Securing land rights in West Africa

Project

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.

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 is IIED doing?

This action-research project has 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 provides good potential for adoption and upscaling of the tools.

Publications

Developing tools to secure land rights in West Africa: a 'bottom up' approach, Moussa Djire, Emily Polack and Lorenzo Cotula (2014), IIED Briefing paper | en Français

Securing land rights in Mali: practical local solutions to thorny national problems, Alfousseyni Diawara, Bougouna Sogoba and Moussa Djire  (2014), IIED Briefing papers | en Français

Land tool development in Ghana: building on local aspirations and innovation, Mark Kakraba-Ampeh, Eric Yeboah, Richard Owusu Asare and Belinda Oppong-Konadu (2014), IIED Briefing paper | en Français

Gender-equitable land tool development in West Africa, Emily Polack, Diana Fletchsner and Moussa Djire (2014), IIED Briefing paper | en Français

Donors

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Partners

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

Contact

Emily Polack (emily.polack@iied.org), senior researcher, IIIED's Natural Resources research group; International project coordinator

Lorenzo Cotula (lorenzo.cotula@iied.org), principal researcher, IIED's Natural Resources research group; Project director

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