Sustainable Land Use: Agriculture Vs. Industrialization

History is replete with wars fought for access to land. There was a time when a piece of land had limited usage – you grow food grains and fruits or you just live on it. As societies evolved, land use changed purely based on human needs.Nevertheless, there has always been a debate on the sustainable use of land and the arguers have always divided land use broadly between agricultural and industrial use. The developed world may have found the magic formula of land use; however, the developing and under-developed worlds are grappling with challenges associated with land utilisation.
Given the state of economies in Africa, land use is predominantly geared towards agriculture. As per UN statistics, agriculture occupies 44Pct of Africa’s land mass to provide employment to 55Pct of the continent’s population engaged in agriculture. Analytically, these figures are nearly 1.5 times that of the Asia-Pacific region.
The direct consequence of this situation is that Africa has twice the amount of undernourished people as compared to other developing regions.
The world’s second largest continent with the second largest population, of which 50Pct is below 50 years old, does not produce enough food grains to feed itself despite predominant use of land for agricultural purposes but why?

Is the population growth driving land use?
The African population is growing faster than the average annual world population growth rate. Big economies like Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya are averaging a steady annual population growth of up to 2.5Pct, while the smaller economies like Burundi, Niger, Malawi and South Sudan are adding between 3 and 3.5Pct annually. The population is growing, albeit not at geometric progression and the food production is just not growing at arithmetic progression.

Is poverty driving land use?
In economic terms, poverty has many determinants; however, in Africa, the principal determinant of poverty is hunger. The situation is aggravated due to socio-political reasons or when the available food is not adequately distributed among the population. Therefore, in addition to affordability, physical access to food is a growing challenge due to the missing rail and road links between production and demand centres.
Natural disaster is another factor that has had an effect on sustainable agriculture in Africa – up to 3Pct of Africa’s population is annually affected by floods and droughts. The net result of all this is unsustainable livelihoods, which again reflects on the average human contribution to domestic product in all sectors.
All these and many other factors have adversely impacted food availability, forcing governments of the day to concentrate on agricultural expansion and not looking beyond.
There is another paradox. For a marginal farmer in an underdeveloped economy, land is not only an asset but the means to earn his livelihood as well. However, the very meaning of livelihood has undergone a tremendous change. Sustainability is out and productivity is in. If the land owner cannot produce “x” out of his land economically, then he has to try producing “y”. The anguish of the land owner is not just limited to oneself but to the whole of society.
Similarly for a landless labourer, any occupation is suitable, provided it pays sufficiently – and why should one not look for better opportunities? People falling in both these segments of society – marginal farmers or landless labourers – have to contribute to the economy. If not, the economy has to support them in the form of subsidies, providing disguise employment, or holding back infrastructure and industrialisation, the aggregate cost of which is un-sustainable to the entire economy.
For Africa, it is perhaps noteworthy to reflect and draw lessons from the raging debate in India on land reforms. Amidst the farmers’ suicides, parliamentary politics and the agro vs industry growth engines, land reforms in India are being watched by all in the developing economies as well as the developed world. India already is a world’s leading producer of a number of agro commodities. Apart from feeding its population, which consists of more than one billion people, India is a leading exporter of agro commodities with a high degree of value addition. So why does India need land reforms?
In India, although 60Pct of the population is employed in agriculture, nearly half of this percentage owns no land, while a quarter of this population owns small land holdings. Numerous surveys in India have reported that small land owners earn their livelihood from external jobs and the “gen-next” of the large sized land owner wants to do “something else” like small and micro-enterprise businesses and services on these lands. The on-going debate in India is how a statute can enable, regulate and sustain this change and put into good use of the available land. The antagonists on the other hand are seeing this as “one more attempt to uproot farmers!”
With a dismal food and employment situation, Africa too needs to look beyond agriculture. The good news is that in a number of African countries, contribution from the service sector is on the rise. However, a larger impetus to services and agro sector will come only through rapid industrialisation and infrastructure development.
Both of these activities demand cheap and easy access to land. When compared with China, India’s growth is lower purely due to the non-availability of cheap land. Large industrial and infrastructure projects in India, including agriculture and irrigation infrastructure, are held up for years simply because there is no mechanism to get land from agriculture to industrial use.
Some countries in Africa, like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Sudan, and Uganda, have begun by leasing land to foreign entities for agriculture and agro-production, which is likely to increase substantially in the continent. While this is a welcome development, more sustained efforts are required to simplify land zoning, acquisition and ownership to attract basic industries and expansion of local infrastructure.
World over, the issue of converting agriculture land to urban or industrial land is a sensitive one and liable to emotive political messaging. There will always be is strong criticism in certain quarters against what they call “land grab” and “agri-colonialism”. However, the benefits in the form of large scale employment increase in purchasing power and stable growth will serve generations.

3rd Year • August 16 – September 15 2015 • No. 30


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