Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Charles Geisler and Essy Letsoalo (2000) 'Rethinking Land Reform in South Africa: An Alternative Approach to Environmental Justice '
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Received: 2/8/2000      Accepted: 30/8/2000      Published: 6/9/2000


Worldwide, millions of rural people inhabiting marginal lands have been evicted from their homes in the name of conservation. Africa is no exception, nor is South Africa, the focus of this paper. Our central concern is whether land reform in South Africa can accomplish both social and environmental justice in a context of widespread and longstanding human displacement and opportunity costs as the country's national parks and game refuges expand. The costs of ecological expropriation are illustrated, as are instances from other countries where land reform simultaneously serves social and environmental objectives. Recommendations are advanced for greening South Africa's land reform without sacrificing its social and economic missions.


Two decades ago Erick Eckholm produced a World Resources Institute report entitled The Dispossessed of the Earth (1979). It was the first time serious attention was given to the proposition that land reform could be reformulated to serve social, economic and environmental ends. Eckholm's summons is of interest because it is counterintuitive: large scale resettlement of landless or near landless people often entails clearing forests and converting natural resources which environmentalists often seek to maintain in pristine condition. If anything, in this view, the growth, migration, and activities of peasant farmers and forest users are threats to parks and protected areas (e.g., Machlis and Tichnell, 1985; Hugo, 1995).

Far less attention has been paid by researchers to the reverse dynamic, that is, the threat of sprawling protected areas to rural people. As protected areas (parks, preserves, and forests, both public or private) expand, rural communities in economically marginal but ecologically significant locations are often evicted, usually without mitigation to offset their losses. The social opportunity costs of conservation, without denying their environmental benefits, are frequently high. Yet it is still relatively rare for environmental leaders to question the neomalthusian view (peasants threaten parks) and embrace an environmental justice perspective. An exception is the strong plea for international environmental justice by the director of the U.S.-based Sierra Club who recently acknowledged that much environmental rhetoric distracts attention from the distributive effects of environmental policies (Dorsey, 1999).

Of central concern in the present paper are the displacement effects of protected area development and the prospects of land reform to mitigate such opportunity costs. Can land reform become part of a landscape-level land use planning strategy committed to social as well as environmental justice? Interest in this proposition is spreading to many quarters, and the possibilities seem ripe for a new generation of land reform policies embracing equity and efficiency as well as the environment (Geisler, 2000b). At a time when creative attention to land reform is otherwise waning, we take the position that there are mutual benefits for land reformers and conservation interests to mingle their goals and resources.[1]

Specifically, we strive herein to do several things. First, we summarize the displacement effects of environmental "greenlining" in Africa as a whole and in South Africa in particular. We then present a general case for land reform as environmental justice, that is, combining social equity with environmental reform rather than doing the latter at the expense of the former. The post-1991 South African land reform is our final concern. Generalizing here is made difficult, however, by the insidious effects of racism in the country's prior "land reforms" (Letsoalo, 1987). Similarly, the racial overtones of South Africa's protected area policies complicate the application of Eckholm's notion of greener land reform. We conclude with several speculations on what might be done to enhance South Africa's environmental quality and justice through land reform.

Africa's Environmental Refugees

At least on paper, the world terrestrial area in protected status has more than doubled since 1985 to nearly 6 percent and is growing at over 5 percent per annum (Geisler and de Souza, 2000). Furthermore, some conservation biologists call for boosting the percent of unpeopled land to 12 percent of the earth's land mass (roughly the land set aside for agriculture worldwide), and have proposed that nearly 50 percent be protected in selected countries (Inamdar et al., 1999). Protection on this scale makes a compelling case for what Albert (1994) calls "ecological expropriation" of local inhabitants. No longer does it suffice, therefore, to equate "environmental refugees" with natural or human-induced disasters; "greenlining" through protected areas in many countries is a potent source of refugee generation.

