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.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
A flood victim shovels soil as he rebuilds his house after returning to his village of Adam Khan, some 19 miles from Dadu in Pakistan's Sindh province on Jan. 27. More than six months after the worst floods in Pakistan's recent history, farmers are still trying to clean up standing water and heavy silting so they can begin sowing their seeds.

More than six months after the worst floods in Pakistan's recent history soaked this village in one of the poorest corners of the country, farmers are still trying to clean up standing water and heavy silting so they can begin sowing their seeds.

When the fields are cleared, Nimat Khatoon, a 50-something peasant farmer who has worked for the wealthy owner of these fields since her childhood has something worth the wait: a four-acre slice of land to call her own.

"It's something I couldn't dream of seeing in my lifetime. We're so happy," she says with a toothy grin, as her children play around her home made of wooden slats and a thatched roof.

Ms. Khatoon is one of some 5,800 peasants in the province of Sindh to receive farmland, previously designated as government-owned flood runoff, from the provincial government over the past two years. A total of 95,000 acres has already been doled out, and in March another 92,000 acres are to be allotted to women only.

The land allocations could help break the cycle of debt accrued by landless peasants, and serve as a jump-start to those whose livelihood was threatened even after the floods receded.

"Land is the main source of wealth in rural Pakistan," explains Amil Khan, a spokesman for the charity Oxfam, which is assisting the government with the project. "If you have no land you don't have a stake in the system."

Cycle of debt

Indeed, seeds and fertilizers are provided by landlords to tenants who are then forced into high interest rates when repaying their debt. What's more, it has become the norm for landless farmers to receive far less than half the profit from the crops, and use most of that to begin paying their never-ending debt.

The government of Sindh – a province home to Pakistan's biggest landlords – embarked on this project in an effort to redress this widening imbalance. But it has taken on a special significance after the 2010 floods, which destroyed 2 million hectares of crops, pushing landless tenants deeper into debt.

By targeting women, says Mr. Khan, the government is hoping it will help increase the women's standing in their own communities, and early signs are pointing to its success. "People realize they are receiving this because of the women," he says.

Khatoon's family still owes some 40,000 rupees ($470) to the landlord her family has worked under for generations – a princely sum, which could still take another year to clear – though thanks to her newly acquired land, she's hopeful that for the first time ever, the cycle of debt won't begin afresh next year.

After the floods

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.

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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