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How evils of land grab were birthed more than 100 years ago

The desire to conquer and occupy as much land as possible has been the cause of many conflicts in Kenya. [File, Standard]

The desire to conquer and occupy as much land as possible has been the cause of many conflicts. In Kenya, there was a feeble attempt to tame this greed more than 116 years ago after a cabal of settlers started annexing whatever land they came across for speculative purpose.

Concerned by the speed at which some settlers were moving to claim land which they could never develop, the colonial office fired a memo from Downing Street speaking to these evils.

A colonial secretary, A C Hollis, warned that demands by the settlers could only lead to disaster.

“I would observe that, while I am as anxious as the committee can be to encourage the settlement and development of the Protectorate by persons either of large or small capital, I consider the evils of unrestricted speculation in land much more serious than the Committee appears to regard them.”

The official said it was not merely the question of the discreditable incidents which characterise the perils of speculation known as land boom, or the losses to individuals who may happen to purchase land at artificially enhanced prices that worried him.

The settlers demanded that the colonial government abolish all restrictions on the transfer of land as well as forfeiture of land without compensation be scrapped.

But, the colonial secretary reminded those advocating for scrapping of the land ownership restrictions what such a move had done in Europe.

In what he described as Australasia, unbridled greed for land led to an acute shortage of farm spaces. So bad was the situation in New South Wales in 1891 that well-connected settlers had pressured the government to scrap land restrictions.

As a result of the prevailing policy which was premised on fixed tenure, fixed rent and free sales, a total of 42 million acres had been alienated.

Ironically out of this prime land, 22 million acres this land was gobbled up by 677 settlers, meaning that on average each had 32,496 acres.

Tragically, only a tenth of this land was cultivated as the grabbers were holding on to the land for speculative purposes, hoping to sell at a handsome profit when the demand rose.

More than a century later, Hollis' warning still haunts Kenya where speculators have perfected the art of minting millions by "creating" estate land and then selling it in tiny portions to desperate people.

This explains why some landlords own hundreds of acres across the country while millions of squatters live in squalour in slums.