Using multiple estimation techniques, Geisler and de Souza (2000), recently concluded that environmental refugees evicted from their homes by greenlining in Africa numbered in the millions. The opportunity costs of such large-scale dispossession are incalculable, though social impact assessment of protected area proposals would surely impove the present situation (Geisler, 1993). In part this is because environmental refugees are among the most vulnerable and voiceless members of society. African countries with the highest poverty index as estimated by the United Nations' Development Program are consistently those with protected territories in excess of the continent's protected area average (Table 1).[2]

Table 1: Poverty and Percent of Land in Protected Area Status (IUCN Categories I-V)
RankedCountries1999 UNDP Poverty Index         RankedCountries1997 Percentage of Protected Land
7Mozambique0.52107Burkina Faso10.40
8Cote D'Ivoire0.51808Uganda9.60
10Congo, Dem. Rep0.505010Zambia8.60
11Chad0.499011Central African Rep8.20
13Serra Leone0.495013Zimbabwe7.90
17Uganda0.429017Cote D'Ivoire6.20
23Tunisia0.384023South Africa5.40
24Gambia, The0.382024Eritrea5.00
27Congo, Dem. Rep0.362027Congo, Dem.Rep4.50
28Burkina Faso0.330028Congo, Rep4.50
34Guinea-Bissau0.276034Gambia, The2.20
39Tanzania0.191039Seierra Leone1.10
42Central African Rep0.000042Marroco0.70
43Equatirial Guinea0.000043Somalia0.30
47Zambia0.000047Equatorial Guinea0.00

Sources: UNDP (1999: 147-150) WRI/UNDP/UNEP ( 1998: 244: 289; 298 )

South Africa, the focus of the present paper, ranks highest on the UNDP poverty index and its environmental refugees are certainly among its poorest citizens. As Koch (1991:22) notes: "State-sponsored conservation [in South Africa] has led to severe social and geographical dislocation; forced removals; material loss through inadequate compensation for land; restricted access to lakes for fishing and fields for farming; electrified game fences that separate villages from their fields; and controls on the collection of thatching grass, trees, fruits, roots, and herbs." Nelson Mandela himself recently emphasized that such sacrifices have been made not just once, but by successive generations of people (Joseph and Parris, 2000).

Greenlining in South Africa also falls disproportionately on Black South Africans, due to a century of racially implicated conservation policy (Carruthers, 1995). Over the past hundred years, colonists and their leaders have effected geographical ethnic cleansing on their landscape, first de facto and later (under apartheid) de jure. Perhaps less obvious to outsiders was the way in which such policy was sanitized through conservation-based imperatives. National parks in the image of the U.S. Yellowstone model were used to garner international acceptability for human removals and to minimize attention to the racial zoning that was simultaneously taking place (Carruthers, 1989).

For this reason, ecological expropriation in South Africa is somewhat more complex than in societies where racism is less manifest or, indeed, where indigenous inhabitants are valued as environmental caretakers of particular ecosystems. Two principal types of greenlining appear to be operative:

Type I: Official Greenlining

Examples are widespread as a historical consequence of the country's 178 national parks and reserves. As Mavuso Msimang (2000:11-12), Chief Executive of National Parks in South Africa has written , "Most of our wilderness areas were not empty of people and the establishment of national parks often involved the dispossession, removal, exclusion and social dislocation of indigenous communities." Examples include the pastoral inhabitants of Namaqualand in the western Cape exiled from the Namakwalandse Burgersvereniging facility (Fig, 1991), several thousand victims of the Tsitsikama forestry reserves in the eastern Cape (Platzky and Walker, 1985), and the vast Kruger National Park, over 2 million ha in size, which exceeds the state of Israel and was subject to several waves of removal over the past century (Carruthers,1995).

Type II: Trust Land Triage

Lesser known to the international community and only recently discontinued, land set aside as bantustans under apartheid for Black Africans (13 percent of the country) was subject to further conservation restrictions. These originated involuntarily from without and at other times "voluntarily" from within. Bantustan land was held in trust by the South African government or the by the semi-autonomous states they sometimes became, meaning that bantustant residents did not technically their homelands. Nature conservation in this trust estate was "triage" in that it reduced the land reserved for daily living and working by Africans. For example, nine percent of the erstwhile Gazankulu bantustan was protected as game reserves as was 70,000 ha of KwaZulu. About 55,000 ha of agricultural land in Bobhuthatswana was (and remains) a game park (Pilanesberg) serving the tourist needs of the Sun City holiday resort (Letsoalo, 1994).[3]

Environmental refugeeism in South Africa is thus widespread for different reasons and deeply embedded in prior racial policy affecting the use and ownership of land. Eckholm's embrace of sustainable land reform, welcome at one level, must work with these abiding racial realities, that is, include environmental justice with environmental reform. The challenge of integrating social and environmental policy components through land reform in South Africa is considerably more complex politically than merely instructing small farm recipients of land reform parcels in sound natural resource management, sustainable farming systems, or even the protection of regional biodiversity.

