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By Mulindwa Geofrey.

Did you know that land grabbing is now a crime against humanity? Land grabbers can now be prosecuted at the International Court of Justice.
Locally, very few land grabbers end up in prison given that many of them are affluent members of society or are purported investors. Their status makes it extremely difficult to hold them accountable using domestic laws. Surprisingly in some cases, the people whose land is grabbed are the ones prosecuted, imprisoned and sometimes killed.

Land grabbing is closely associated with illegal large scale land acquisition, which affects the lives of the affected communities. It is right to assume that there is a strong linkage between land grabbing, crime, corruption and human suffering.

I recently attended a workshop organised by Action Aid Uganda, TRAC FM and Participatory Ecological Land Use Management Uganda (PELUM). The topic of discussion was mainly compulsory land acquisition and alternative ways that can be explored by authorities to ensure that the interests of the people whose land is being taken are protected and their rights are safeguarded.

Among the key cases cited was the Kawere Coffee Factory case, where locals sued the government and the coffee factory in Mubende District, central Uganda. The complainants alleged that on August 17, 2001, Ugandan military officers violently evicted them from their land. This was in an effort to clear land to set up a coffee plantation that is owned by a multi-national corporation. This is quite a complicated case, but the bottom line is that the affected communities have never received justice. On the other hand, we are also experiencing corporate crime, which refers to misdemeanours committed by a corporation or individuals acting on behalf of a corporation or business entity. Many people world over are grabbing land with impunity thinking that they are untouchable. Corrupt businesspeople and politicians are using land deals to enrich themselves illegally. Land deals have turned into the simplest way illegal money can be laundered.

In Spain, Luís Bárcenas, a former treasurer of the ruling party, was imprisoned for laundering money through a 3,000 hectare lemon plantation in northern Argentina owned by a company called La Moraleja S. A. This is according to the Grain, a local NGO that supports small scale farmers. Many people take crimes against humanity lightly, but they have major implications if successfully prosecuted. Crimes against humanity are administered under international customary law and through the jurisdictions of international courts such as the International Criminal Court. What does this mean to land grabbers? No matter where you go in the world, you will be held accountable for your actions; there is no escaping justice. The civil society and other land actors have done a good job in sensitising masses on their land rights and their obligations. They have exposed the perpetrators and made duty bearers accountable for their actions.

The government has also helped in exposing some of the land grabbers, most recently through the Commission of Inquiry into land Matters headed by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire. Many cases of land grabbing by both State and non-state actors have been brought to the public attention and some need further examination if they do not constitute crimes against humanity.

Traditional institutions such as Buganda Kingdom have defended the land interests of communities from “powerful individuals” and multinational organisations. This has been done successfully through encouraging all tenants on Kabaka’s land to register their land and get land titles. This has significantly reduced cases of land grabbing on kingdom land. Land grabbers should know that at one point, their day of reckoning with the laws of the land will come: Today, they might feel untouchable, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?

We must respect each other’s land rights. State and non-state actors need to check their actions, especially during land acquisition. We all need to follow the right legal procedures. If one is not willing to give up their interest on land, do not force them. If it is inevitable, compensate them fairly and promptly.

Mr Mulindwa is a sensitisation and research officer at Buganda Land Board.