News / Africa

Lack of Land Rights Could Lead to Land Rush

Community leaders in Nimba Point in Grand Cape Mount, Liberia, take Alfred Brownell (center) of Green Advocates, a member of the Rights and Resources Initiative, on a tour of land that had been cleared by Sime Darby, a Malaysia-based company.
Community leaders in Nimba Point in Grand Cape Mount, Liberia, take Alfred Brownell (center) of Green Advocates, a member of the Rights and Resources Initiative, on a tour of land that had been cleared by Sime Darby, a Malaysia-based company.
Joe DeCapua

New studies suggest that weak land rights are fueling a land rush in Africa and elsewhere. The findings say the sell-off of forests and other prime lands to developers could trigger widespread civil unrest.

The Rights and Resources Initiative says national leaders and investors must recognize the customary rights of poor people, who have lived or worked on these lands for centuries.

“The amount of land that is owned by customary communities around the world is about 3 billion hectares of land. And just to give you a sense, in sub-Saharan Africa, about 1.4 billion hectares of the land is not legally recognized to be owned by customary communities and under customary tenure rights systems,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, director of the initiative’s global programs.

Customary law

Customary law, he said, has long been a part of local communities, even if it’s not contained in law books.

“These are just the traditional rules and obligations that regulate ownership of land in a lot of the developing world. It’s basically a system of rules and laws that are known as customary laws because they’re not written down in code and they’re not in statutes, basically. Customary law in the U.K. or in the United States is basically the basis of our legal system. And in Africa, the law of communities has as much weight to them as our customary law has to us,” he said.

Hatcher said the land desired by developers is where indigenous people live, farm, make their living, find material to build houses or where water resources are located. He said that “controversial land acquisitions have been a key factor in triggering civil wars.”

Conflict

“One good example,” he said, “is in Sudan, where in the 80s and the 90s large-scale land acquisitions for plantations were purchased by individual investors from Khartoum and were part of the main grievances that the south had against the north in Sudan. Part of this, I guess, the trigger for civil war in that case. But you see in other places, like in Liberia, companies coming in to an area to grow oil palm plantations and the communities have really no understanding that their rights to land had been given away to a company.”

That can result in conflict between companies and communities and between communities and governments.

“Some investors are caught off guard by this because they think they’ve actually purchased the rights by dealing directly with the government. And they haven’t realized that the government hasn’t sorted out land rights in the area where they’re going,” he said.

Hatcher said it’s true that in many places communities do not legally own the land. He describes that as a relic of colonial legislation that gave customary rights the lower status of tenancy or occupancy. He also says the promise of jobs by developers is often not realized.

“Large-scale timber companies move into Central Africa and sign commitments to build schools and produce jobs. And really the fact of the matter is they don’t do much in that regard. They might produce some jobs at low paying wages for people,” he said.

The Rights and Resources Initiative says international aid can be used as leverage to ensure the land rights of local communities. It says developers will make better returns on their investment if they consult with local communities about the projects, instead of being delayed  by protests or conflict. It says international guidelines, like the Kimberley Process for conflict diamonds, can be used to ensure business is done in accord with customary land laws.

The initiative is a coalition of international, regional and community organizations working in development, research and conservation. It's stated mission is to "advance forest tenure, policy and market reforms globally" to support local communities.

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