After Pakistans floods, new worries about debt and land rights

Carolyn Gluck, Oxfam GB

Naimat Ahmed’s village in Thatta district, in Sindh, is still under water. She shows me her flooded field, where she’d been growing rice, wading into the waters to show me how high the levels still remain. She opens up the door to her simple mud-and-thatch home, which is full of squelchy mud. She won’t be able to move back inside until the ground dries out and has to sleep with others in the village out in the open air, in makeshift shelters constructed from wooden poles with cotton sheeting as a roof. Yet she and a group of other women in the village were determined to head back home as quickly as possible after Pakistan’s devastating floods to protect their stake to the land.

“Our land is here. We feared if we didn’t come back quickly, people would come and stay here and take things from our homes”, Naimat Ahmed told me.

Naimat’s wish to protect her precious assets is understandable. Until earlier this year, she had no land at all, until she was awarded four acres under the Sindh provincial government’s land re-distribution programme. It’s the first scheme of its kind in South Asia, where tracts of state-owned land are given to landless women peasants in an attempt to begin reducing poverty and bring about much wider social changes in rural areas.

It’s estimated 60% of people in Sindh are landless, while large areas of farmland are owned by small, wealthy and politically influential elites. And now Pakistan’s devastating floods, which destroyed homes, fields and livestock, are forcing some of the poorest in Pakistan, without adequate food, shelter, or jobs, deeper into debt.

“This was going to be my first crop from my own land and the rice was almost ready to harvest. Then the floods came”, said Naimat. “Everything was destroyed. I can’t see how we can get enough food and it will be several months before we can use our land again. But even then, we don’t have money for seeds and fertilizer”, she said. “We have debts from shops that have given us credit. Things are difficult.”

Sindh was the region worst-affected by the floods; and in many areas flood waters still remain stubbornly high, refusing to drain away.
More than a million people remain displaced, their homes damaged or destroyed. The worry is that when families do return home, new disputes could arise over land as many boundaries, previously marked by irrigation channels, have been washed away and ownership records have been destroyed.

Land disputes had arisen even before the floods. The first phase of Sindh’s land redistribution programme had some serious flaws and was tainted by allegations of nepotism and corruption.

Mother of six, Aasi Mallah, was physically attacked by people in her village in Jati town who disputed her claim to land after she had been awarded a four acre plot by the provincial government. “Our land was a blessing. But a large group of people gathered and threatened us; they became violent and beat us”, she told me, showing me a scar on her daughter’s face.

Aasi and her family were forced to flee their village and now live on a small plot of land by a roadside owned by her husband’s former landlord, determined to pursue her land battle through the courts. It could be a long process. Oxfam and its partner, Participatory Development Initiatives, have been helping Aasi and other women like her with legal support as well as spreading awareness among some of the poorest in Sindh about their rights to claim for land under the re-distribution scheme.

Some of the original flaws in the land programme have been ironed out, thanks to lobbying by groups like PDI and Oxfam. And, despite the floods, the authorities in Sindh have pledged to continue with the scheme, rolling it out to more areas across the province.

“Property rights for women in Pakistan is a rarity – and sometimes an impossibility”, said Saima Hassan, PDI’s Land for Women Programme officer. “The distribution of government land to landless peasant women in Sindh is a historic initiative. And while it has had flaws, we’re trying to make sure that all the women eligible for land under the scheme receive it; and can change their status from peasant to landowner.”

The hope is that not only will the scheme continue to be rolled out across Sindh, but also in other parts of Pakistan; giving some of the poorest families a chance to own land that, for generations, they’ve cultivated and lived on; a chance to finally begin to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty and debt.

Read more about Oxfam’s response to the Pakistan floods
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