Land Reform as Environmental Justice

Land reform is defined in various ways, depending on the reform and those in power. It can refer to massive resettlement, colonization and homesteading of frontiers with low ratios of people-to-land, or conversely, to the redistribution of concentrated ownership where ratios of people-to-land are high. What interests us here is that, historically, there is enormous variation in land reform, as witnessed by its diverse applications among ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans (Tuma, 1965) as well as among contemporary disciples of "modernization" and development (Sobhan, 1994). During the twentieth century countries with opposing political agendas invoked "land reform" in anticipation of noticeably different outcomes. Even within nations the language of land reform is appropriated by very different interests for different ends. Such within- and between-nation variation suggests that land reform can be modified yet again and incorporate environmental justice.

There are multiple reasons for contemplating environmentally-oriented land reform in addition to environmental justice. The most obvious is that social systems and ecosystems alike benefit from environmentally prudent management of agricultural lands, regardless of farming system, scale, or cropping mixture. Moreover, societal security at many levels is tightly linked with environmental security, that is, to a wide range of environmental services of inestimable value upon which society as we know it depends (Lubchenco, 1998). Environmentally mismanaged agriculture is an effective way jeopardize these services.

Land reform in the name of conservation is not entirely new. Some land reforms have embraced soil conservation as a sine qua non of long term productivity gains by land reform beneficiaries. The former Soviet Union saw land reform as a way to conserve soil on millions of acres of highly erosive steplands upon which the USSR's food security depended (Frost, 1996). Brazil's land reform agency briefly assumed leadership over extractive reserves in that country, viewed by some as a model of extensive land reform intended to conserve biodiversity within the Amazon basin (Geisler and Silberling, 1992). Forster (1992) rand Theisenhusen (1991) anticipate environmental reform via land reform elsewhere in Latin America. Cook (1994) summarizes a World Bank conference on Environment and Settlement Issues in Africa, and the FAO (1988) has set forth environmental gidelines for resettlement projects in the humid tropics of the world, certainly of use to the architects of land reform in an environmentally responsive world (see Box).

Landcare Reform in Australia

Not all environmentally-oriented land reform uses conventional land reform nomenclature or redistributive strategies to achieve it's objectives. Australia's degraded farmlands are currently the target of some 2700 "Landcare" groups (encompassing over a third of that country's farm families) intent on reducing soil erosion, impaired water quality and watersheds, and threatened biodiversity. The Landcare movement enjoys multisectoral support, the backing of farmers as well as greens, and material resources from both government and business. Landcare is being copied in other countries, such as the United States, and forging alliances between production and conservation interests in both countries (Campbell, 1998).

The occasions in which land reform has been actually integrated into some facet of protected area management and planning are few, however. Ranger (1989) reports that some displaced farmers in Zimbabwe have been resettled on ranches and given secure land tenure. The case of Brazil's extractive reserves, a special case of protected area management in themselves, has already been mentioned. Over a decade ago, the Costa Rican Government entered an agreement with an international NGO, granting title to untitled farmers surrounding a natural reserve on that country's Atlantic coast in exchange for farmers limiting their own entry to the reserve for hunting or logging (ANAI, 1988). The same government resettled farmers displaced through the expansion of Guanacaste National Park on land reform parcels in northwestern Costa Rica and, in still other park expansions, compensated displaced peasant families, including those without title (Rodriguez 1991). Geisler (2000b) analyzes recent policies in the Dominican Republic using land reform as a stop-gap for environmental refugees forced to leave national parks and provides a conceptual rationale for why land reform might appeal to environmental planners intent on avoiding social backlashes against conservation by displaced local residents.[5]

South Africa's Land Reform

In certain respects, few countries would seem as ripe for far- reaching land reform as South Africa. It is a nation in which over 80 percent of the population has access to under 20 percent of the land, where poverty is rife amidst plenty, and where the majority yearn to return to the land to live (Lipton et al., 1996). Some 60,000 white farmers (out of a total population of 44.3 million) own over three-quarters of the agricultural land; Durning (1990) claims that South Africa's landownership is more skewed than anywhere else in the world. In addition to advocating tenure security for the rural poor, land restitution for land lost during apartheid, and ambitious redistribution plans for monopolized agricultural lands, the ANC's 1991 White Paper contained a substantial section on natural resource management both on and off farmland.

