This post is part of a series developed by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Landesa to highlight the importance of securing land rights for smallholder farmers. This series is running concurrently with the World Bank’s 2014 Land and Poverty Conference taking place in Washington, DC. Follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #landrights.
While the vast majority of Africans rely on land-based livelihoods to survive and cite land as their most important resource, rights to this land are often unclear and insecure. Ninety percent of Africa’s rural land is undocumented and many countries lack basic legal protections for customary rights to land.
There is growing recognition, however, that weak land-related laws, policies, and institutions have hobbled Africa’s development. What’s more, the recent trends of rising food prices and increasing demand for “flex crops” (those that can be used alternatively for food, fodder and as bio-fuels) have spurred global demand for cheap “underutilized” land. This global demand dovetails with a rising local demand for land that can be farmed by growing rural populations. In many areas of Africa, fertile land is already in very short supply. Quickly rising demand, when combined with outdated legal tenure frameworks, is now understood as a great threat to rural African food security, livelihoods, sustainable resource management, and even peace and stability.
These recent trends have renewed calls from communities across the continent to have their land rights protected and documented. Rural communities are demanding greater protections for their rights, which can be achieved through improved land laws, policies and institutions. Creating this tenure security framework is a threshold step that allows families to safely make the sort of long-term investments and improvements to the land that reduce conflict and boost food production and food security. In rural Africa, securing rights to the land for small–hold farmers—and particularly women farmers—is essential to lifting individuals, families, and communities out of poverty.
This has prompted a flurry of promising government activity supported by the development community. Mozambique, Botswana, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana are among those countries that have recently undertaken reforms to secure greater protection of customary and community lands.
The quest to map, formalize and protect community and customary lands in Africa, however, must be undertaken with great caution. As governments, CSOs, and non-profits work to fill in the blanks in Africa’s land tenure map, what is becoming clear is that the very actions taken to protect communities and boost investment in land, improve food security and reduce conflict – identifying, clarifying and formalizing customary land rights – can have unintended consequences that undermine the rights of vulnerable groups, compromise food security, and create conflicts between communities.
Women are among the most vulnerable in this process. They often have little, if any, ability to participate meaningfully in community-level decision making, and in some cases they are not formally considered to be members of the community at all. Very few women hold positions of power, such as traditional chiefs or elders. Often women’s movements are restricted by customs or duties (child care in particular) that further limit their ability to participate in community efforts to clarify and protect communal or individual land rights. Concrete efforts to ensure that these community decisions occur in a time and at a place where women can attend can be helpful, but are rarely made.
Likewise, using existing representative bodies to help identify land users can mean that certain vulnerable groups are not included in these important processes. Land use rights of women, migrants, youth and other groups traditionally excluded from customary governance bodies may therefore never be identified or recorded, and their claims and rights compromised as a result.
In many cases, titling of customary lands involves a two-step process, whereby the community’s boundaries are first mapped and recorded, and then individual or household plots within this area are plotted and recorded. But such efforts to individually title or record land within customary land governance systems often prove dangerous for women, who seldom hold primary rights to land. For these women, access to land depends on use rights granted by their husband or father. Formalizing individual or household land rights in this context—to the officially recognized (male) landholder—can mean that the women who farm the land and depend on it to feed themselves and their families are never recorded as owners or primary users. Instead, the formalization of these household rights within a customary tenure context can further entrench women’s unequal control over the land for posterity.
With this in mind, should efforts to clarify and establish new land-related legal frameworks, institutions, and policies in Africa be halted? Absolutely not. As the demand for land across the continent increases, it is difficult to imagine how customary and community-held lands will be protected if they are not identified and formally recognized. But governments and the development sector should take pains to ensure that women and other vulnerable groups are not further undermined in these efforts, lest they result in more harm than good.
Jen Duncan is a senior attorney and the Africa program director at Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men.