Proposal to tax idle land smirks of neocolonialism

Giraffe seen at a private ranch (PHOTO: FILE)
NAIROBI, KENYA: The proposal by the Government to penalise idle land should be analysed through an economist’s lens.

First, there nothing like idle land. We leave land to lie “idle” for various reasons.

For instance, one may need time to decide on what to do with it or they may lack resources to develop it presently. 

In the case of inherited land, one may be a minor when it is bequeathed to them and, therefore, does not have the resources to develop it while farmers sometimes carry out fallowing to allow soil to recover.  

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In Kenya, there is a common notion that leaving land idle is solely for speculation purposes.

Historical reasons 

There is, however, nothing wrong with speculation; it is a legitimate source of wealth. High population growth and finite land means price of land will keep going up.

If we keep money to earn interest in the banks, what is wrong with holding on to land in the hope that it appreciates in value? 

There is also nothing wrong with keeping land idle for sentimental purposes.

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Many people keep land for prestige and for historical reasons.

The logic behind penalising idle land through taxation can be extended to other factors of production.

It is by all means ill-advised and preposterous to say the least.

I wonder what Kenyans would say about a proposal to penalise their cash in the bank just because it is idle?

At this rate, we might as well start penalising all idle unemployed Kenyans.

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After all they are not exploiting their muscle and brain power.

The colonial administration tried a similar move using the poll tax where adults had to work to get money to pay tax and by extension contribute to economic growth.

This was met with much resistance from Africans and was one of the basis for the armed anti-colonial resistance movement led by the Mau Mau and other groups.

While it can be appreciated that the Government intends to free idle land for more food production, all the factors why some citizens leave their land idle must be considered.

My humble submission is that before we go after idle land, we need to focus on the current “active” land under crops. 

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Why can’t we enforce the minimum acreage the land can be subdivided into? In some parts of this country, subdivision has reached the limit.

When I was growing up in the former white highlands, I used to see tractors and combine harvesters.

Not anymore, there are no big enough pieces of land for the tractors to work on. 

This is a sad state of affairs because large-scale farming would allow for economies of scale.

New leasing rules

In the same breath, one would be led to question the role of science in today’s world. For example,  why are we still sceptical of Genetically Modified food and how can we increase productivity of every crop wherever it is grown?  

The technology used in growing flowers could also be deployed to food production. This can be achieved through research in agriculture, which would in the long run raise productivity, thus ensuring food security.

One easy way to increase agricultural productivity is to zone the country so that we know what grows best where.

We must move away from the notion that we must all grow maize to be food secure.

If I give the GPS of my farm to KARLO I should get an immediate recommendation of the best crop or animals to keep there.  

We must also explore rearing other domestic animals apart from cows and goats such as Llamas. 

Laikipia and South Africa game farming is a big business.

The directive for taxing owners of idle land by the Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries ministry came hot on the heels of a National Land Commission (NLC) report that said owners of idle land could lose their titles under new leasing rules.

One of NLC’s terms of lease renewal is that land must be beneficial to the economy.  How does the Government intend to measure economic benefit?

My worry with this proposal is that the definition of economic benefit could be crafted in a way that it is used to take land from its original owners.

Whatever direction the Government decides to take on the subject, no Kenyan should lose their land unfairly.

The jury is still out why there is so much focus on land and not other factors of production, capital, labour and entrepreneurship.

The State must employ the same vigour it has shown in dealing with idle land in putting to good use other natural resources such as “idle” lakes, ponds, deserts and rivers.

Surely they must have some economic value, shouldn’t they?

To achieve our economic potential, we must combine all the factors of production in the best way possible.  

We must not allow the visible hand of the Government to correct the market failures.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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