Rural residents in Rwanda are caught between a rock and hard place as local authorities force them off land that has been reclassified from agricultural to residential use. This highlights the negative impact of the country’s rapid urbanisation on the poor.
About 17 per cent of citizens live in urban areas but the Rwanda Housing Authority predicts that this number will have doubled to 35 per cent by 2020.
Some residents in Gasabo and Rwamagana districts accuse local leaders of pushing them to sell their land to wealthy investors simply because they cannot afford to pay the rates demanded on urban property by municipal authorities.
The development is in part the result of a government revision of land use to pave the way for smart city initiatives and an increase in investments in industries that have left borderline populations trapped in zones where their economic activity cannot be supported.
Residents who talked to Rwanda Today say they feel trapped. They don’t have money to develop their land in accordance with urban statutes yet the pressure to sell means they don’t always get the best price when wealthy property developers move in.
“They know we cannot afford the property fees and yet they don’t allow us to sell before we clear outstanding dues,” said Verena Kabahire of Kigabiro sector in Rwamagana district.
Ms Kabahire said that when land officers came to her home, they told her that she could no longer practice substance farming — her primary economic activity. Instead, they advised her to sell her land to developers and relocate further from the town.
“But when I got a buyer, I was again informed that a transfer would not be easy unless I first cleared tax arrears, yet I have never declared my land for taxation,” she added.
According to a 2012 presidential decree on land lease fee in a place considered as an urban area shall be subject to a fee ranging from Rwf30 ($0.04) to Rwf80 ($0.09) per square meter; while a place considered as a trading centre shall be subject to a fee ranging from Rwf10 ($0.01) to Rwf30 ($0.04) per square meter.
Emmanuel Sibomana from Gatare sector in Gasabo district has his land designated for agriculture. He told Rwanda Today that he has been struggling to get a permit to rehabilitate his house because his request was rejected by local leaders.
At one point, it was resolved that owners of land that is not more than two hectares in rural areas and is used for agricultural purposes should not pay taxes.
It had also been agreed that people with land not more than two hectares in the city and considered as rural land should not be taxed, unless the owner wants to change the use of the land for commercial production.
Local leaders blame the complaints on lack of tax literacy among residents. According to Radjab Mbonyumuvunyi, the Mayor of Rwamagana district, there have been campaigns to educate land owners on permissible activities but residents are yet to understand district urbanisation plans.
But, the Mayor castigated land officers who have been pushing residents to sell their land to wealthy investors, saying it was the responsibility of leaders to ensure sellers get fair prices if they decide to sell their land.
Local leaders also argued that short-term agriculture activities are allowed and residents can rehabilitate their houses; although they cannot construct new houses without conforming with municipal standards.