Threat of fine, prison sparks response from land owners

A recent newspaper advert exhorting the owners of farmland in Namibia to provide their details to the government or face a stiff fine, imprisonment or both, has brought a flood of responses.

The advert named the owners of about 1,000 farms who had not provided the Ministry of Land and Resettlement with their contact details, required for the valuation of commercial farmland for the purpose of tax assessments. The government aims to use the tax to fund its agrarian reform programme.

Valuer-General Dr Nashilongo Shivute told IRIN that "the reason we did it [place the advert] is because we have farm owners for whom we don't have addresses and contact details".

The advert got the desired result. "In some cases, people have come forward and are saying that they sold their farm to so and so a while ago. The majority have been good enough to say, 'this is the address of the new owner'; others are simply saying they were not aware [that they had to give the authorities their details]," said Shivute.

"So far we have not seen anyone who seemed to be intentionally withholding the information," she added.

There were about 600 cases where the contact details of farm owners were missing from government's valuation roll, "[so] we could not send out the [land tax] assessments to the owners, and we had 411 cases where we have had mail returned because the [assessments] were sent to the wrong address".

"Most of those have been coming forward to correct that situation," Shivute said, which was a small percentage of the 12,700 farms on the valuation roll.

She explained that "the main aim of the land tax is to collect revenue for land reform ... the development of farms being resettled; farms that have to be subdivided to serve more families. These are the first assessments that have been sent out: they cover 2004/05 and are payable during the 2005/06 financial year".

Since independence in 1990, the government has purchased 134 farms for US $105 million and resettled 37,100 people out of an estimated 243,000 "land-hungry" citizens - a proces criticised by many Namibians as far too slow.

The government pointed out the willing-buyer, willing-seller policy for acquiring land for redistribution tied its hands, and in 2004 announced it would expropriate farms, as too few had been offered for purchase.

An official from the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU), Oliver Horsthemke, told IRIN that there was "a lot of confusion" around the notice published by government, as it referred specifically to farmland. "If people own one hectare, in this country the perception is that it is not a farm," he said.

"Some people don't see themselves as farmers or farm owners - many people own plots of land that are 1,000 hectares large ... bought as residential land; some have servitudes of 1.5 hectares, or whatever, that is no longer farmed. If you study the list it is mostly small plots of 1 hectare and below - many of these in peri-urban areas. What constitutes a farm?" asked Horsthemke.

"There's one example of a crocodile farm [catering to tourists], just outside a major town - they don't see themselves as a commercial farm [yet they were on the list]," he added.

In a number of cases the defaulting owners who could face a Nam $20,000 (US $3,311) fine or five years in jail, or both, were local governments and parastatals, Horsthemke explained.

The NAU had studied the published list and "fortunately, there were relatively few" NAU members. Horsthemke said the NAU had taken pains to ensure that its members were informed of the government's requirements and had assisted them to comply.