Achieving stronger land rights, and more inclusive investments, for local people

Land is life for millions of people across rural Africa. It is central for ensuring they have enough food to eat. Even if they are involved in other trades, land is an essential safety net for the rural poor during times of economic instability and helps define cultures and identities.

Small-scale farm in Mali. Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh

Over the past few years, large-scale acquisitions of farmland in Africa, Asia and Latin America have made headlines across the world. As competition for land and pressure on resources increases, disadvantaged groups are losing out, particularly where their land rights are insecure, their capacity to assert their rights is limited, and major power imbalances shape relations with government and incoming investors.

IIED research on the implications of land deals in Africa both for its people and for world agriculture and food security is presented in a new book: The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System.

Co-option of local elites by government or the private sector can further undermine the position of locals. Achieving stronger land rights would help local groups defend the resources they depend on for their livelihoods, and to take advantage of new opportunities — including through ‘better deals’ with bigger players, or by participating in benefits from carbon credits.

Many national land policies and laws (often based on European legal concepts centred on individual land rights and ownership) have little relevance to land relations on the ground because people have accessed land and resources through complex social relations governed by quite effective local institutions for centuries. Land rights have traditionally been held collectively by lineages or families; sometimes there are complex systems of multiple and overlapping rights. Verbal records of these rights are sometimes safeguarded in the memory of local elders.

Behind the global rush for land lies a complex set of drivers that reflect changing economic and geopolitical relations linking global finance, states and agribusiness to local groups. Read about these factors in this journal article.

Faced with growing pressures on land, villagers and alliances between a range of local and global producer organisations, NGOs and social movements have challenged governments and investors – as discussed in this IIED report: “Accountability in Africa's land rush: what role for legal empowerment?”

Even where commercial land acquisitions are not currently happening, tensions over land and the exclusion of certain groups within communities can still occur. Often those with more power or status – based on differences such as wealth, income, age, gender – gain access and the less powerful lose out. Stronger accountability mechanisms would help support such groups to have their views heard, to be part of the negotiating process, and to defend their rights to land they have traditionally had access to.

What we do

We seek to strengthen local and national capacity to secure land rights and help communities get a better deal from incoming land investments. We work with local partners who combine legal expertise and participatory methods to promote empowerment and land rights.

Securing land rights in West Africa

We are working on the development, testing and implementation of innovative tools to secure land rights in Ghana and Mali, particularly in cases where poorer farmers, women and pastoralists, who have used the land for centuries, are being marginalised.

Promoting inclusive investments

We are engaging with governments and investors in a few key countries affected by commercial land acquisitions and, together with our partners, we have been generating evidence on a range of issues concerning large-scale land acquisitions and the alternative: inclusive investment.

Legal tools

In supporting the establishment of fair, legal frameworks for investment we are Scrutinising the law and contracts and Helping communities push back by making better use of the law through our Legal tools initiative.