Securing land rights in West Africa
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.
The way land access is regulated in rural West Africa is key to peaceful co-existence and security. Many national land policies and laws (based on European legal concepts centred on individual land rights and ownership) have little relevance to land relations on the ground, because for centuries, people have accessed land and resources through complex social relations governed by quite effective local institutions. 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.
In many parts of West Africa, deep and rapid ecological, demographic, economic, social and cultural changes are making land rights weaker or less clear, undermined by more intense resource competition, overlapping claims and rising conflicts. This has been accompanied by an erosion of respect for traditional systems and safeguards to protect local land rights.
Securing land rights
But local land users have developed innovative ways to make their land rights more secure:
- Farmers have started documenting land transactions (such as tenancies or sharecropping) in writing and are developing innovative, low-cost approaches to recording customary land rights, such as simplified surveys or photographic documentation.
- Groups of farmers and herders have negotiated and formalised collective agreements on the use of shared natural resources (referred to as “local conventions”).
Improving land security
Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project aims to contribute to agricultural development by securing family farmers’ long-term access to land in West Africa. The project focuses particularly on improving access for groups who are increasingly marginalised from it, such as poorer farmers, women farmers and pastoralists, who often have no formal claims to the land they have used for grazing for centuries.
Through a consortium of partners in Ghana, Mali and the West Africa region, the project:
- identifies, supports, develops and shares existing local innovations to make land rights more secure;
- develops and promotes new bottom-up and cost-effective approaches (such as training community surveyors) in Ghana and Mali to help land users make land rights more secure;
- analyses and documents the impact of making farmers’ access to the land more secure and how this affects their ability to support their families;
- links these local innovations to national and regional processes by engaging with key networks and stakeholders so as to build the foundations for scaling up the pilot efforts aimed at benefitting more smallholder farmers in the future.