Despite towering obstacles and much popular frustration with delays and underperformance in South Africa's land reform, most observers agree that the land question is the country's paramount welfare question. For all its imperfections, land reform is essential to racial peace, economic prosperity, and, arguably, environmental justice. The case for environmental justice through land reform may not be self-evident, however, nor may the mutual benefits for environmentalists and land reformers of active collaboration be obvious. It is to this that we now turn.

Environmental justice has, at its core, the doctrine that environmental enhancement benefits society as a whole and should not unduly impose costs on any particular group of the public. Observing the severe effects of pollution on minority communities, civil rights activists spawned the concept of "environmental racism" (Dorsey, 1999). This, combined with heightened awareness worldwide that megaprojects and public works (highways, dams, industrial parks, and housing developments) seem to target the lands of the poor and powerless, make it hard to explain why protected areas have escaped closer scrutiny. In the case of South Africa, evidence abounds that national park and reserve policies have principally served elites (e.g., Ellis, 1994; Carruthers, 1995). It would seem only too obvious that the land reform-with its long-standing social justice logic-would be considered as a primary tool for broader environmental justice.

At this point, we offer several recommendations for environmentally just land reform in South Africa. They bear mainly on ecological expropriation and consist of both direct and indirect actions to mitigate harm that has been done and to reduce its likelihood of reoccuring. The direct approach will be hardest for environmentalists to accept. Without it, however, social tensions and violence may ensue, as is currently the case in Zimbabwe. Civil strife and low intensity warfare elsewhere in Africa is disastrous for biodiversity and, should it return to South Africa, could destroy years of conservation work. The indirect solutions for ecological appropriation have a more familiar land reform ring but are not without positive environmental implications.

Direct Actions

Ecological expropriation comes down to the coercive transfer of nonpublic land to public owners in the name of conservation. In undertaking restitution, land reform must therefore consider both private and public land for redistribution or it must compensate proven owners for their losses. Compensation can take the form of land swaps, buy-outs at current appraised value (including improvements), or long-term "lease fees" matched to the duration of the rightful owner's foregone use.[6] The point of land reform should not be to diminish conservation, but to see that land assembly for conservation purposes causes no loss in welfare to rightful owners.

Currently, 6.6 million ha of South Africa (5.4 percent of its land area) is in strictly protected status (WRI/UNDP/UNEP, 1998). It is likely that not all of this land is essential to conservation and some could revert to farming and multiple use, a decision that certainly should follow from concerted interdisciplinary research. Public lands returned to original owners in the name of environmental justice will not necessarily lose their conservation status. In many countries north and south, farmers are being subsidized to "grow amenities" (orchids, wetlands, old growth forests, endangered species), operate game farms, or to fallow parts of their land. Such subsidies are "land reform" initiatives which reduce the opportunity costs of conservation and share them with different sectors. Nor is conservation land the only public land eligible for restitution. South Africa prides itself on large military reserves[7] and the government, being the country's largest landowner, may have other lands to consider.

Restitution speaks to Types I but not to Type II greenlining. Therein, former bantustan land was converted to nature reserves, reducing land available for nonresricted uses. Several land reform actions suggest themselves. Some such reserves may be socially acceptable to local populations, offering jobs, revenues, and improvements to quality of life. If these benefits are fairly distributed among community members, no change may be necessary.[8] Where these conditions are not met, the facility in question should be reviewed to assure conformity with social as well as environmental objectives.

Indirect Actions

There are various ways in which conservationists can relieve human pressure on South Africa's protected areas without reducing the public land base in this status. They require more traditional land reform actions and are the potential basis for an alliance between conservationists and land reformers. Topping the list of is the redistribution of South African farmland, the concentration of which is notable. Private land dominates the nation's landscape and is held by a small fraction of its population. Redistribution of this resource are apt to benefit the majority of South African citizens and the environment in several ways.

First, it must be assumed that the most fertile lands are in production, the same lands which tend to be lowest in biodiversity (Avery and Avery, 1996). The low fertility of lands high in biodiversity means that redistributing protected areas will be of less social benefit than will private land reallocation. So, on average, redistributing a private unit of farmland (as occurs under typical land reforms) relieves land hunger beyond what an equivalent unit of high biodiversity land will render.

