Past, present and future perspectives


The issue of land rights in Africa is a highly complex and sensitive social and political issue, closely linked with poverty and land degradation issues. The following terminology is applied throughout this review to avoid ambiguity or confusion:

Traditional land tenure systems in Africa were developed in accordance with variations in physical conditions and cultures, although they were largely centred on communal access to resources and sharing of benefits. Tenure was rarely recorded or registered, and land rights were largely allocated through inheritance or other regulatory and distributive mechanisms. Traditional systems offer more security of tenure than is often recognized by supporters of individual tenure systems, although women generally have lower status than men (Cleaver and Schreiber 1994). The insecurity of women in this regard is illustrated in Box 2f.2. In pastoral communities, land may be under tenure or may be open access. Here, access is regulated according to seasonal abundance of resources, and is determined by traditional governance systems. The mobility of pastoral communities buffers against climatic variability and provides them with greater food security.

Box 2f.2 Women and land tenure

In most parts of Africa, both modern and traditional laws favour patriarchal ownership of land and control of resources.Women may be granted access to resources through their fathers or husbands on a temporary basis but, if they become widowed, they may be forced to leave their land. There is also a financial bias towards male ownership, as women tend to have lower incomes than men and, therefore, may not be able to afford to purchase land, or to acquire access to credit schemes.Women are also discriminated against in the quality of land they have access to, and often have marginal and remote land.

However, with land reform efforts progressing in many African countries, access to land, ownership and registration systems are helping to shift the balance of equity in recognition of the rights of vulnerable groups, including women and minority, ethnic or nomadic groups.

However, colonial regimes and newly independent governments perceived traditional tenure and access systems to be insecure and poorly suited to commercial, settled agricultural development and conventional economic growth (Cleaver and Schreiber 1994, Toulmin and Longbottom 1997). Thus, land largely became the property of the state, and was then redistributed with discrimination along lines of wealth, race or gender (Cleaver and Schreiber 1994). Resulting conflicts between traditional and contemporary tenure and access policies have frequently led to the mismanagement of resources and to conflicts between user groups. In the Western Indian Ocean state of Comoros, for example, there are three types of land tenure system in place: traditional, colonial and Islamic (RFIC 1998). The best land is reserved for commercial crops which are mainly for export, whilst small-scale and subsistence farmers are left with less productive, even marginal areas, such as steep slopes. Without proper terracing, these areas are prone to soil erosion (COMESA 2001). Extreme inequity in land distribution is seen in South Africa, where access to land averages just over 1 ha/capita for black farmers and 1 570 ha/capita for white farmers (SARIPS 2000). A further complication affecting access rights and food security across Africa is that of population growth, resulting in greater and greater land fragmentation under the traditional system of inheritance and sub-division. As each successive generation inherits a smaller and smaller parcel of land, average farm size per household is declining, thus contributing to food insecurity.

Over the past few decades, governments have realized that centralized management of land resources is also inappropriate, and processes of land reform are underway in many countries. Individual land titling may be appropriate, for example, in urban areas but, in pastoral areas, communal ownership may be a more viable alternative. Legal recognition of traditional landuse practices could be a means of avoiding the overexploitation of resources associated with lack of ownership and accrual of benefits (the 'tragedy of the commons'). Mozambique is one of the countries where demarcation of community lands is being undertaken and, in Tanzania, the Village Land Act provides for collective land ownership for pastoralists (DFID 1999). Protection of sacred forests through community ownership and management is also emerging as a successful model of forest conservation (Alden Wiley 2000). Uganda's 1998 Land Act attempts to integrate traditional and contemporary tenure and access policies, allowing: legal registration of traditional land rights; representation of traditional authorities in dispute resolution; and the formation of communal land associations. However, there is still confusion among the public over their rights, and implementation has been restricted through lack of resources (DFID 1999).

Legal recognition of traditional land-use practices could be a means of avoiding the overexploitation of resources associated with lack of ownership and accrual of benefits

Another key element in the discussion of land reform processes is the effect of different tenure systems on investment in resource management and on productivity. Evidence of subsistence level production being less efficient is still inconclusive, and comparisons are complicated by existing market failures and by inequities in market access. The role of the private sector needs to be explored further, and a clear strategy of land use and production needs to be developed and understood by all participants before implementation. Otherwise, there is a risk of collapse in production during a transition period (DFID 1999).

Other issues for concern and for continued discussion include: the means for developing effective, legitimate institutions for the management of land rights; the implementation of market-based instruments for the redistribution of land; the question of land restitution; and the continuing marginalization of women, indigenous peoples, and pastoralists or huntergatherers (DFID 1999). The role of the state in facilitating or administrating land reform is also under the spotlight, particularly in Zimbabwe, where the land issue has become the central campaign issue between political parties (Moyo 2002).

Delays in reform have been considerable, and governments continue to hold legally defined de jure ownership rights over much of rural Africa. By contrast, and often as a consequence, rural communities and individuals exert de facto rights to land and resources, based on claims to traditional land rights, and in protestation over slow reforms (Cousins 2000). In some countries, most notably, southern African countries, where there was extreme inequity in access to and ownership of land and resources, the process of reform has been catalysed by demonstrative and, in some cases, violent action. In Zimbabwe, for example, there have been several violent clashes over illegal land occupation (for example, Drimie and Mbaya 2001).

Land reform is a highly contested and sensitive issue, requiring an appropriately sensitive approach. Policies must consider country-specific situations and objectives, within an overall development context. Policies will necessarily be developed through several iterations, with the involvement of all stakeholders, particularly those most marginalized (Drimie and Mbaya 2001).

The following sections give further details of specific issues and policies relating to land resources in each of the African sub-regions.