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.

December 2010 - November 2014
Emily Polack

Senior researcher, law, economies and justice programme, Natural Resources research group

Law, economies and justice
A collaborative programme of work on renegotiating the law to promote fairer, more sustainable economies
Farmers and administrators discuss land issues

Farmers and officers responsible for land administration discuss land issues facing smallholder farmers in Mali (Photo: Emily Polack, IIED)

In much of rural West Africa, farmers gain access to land through customary tenure systems. But deep and rapid ecological, demographic, economic, social and cultural changes are making land rights less secure, 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.

National legal systems struggle to deals with these issues, not least because farmers have limited access to these systems. Also, many national land laws are based on European legal concepts centred on individual land rights and ownership, and have little relevance to land relations on the ground.

This is because for centuries people have accessed land and resources through complex social relations governed by 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.

Securing land rights

But local land users have developed innovative ways to make their land rights more secure. For example:

  • Farmers have started documenting land transactions (such as tenancies or sharecropping, or spousal agreements) in writing and are developing innovative, low-cost approaches to recording customary land rights, such as simplified surveys or photographic documentation, and
  • Groups of farmers and herders have negotiated and formalised collective agreements on the use of shared natural resources (referred to as 'local conventions').

What did IIED do?

This action-research project supported the bottom-up development and testing of innovative tools to secure rural land rights, ranging from templates for land transactions through to training of paralegals and parasurveyors.

The development of tools involved dialogue with relevant authorities – traditional and statutory – throughout the process, to seek their inputs and buy-in, check legal validity of the tools and practicalities of administrating them.

While more testing can be done, this dialogue and multi-stakeholder engagement, as well as the low-cost element, provided good potential for adoption and upscaling of the tools.


Land Resource Management Centre, based in Kumasi, Ghana

Groupe d'Etudes et de Recherche en Sociologie et Droit Appliqué (applied law and sociology research and learning group) based in Bamako, Mali

Association Malienne d'Eveil au Développement Durable (Malian Association of Awakening on Sustainable Development), based in Koutiala, Sikasso region, Mali