CPAR Uganda Ltd

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Land dispossession and Malnutrition in Teso

The Iteso are the fifth largest first nation of Uganda. They are descended from ‘African-Uganda’ peoples who occupied Uganda pre-colonisation. The Iteso claim Teso, an area in Eastern Uganda, as their land. Teso includes the present day Uganda administrative districts of: Amuria, Bukedea, Kaberamaido, Katakwi, Kumi, Ngora, Serere and Soroti; and, in addition, Iteso claim territories in parts of Pallisa and Tororo Districts.

Overt land dispossession has occurred in Teso, such as when so-called ‘investors’ have pushed people off the land – labelling them as squatters who, presumably, they considered to be ‘underutilising’ the land. In overt cases the ‘investors’ are often heralded as intending to put to better use the land which they have acquired through the physical removal of its prior occupants. 

Be that as it may, this analysis does not focus on overt land dispossession; but rather it focuses on covert land dispossession. Covert land dispossession rarely makes it to the mainstream media and moreover, it is often the case that it lays the groundwork for overt land dispossession to take place. Covert land dispossession is quite likely widespread in Teso, affecting thousands of vulnerable Iteso, especially the women.

Covert land dispossession does not necessarily physically deny the dispossessed access to land, but it rather denies them the decision-making powers over the way in which the land is utilised and or over the way in which the produce from the crops grown on the land is utilised. The change in composition of atap, which is the staple food of the Iteso, is a useful indicator for covert land dispossession. In the past, atap was composed of only millet; then millet and sorghum; then sorghum and cassava; and these days it is mainly just cassava.

On the basis of the change in composition of atap, it is not unreasonable to infer that there has been a change in the way land is utilised and the way in which the produce from crops grown on land in Teso is utilised. Case in point, who has benefited from the changes in the production of finger millet and sorghum, which used to be the main composition of atap, from being purely food crops to now cash crops? Who has been dispossessed of their land to make way for commercial production of finger millet and sorghum? 

Iteso, like other Ugandan first nations, are grappling with dual and conflicting land tenure systems. On the one hand there is Uganda’s state law which recognises and contains a bastardised version of traditional land tenure laws of the first nations. And on the other hand are the traditional land tenure laws of the first nations. In the context of the Iteso, for example, they traditionally allocated ‘access-ownership’ of land to a family, whereby the family head is obliged to ensure that all within the family have equitable use of the land for both food production and for income generation.

In other words, Iteso land tenure had culturally embedded rights and responsibilities over land for both men and women as they derived them from being a member of a family. Teso land tenure directly contradicts with the popular application of Uganda’s state laws, which generally allocate absolute ownership to an individual or to a corporation. State law effectively disenfranchises women for it is often the case that the ‘individual’ absolute ownership of family land will be claimed by the male head of the family and in whose name the title is often written.

As Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai (RIP) observed, titling of land under customary tenure invariably reduces women’s rights by giving them access to land at the pleasure of the father or husband whose name appears on the title deed. And for this reason, it is not farfetched to infer from the changing composition of atap that there has been covert land dispossession in Teso in which the dispossessed are likely the women. It is feasible that once the commercial and economic value of finger millet and sorghum went up, Iteso men inevitably made the decision to utilise family land for the production of these crops more for cash as opposed to for food.

So, whereas, for example, Nile Breweries did not overtly dispossess Iteso of their land, its need for cheap local inputs for the production of its Eagle beer likely resulted in the covert dispossession of Iteso women of their ‘access-ownership’ of land; and with the knock on effect of diminishing the nutritional value of atap – the drastic change of composition from sorghum to cassava.

Photo Credit: Daily Monitor “Sorghum for beer provided many farmers with another way to make money”