor friendly with amendments, tax breaks, and import waivers.

This, of course, has its critics. Chief among them is the Joseph Hanlon, an expert on Mozambique who argued in a recent Guardian article that the private sector approach is incompatible with one that promotes small holder farmers. Although he didn’t call it neocolonialism, he portrayed it as an unwelcome entrenchment of global agro-corporations, scrambling for the last swaps of arable land.

What the author forgets to mention is that an approach in which you incentivized agricultural investments, while supporting small holder farmers is exactly what Brazil did – one of the top five world agricultural producers nowadays and a success story in reducing rural poverty. While Mozambique is far from becoming a global agriculture player, it seems that the country is finally now heading in the right direction.