Guest column: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

When our ancestors first arrived in the land between Zambezi and Limpopo, they did not buy the land on which they settled. They did not obtain title deeds to prove that they were the owners. The tribe or nation regarded this land as belonging to all of them and to nobody in particular.

There was only common, but no private property. The chief allocated land to a peasant and his family to build a village, to grow crops or breed cattle. But it was not their property with a market price for sale. This is officially still the rule even today.

Settlers from overseas introduced the concept of private property which was foreign to our forbears. In the ensuing conflict much blood was spilt in the country between those two big rivers, between the mountains in the East and deserts in the West.

The two systems of land ownership exist side by side even today, as far as the law is concerned, even though the idea of privately-owned land is creeping more and more into the “communal lands”.

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Private land meant deprivation. More and more land was no longer available or accessible to the majority. This strange novelty was defended as economically more efficient and productive.

Commercial, privately-owned farms became the economic backbone of the country. The “war veterans” made land the big issue when they started “farm invasions” and “land seizures”.

But former President Robert Mugabe “initially opposed large-scale farm takeovers……Large-scale seizures would be detrimental to the economy” (Charles Laurie, The Land Reform Deception, p. 283).

The farm seizures were not part of a true land reform. They “were primarily a ploy to preserve the (ruling party’s) political power” (Laurie, p 285).

The land issue is not yet resolved. Not all war veterans wanted land and become farmers. They wanted to end discrimination and enjoy greater prosperity. Many rural youths want to move into town. They are attracted by modern technology.

Urban workers want land to build themselves family homes. That land is now for sale at market prices is an unfortunate result of the colonial economy which still prevails.

Land was, and to a degree still is, collective property. It is part of the “Common Good” and should remain available to the “common person”.

“Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, since God created the world for everyone.” There is a legitimate right to private property, but the owner — farmer, is obliged to use this land to produce food for the people as a whole and for the Common Good of the nation. “Politicised food”, reserved for political allies, is immoral.

Drugs and medicines which originate in plant and animal life given by the Creator for all must become available to all through a general health service.

Even what has been created and given to all people on earth as a common property, like water, tends to be “privatied, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right….But water continues to be wasted. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population…experience droughts which impede agricultural production. Unsafe water results in many deaths. Dysentery and cholera cause suffering and infant mortality.

“Water sources underground are threatened by pollution produced in mining, farming and industrial activities” ( Francis, Common Home, n. 29 f.)

Scarcity of water cannot be overcome by commercialising it. Providing safe drinking water is a duty of the State. The city must have a good system of water reticulation through pipes reaching everywhere. And using water economically is a task for all of us. Wasting water is a sin against the community. Water shortages may cause even military conflicts between nations, for example, Israel and her neighbours.

Brackish water and sewage have polluted the river Jordan which is so important for human life in the region.

Hydropolitics must ensure peace between nations relying on common water sources. Water is also vital for the production of energy, for example, the Kariba dam using the Zambezi for the benefit of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

We live because we breathe clean air, another vital ingredient of our environment. Burning grass- and bush land produces smoke that chokes us; the burning of coal and use of oil-based fuel in cars have a severe impact on the atmosphere in which we live.

Scientists present us with strong arguments for the harm done to us by such fuel consumption. Powerful industrial corporations defend this policy and deny that there is climate change.

Vehicles blow thousands of ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, frustrating all attempts to control climate change (which admittedly has occurred before).

Leaders of nations and industrialists must accept responsibility. Playing the “blame game” will not help. The leaders must risk economic losses and reduced profits. But even a developing country like ours must face up to the dangers of pollution of the atmosphere and the resulting deterioration of our living condition. We owe this to our children and their children’s children.

New industries are good news for the unemployed. But what price do we pay for them in terms of a polluted and degenerated environment? “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” (Francis, n. 95). There is nothing “private” about that.

Industrial investors from overseas may want to cut corners, and try to produce cheaply in developing countries, causing ecological harm which they would not tolerate in their own countries.

Thinking in terms of different nationalisms (“America must be great again”) is obsolete. The Earth is our common home. We are all interconnected, North and South and East and West, by the sea and big oceans.

What harms one is harmful also to all others. The melting of ice is raising sea levels and endangering people living along the coast or on islands. We aim at the common good and life for all, not just in our country, but universally for mother earth and all her children.

 Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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