Traditional authorities need a clearer role in land governance

Traditional authorities in Zambia complain that the government does not consult them when land is allocated for investment projects, while communities say chiefs are neglecting their interests. Jesinta Kunda of Zambia Land Alliance says more clarity is needed on the role of traditional authorities, in law and practice, to ensure large-scale investments in agriculture, mining and other sectors are governed better – particularly in light of the rising demand for critical minerals found in Zambia. She urges the government, traditional leaders and citizens to seize the opportunities presented by current legal reforms in Zambia to create change.

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Insight by 
Jesinta Kunda
Jesinta Kunda is a programme officer with the Zambia Land Alliance
29 April 2024
Men sitting at a conference table.

Members of the House of Chiefs discussing Zambia's National Land Policy at a meeting organised by Zambia Land Alliance (Photo: Jesinta Kunda, ZLA)

Zambia’s government is keen to profit from the growing demand for critical minerals such as copper and manganese. Many of these minerals are found on customary land, spotlighting the role of chiefs in signing off investments, monitoring extraction and securing community benefits.

Zambia’s constitution prescribes a dual land tenure system. State land is administered by the government, while customary land is administered by chiefs. At independence, 94% of Zambia was customary land, but much of this has since been converted to state land. 

Zambia’s laws and policies broadly provide for sustainable and responsible governance of land and natural resources, but there is an implementation gap leading to severe environmental and social challenges arising from many large projects in agriculture, mining and other sectors.

There is a significant lack of clarity around the roles of traditional authorities in the governance of land-based investments, and this may be behind many of the conflicts arising.

Zambia’s 1995 Lands Act is now under review and presents a major opportunity for the government, traditional authorities and key stakeholders to better delineate their roles in land-based investment governance. The government has also reignited discussions on reforming the ‘customary land legal framework’ and legislation on minerals, which could significantly enhance the role of traditional leaders in land-based investment.

When land-based investment goes wrong  

In the chiefdoms governed by Chief Shaibila, Chief Muchinda, Chief Kapijimpanga and Chief Mumena, where the ALIGN project operates, mining and agriculture investments have not been responsible – to the detriment of human rights and the environment.

Community members have reported losing land with minimal or no compensation, the clearing of trees and vegetation, chemical pollution of streams, roads being damaged by heavy vehicles, mining companies leaving large open pits filled with water and mining activities causing water scarcity. 

Communities say that when challenged, investors point to the revenues they pay to the government – implicating the government as the responsible actor for maintaining infrastructure.

The processes for negotiating compensation are highly contested by communities – particularly the power imbalance inherent in negotiating directly with an investor. One community member provided evidence showing that he had signed off his land for K600 (US$22) in compensation.

Under the Villages Act, traditional leaders are responsible for ensuring that community members’ rights are protected. Yet community members complain of being left out of investor consultations. The one-step process for chiefs to approve investments means communities have little opportunity to respond to proposals. 

Some community members suspect that their traditional leaders are the ones selling land to investors at the expense of their subjects’ rights, leading to a loss of trust.

Proactive traditional leaders

Traditional leaders were instrumental in formulating the 2021 National Land Policy. With the support of ZLA, they reviewed the draft policy until its adoption. 

Some traditional leaders recognise their duty to ensure responsible investment in their chiefdoms. For example, Chief Shaibila of Mkushi district reported on the dam project he was pursuing for the Mkushi River to provide year-round water access.

Others, such as Senior Chief Kopa and Chief Mumena, have established ‘chiefdom trusts’, a mechanism through which an investor can channel an agreed percentage of revenue to fund livelihood improvements for community members.

Challenges in fulfilling duties

However, traditional leaders say they face many challenges when trying to ensure investors operate responsibly. 

Most investments are on customary land, but each customary/traditional territory has a different chief, and there is no system for them to speak to one another. That means there is no overview of what investment is happening, where and when until it happens – which is too late.

During meetings convened by ZLA, chiefs have emphasised that they are not consulted when land is allocated to investors. When investments come to chiefs for approval, they have already been given formal approval at the national level. Often, the first chiefs hear about investments is during the administrative process of converting the land from customary land to state land – at which point they are under pressure to consent. 

Chiefs have little power to reject decisions made by the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and the Zambia Development Agency, as the government says these organisations’ decisions are in the national interest. 

Chiefs expressed their discontent about investors gaining rights to exploit mineral resources at the expense of local communities. They say investors are polluting water, destroying roads and getting land from the people. 

Chiefs can’t effectively participate in the monitoring and management of investment projects on their land because they are not included in the investment process from the outset; they are informed late about technical processes like environmental impact assessments; these processes are often in technical language they do not understand, and their role in the investment licencing process is generally not defined.

Ways forward

Chiefs in Zambia have a critical role in ensuring that people’s land, water and food rights are not compromised by economic development. They have a duty and responsibility to the environment.

Fulfilling these duties is only possible if they are consulted and can participate in the allocation of land to investors and the investment process. Chiefs must prioritise the rights and livelihoods of their subjects when they take decisions pertaining to land.

The government must bring traditional leaders to the decision-making table so that sustainable and collective decisions are made for the benefit of both the nation and individual citizens. 

Chiefs must take advantage of the current legal and policy reforms to advocate for provisions that strengthen their voice at the decision-making table. Only then can they ensure that investments in their chiefdoms promote economic growth and safeguard community resilience and livelihoods. 

This will include enshrining principles of free, prior and informed consent and corporate social responsibility in law to give these principles legal recognition and ensure chiefs have the authority to enforce them.

ALIGN in Zambia is seeking to tackle these issues head-on, but the challenges surrounding the role of traditional authorities in dual-tenure systems are complex and wide-ranging. Follow the discussions by watching this webinar on African traditional authorities and land investment governance.

About the author

Jesinta Kunda is a programme officer (policy advocacy and communication) with the Zambia Land Alliance 

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