Second, there is much evidence that small units of production are more productive per unit of land (compared with per unit of labor) than are their larger counterparts (Hayami, et al., 1991; Binzwanger and Deininger, 1993). With few exceptions, redistributive land reform is thus a recipe for economic efficiency resulting in social justice, that is, through the creation and maintenance of small and medium farming sector. Moreover, there is some evidence that smaller farmers tend to be better environmental stewards and that the social equity resulting from land redistribution translates into human fertility declines--lightening the human footprint on the land (Geisler, 2000b).

Third, though many conditions must be taken into account, it is widely believed that tenure security, whether individual or collective, correlates positively with conservation-prone behaviors (Wachter, 1992). Tenure security is a traditional goal of land reform, most noticeably in its efforts to give tenants either full ownership or contract security (Hayami et al., 1991).

Fourthly, land reform reinforced with more comprehensive agrarian reform (technical assistance, infrastructure, credit, markets, micro enterprise opportunities, and social services, etc.) is apt to produce educated and viable small farmers receptive to the many forms of community-based natural resource management now advocated by NGOs and environmental planners seeking to upgrade the environmental consciousness of farmers dwelling in and near protected areas.

Fifthly, as Bruce (1999) describes, there have been many post-independence tenure experiments in Africa, some successful and others not. He makes a convincing case for a new mood of recognition and adaptation of community-based tenure systems in Africa today which, as Letsoalo (1987) notes, were stifled under apartheid. More land released through land reform could reinvigorate tribal and community tenure options with their alleged resource management advantages.

Finally, urban land reform in the form of community land trusts for landless, homeless, and squatter communities in Africa offers provisional hope to those who have migrated to urban areas, thus reducing the likelihood of return to either working lands or wildlands (Murtaza, 2000).


Our concern in this paper is with the dislocating effects of conservation in South Africa and with land reform as an underutilized solution for ecological expropriation of this sort. Despite the enormous social costs associated with racially-tinged conservation in the past, social and environmental policy need not be irrevocably at odds in South Africa. Land reform can be a tool of both social and environmental justice, and can be an inducement to environmentally useful behaviors among the very farmers cast as threats to protected areas. Land reform offers various forms of land restitution for environmental refugees, and, when implemented as full-fledged agrarian reform, provide security for majority and minority populations alike on working rather than wild lands. At its best, land reform can increase the social carrying capacity of South Africa's resource base for the benefit of all rather than a few.

Despite this potential, land reform is not a panacea for all social or environmental problems. Indeed, in countries with extreme land concentration such as South Africa, land reform may be token or, if authentic, its social and economic challenges (e.g., centuries of land claims and dramatic population changes) may eclipse or postpone important ecological concerns. Environmentalists open to an alliance with land reformers may be unwilling to wait until equity matters are settled and shun rural economic development unless its sustainability is proven. They will have important transboundary concerns--the ecosystems they seek to save often conforming only poorly to the politically constructed boundaries of land reform. And, lest it be glossed over, the unique cultures and political economies of different countries mean that innovative land reforms from one national context do not transfer easily or automatically to another.


1This waning is largely due to the subsidence of the Cold War a decade ago and the land reform models the opposing sides historically promoted. Currently, "land reform" is widely equated with privatization of land, the "reform" aspects of which remain to be demonstrated on other than neoliberal terms.

2 The data shown in Table 1, derive from the amount of protected areas in IUCN Categories 1-V. For detail and justification, see Geisler and de Souza (2000).

3 Bantustans have ended but, in the absence of major land redistribution in South Africa, they remain the de facto residential clusters of Blacks who have not migrated to urban areas. Parks and game reserves on former bantustans are largely in tact.

4Within this variations are numerous problems and imperfections, such as cooptation by elites (Sobhan, 1994), cultural insensitivity (Hirtz, 1998), and inattention to the challenges of more comprehensive agrarian reform.

5Despite important difference in scope, substance, and purpose, land reform and agrarian reform will be hereafter used interchangably.

6 Lease and rental fees as compensation to owners has many desireable properties, including fairness (income, reserved rights, continuing equity). It is being tried in the first U.S. national park in the sourthern hemisphere (American Samoa) and is discussed at greater length in Ferrarro and Kramer (1997).

7 The Riemvasmaak base in the Northern Cape, though resolved as a restitution case, is a good example; the Maleoskot base in Mpumalanga Province is potentially another.

8What is "fair" is of course culturally defined and may or may not be the same as "equal."


The authors acknowledge support for this research from Cornell University's International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), Project Number DOM/94/G31. They particularly thank the article's anonymous reviewers for insightful comments.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000