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Pakistan allots land to women in an effort to end a cycle of debt

Some 5,800 peasants in Sindh province are set to receive farmland previously designated as government-owned flood runoff. By the end of March, some 92,000 acres will be allotted to women only.

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It's a rare piece of good news to come out of Pakistan after the floods. According to the United Nations World Food Program, hundreds of thousands of flood victims are still living in temporary camps or shelters, while analysts warn of Middle-East style unrest if food inflation, which has soared to some 64 percent in the past three years, continues to rise as the government prints money to finance its deficits.

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Zaighum Habib, senior agriculture adviser at Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority, says food insecurity is rising in rural areas because government subsidies put in place intended to provide relief to those affected by floods almost exclusively help landowners and not tenants.

"The problem is not the crop yield," she says, noting that while in some areas fields remain fallow, favorable agro-climatic conditions have meant that in Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan's main food-producing provinces, wheat yields are expected to get back to 90 percent of last year's crop before the flood.

About food insecurity

Food insecurity continues, she explains, because "the livelihoods of the lowest strata are not being addressed. First, they are still beholden to debt cycles." Second, the low-interest loans from the government favor large landowners, she explains, because small-scale farmers usually don't use the banking system.

Dr. Habib says these policies came about because of the influence of feudal landowners in Pakistan's parliament, who have held sway since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. But the move away from that to the new program is a key step toward undercutting that influence.

The Sindh government initiative distributes high-risk government land that runs alongside rivers and tributaries. This land was previously designated as government-owned flood runoff, but was used by local landlords. Rich landlords have struck back by filing legal challenges via local peasants in their employ, to wrest back land that was in their de facto control.

At other times, criminal gangs take matters into their own hands. One villager, Aasi Suman, says she was forced to leave her government-allotted plot of land after land-grabbing mafia beat her and her six young children with bricks, at one stage flinging her 1-year-old child across the floor.

She and her children now live in a tent, while her case is fought in court by lawyers funded by Oxfam's local partner organization. Lawyers working on the case express optimism, and point to previous success in similar cases.

But Khan, of Oxfam, says the government could still take a firmer hand to the situation. "The government has very good intentions, which are being circumvented by factors on the ground. It needs to refocus its attention on finishing the job."

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