While I was working in Namibia as a young aid worker, in the 1990s, the ordinary farmers of Namibia faced a problem. After having half of their land stolen under colonialism, the other half was rapidly being stolen by the post independence elite. Despite the fact that this government presented itself at the Marxist end of Socialism, many of them, and their allies, spent the first years after independence in 1990 stealing land from the farmers of the country.
The problem was that colonialism had left an extremely ambiguous law governing the ‘communal areas’ that accounted for almost half the country. Namibia is a semi-desert country, so these areas were largely open land, where traditionally you could graze your cows wherever you liked. Namibian farmers would often migrate a hundred miles with their cows to get better grazing for at least part of the year. The new elite who ran the country realised that they could get away with stealing this land by putting up ‘illegal fences’ and defending them, sometimes with armed men.
The government publicly disapproved of this, even while many Ministers were stealing land themselves, sometimes areas of over 10 square kilometres at a time. Several Ministers managed to divert money intended to help poor farmers during a drought to drill a well on the land he had stolen.
As an aid worker, I worked closely with these farmers on environmental programmes. I would travel round the rural areas, to places in the back of beyond, to seek out their opinions on the conservation programmes we worked on. While the farmers uniformly wanted to save their local wildlife, they were also furious that their grazing land was being stolen.
Back at my base in the Ministry of Environment we lobbied for action on illegal fencing, while documenting it as we travelled around the country on work, often mapping fences that were miles long. Things moved very slowly. While there were allies in the government, there were plenty of Ministers who were happy to see the law drafted very slowly. In the end it took 8 years from Independence to have a White Paper. By that point my contract with the Namibian government was coming to an end.
I had spent several years working with the farmers of Namibia, and had become deeply committed to them. So I started to work as a volunteer advocate for the union that represented Namibia’s poor farmers. They, of course, had no money, as well as no ability to get me a visa. So I found work with the United Nations Development Programme, working to tackle poverty in rural Namibia. They paid well me, and sorted out a visa for me, so that in my spare time I could help the farmers lobby more effectively, get media coverage, and put pressure on the government.
By 1999 draft legislation appeared. To my surprise, while in some forms it improved women’s rights to land, it contained an extraordinary clause. It said that while widows could inherit their husband’s land, they would lose it if they remarried. There was, of course, no mirroring provision saying that widowers would lose land they had inherited if they remarried. I quickly got together with a liberal lawyer (a veteran of Namibia’s anti apartheid struggle) and we got a message to a sympathetic Minister, together with our explanation of what was going on. We successfully got the government to change the clause and, after a long gap, the law eventually passed giving Namibian women equal land rights for the first time ever.
By that point I’d lost my visa, and had to return to the UK. Eventually the legislation was passed and women got equal land rights. Recent research shows that this has made life much better for widows, even though there are still some significant problems. The legislation also made it harder to illegally fence, but even now, almost 15 years later, huge areas of Namibian land have been stolen, and there is only very slow progress in reversing it.
My two and a half years working in Namibia were central to why I got actively involved in Liberal Democrat politics. I saw that decentralisation worked, and had transformed lives as well as saving the environment.
Working on land issues like widow’s rights and illegal fencing I saw how determined action, over years, by my friends and colleagues, made huge changes in people’s lives, and the incredible satisfaction I got from this. A lot of this work was meetings under trees, unglamorous writing of policy arguments, phone calls to Ministers and civil servants, and constantly working to find where we could make progress.
And finally I saw, just like in London, how fairness, economic success and the environment are inextricably linked. In Namibia it was wildlife, pollution, water and illegal fencing. In London it’s air pollution, environmental jobs and cycling policy. Different places, different issues, but a common theme.
Working in Namibia is also why, if I am elected, I would like to be judged on the success of our campaigns, not just the fact of campaigning. We can, for instance, significantly cut air pollution in London – with smart campaigning and a tight focus on what works.