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Land reform the Rwandan way

Land reform the Rwandan way

A few years ago, we were once more travelling to Rwanda to write about the progress and development of this tiny country in the middle of Africa. Almost 20 years after the genocide in 1994, it was time for us as journalists to move beyond the stories of rehabilitation, reconciliation and retribution. It was time to focus on social change.

One such programme was the Community-Based Health Insurance that every Rwandan must be a member of. Another was VUP, a social grant-programme directed towards the poorest of the poor. What fascinated me the most though, was the land reform.

There is a dire need for such reforms in almost every single African country and Rwanda had once again proven to be a pioneer.

A quick re-cap. Rwanda became independent from the Belgians in 1962. The year after, tension between the two tribes, Hutu (majority) and Tutsi (minority) triggered the first pogroms against the Tutsis. 10 000 were murdered and thousands left the country (including the young Paul Kagame, today the president of the country). The following decades, animosity continued to brew between the Tutsis and the Hutus. In 1990 Tutsi rebels (one of them a commander called Paul Kagame) attacked the country from the north. The Hutu government tried to force them back but failed. The guerrilla war that followed culminated in the genocide against the Tutsi-minority. Moderate Hutus were also killed in their thousands.

After the genocide, the country was in ruins. Everything was broken. Those who were not dead, had fled. When Kagame and his people began the re-building of Rwanda, they started from zero.

One question that had to be dealt with was land. Returning refugees and an increasing population put added strain on the land. A few years after the genocide, Rwanda was one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and land tenure was not formally regulated. Most of the land was changing hands through informal ways and no one had paid much attention to gender equality. The legal framework for a land reform was set up, followed by the Land Tenure Regularisation (LTR) programme, with the task to register and administer land ownership in Rwanda. The government’s aim was to create a national land registry and give title to every plot of land. And so it began. In 2009 the titling project started, followed by a mapping project in 2011. One year later some 10.4 million parcels had been recorded and that was when we decided to dig deeper into the issue.

In the north-western part of the country, in a village called Kabushinge, men and women gathered to tell us about the reform.

“In the beginning, we were all a bit nervous and some of us thought that the government wanted to nationalise all land. But the more we learned about the reform, the more excited we got. Particularly the women,” said Providence Nyirinzabonimpa.

After the genocide, the government of Rwanda made several juridical changes to enhance the rights of women. And the land reform was one step to implement this policy of gender equality.

Married couples got equal rights to their land – something totally new and previously unheard of.

“Before the land reform, the man could do what he pleased without consent from his wife. That is no longer possible. Husband and wife share the title deed 50/50,” the villagers in Kabushinge said.

When the informal land system was to be formalised, officials sent land surveyors to every village. Together with the villagers the surveyors walked each boarder and with the help of aerial photos they then drew up land maps. The maps were sent back to the villages for consultations and land disputes were often settled locally.

“In our family, we have six plots where we mainly grow maize and beans. With the titles deeds we have taken a loan in the bank to buy pigs. We’ve raised the animals and sold them to create an additional income for the family. We started off with two piglets, now we’ve got six pigs and we have paid back the loan,” said Daphrase Niyitegeka.

Before the land reform, it was nearly impossible for a subsistent farmer to get a loan from the bank as he or she had no collateral. All that had changed with the land reform. Farmers in the village of Kabushinge told us about loans they’d taken to install electricity in their houses. Or invest in their businesses.

Today, more women than men own a title to a plot of land in Rwanda. On a continent where widows risk being driven off the land by the ex-husband’s family, this is indeed revolutionary.


Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.