This blog article seeks to contribute towards an understanding of the concept of land corruption. The basis of the conceptual discussion is to shed light on this important concept which has a direct effect on the livelihoods of the majority in sub-Saharan Africa. This concept is not in common use in social science (Kakai 2012 as cited in Mutondoro 2016 et al). Therefore, notwithstanding its lengthy existence and manifestation, land corruption is still a relatively new concept in the dominant natural resource governance narrative. The newness of the term can be attributed to the subtle nature that land corruption takes as well its intrinsic link with mineral related corruption. This, therefore, explains why literature on natural resources governance has so much to say about corruption involving minerals and the resource curse theory and quite little to say about the concept of land corruption. The limited reference to land corruption has been a response to explain the global land grabbing or large-scale land acquisition process. Conceptually this has limited land corruption to only refer to abuse of power or authority in agro-related land activities yet land corruption goes beyond these conceptual boundaries.
Perhaps a deeper understanding of land corruption requires an analysis of why land is both important in a corruption transaction and also prone or vulnerable to corruption. Land is a resource that is susceptible to corruption because of its natural and acquired value. The value of land comes from its ability to respond to different human needs such as farming, housing and ranching. This value also stems out its natural ability to house other resources underneath (minerals) and above it (flora and fauna). Land value is a, therefore, trigger to competing for interest over its control and ownership and is the motivation behind land corruption. Land corruption, therefore, involves two parties namely an individual and or group with interest in land as a resource or other benefits that come along with owning or controlling it and on the other hand those with authority and power to decide who can own and access land. Land corruption is an outcome of the collusion of interest between the two parties mentioned above. Such a collusion is only possible when those with power and control over land, abuse such power and authority in parcelling or allowing control over land. Kakai (2012) argues that, in the sphere of land corruption, power is both an exploited resource and the aim of the action undertaken.
It is important to note that land corruption is a global problem that has been motivated by poor land governance in most countries. A 2011 study by TI highlights that corruption in land governance is often symptomatic of the breakdown of a country’s overall governance. Poor governance, therefore, increases the probability of corruption in the land systems and land administration and intensifies the impact of pressure on the use of the land (FAO 2012). For instance, countries such as DRC, South Sudan and even Zimbabwe with challenges in their governance systems have also experienced land corruption manifesting through massive looting of natural resources. This, therefore, means as suggested by the TI 2011 study there is a very strong correlation between levels of corruption in the land sector and overall public sector corruption in a country.
It is also important to note that land corruption has been fuelled by the need for economic sovereignty and development by countries in the Global South through allowing land investments by domestic and international elites in return for biofuels, cash crops and mineral resources. The outcomes of this has been the proliferation of land corruption manifesting through bribes, land grabbing and dispossessions, murky land deals between state actors and domestic and or international investors, and the emergence of land barons. In such scenarios, the term development and national interest has been used as a tool dispossess the poor and hide the murky deals between state actors and capital.
Land corruption is also driven by the politicization of land and the poor land tenure regime in most countries. For instance, in Zimbabwe as in most African countries, the majority of citizens reside in communal areas where they only have use rights over the land they are sitting on. This means that the state through it actors has the legal right to dispossess them at any time without the due procedure in most of the times. Most African states have maintained the communal tenure system and diminished the freehold tenure. In a way, this scenario has made it possible for African states to use land as a tool to sustain its patrimonial tendencies. Land has therefore been used as a tool to ensure that the state actors get more political votes through parcelling out land on a patronage basis in what Sarah Bracking has termed the technologies of power. Land is thus an instrument of politics.
In the Zimbabwean context, this problem has spilt over from the rural community into the urban setting. In urban localities, the state has created a deliberate failure to provide decent housing to the growing urban dwellers. Economically the urbanization rate and other factors have created a huge demand for land and the land value has also increased. With this, the political actors have seen the opportunity of parcelling out land to those pledging support to certain political parties and factions at a cost. This process has been a direct contradiction to the process of responsible urban planning resulting in some people being offered residential stands in wetlands for instance. In other instances, the political system has swindled people of their money by selling one stand to more than one person. Demand and shortages of land in Zimbabwe is not a function of land scarcity but rather poor urban planning and a stalled national housing project due to economic problems. This desperation for housing has led to the emergence of politically connected and corrupt individuals, infamously known as ‘land barons’. These politically powerful individuals are subverting laid down regulations and procedures to acquire land.
Whilst those in powerful positions accumulate primitively, it is the poor who are suffering the brunt of land corruption. In Zimbabwe, over the years millions of dollars have been extorted from ordinary people through illicit land deals. Land-related corruption is a political challenge which requires a political and not technical solution. Anti-corruption commissions created at technical levels cannot be effective in an environment in which political will is missing. Given the political power plays involved in land corruption, it is prudent to define it as political corruption.