Land Tenure, Property Rights, and Rural Economic Development in Africa

Since the price spikes of 2008 and the renewed interest in smallholder agriculture as an engine for poverty reduction, land tenure has again become an issue of focus for the development community, especially in the rural areas of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Some development experts argue that strengthening the property rights of the rural poor leads to increased investment and contributes to economic growth and more equitable development. Recent innovations in cadastral survey techniques, for example, can facilitate this process, making it more transparent, cheaper, and accessible to the rural poor.

Others note that securing rights to land is only one intervention that contributes to growth and investment and that too much emphasis on land rights does not necessarily increase land tenure security or promote land improvements and expand productivity. They warn that determining property rights alone can present opportunities for individuals with more financial resources and political connections to take advantage of the rural poor, particularly women, and lead to large concentrations of land and inequitable development.

Q1: What are land tenure, property rights, and land tenure security?

A1: Land tenure is the set of rules that determines how land is used, possessed, leveraged, sold, or in other ways disposed of within societies. These rules may be established by the state or by custom, and rights may accrue to individuals, families, communities, or organizations. The customary rules of land tenure predominate in Africa and may or may not be recognized by the state. In cases such as Ethiopia and Mozambique, the nations’ land belongs to the state. Recently these governments have begun granting land use rights for an extended period of time to smallholders. These rights are registered in national databases.

Often, however, there are ambiguities within and between the customary and statutory systems, partly due to inaccurate and incomplete records. Land property rights are registered to individuals, families, or organizations for the land they occupy or use informally or under customary law. Tenure security refers to the assurance that the land one owns or holds for an agreed period of time or purpose is certain. Tenure security requires property rights that are clear in purpose and duration and accepted as legitimate and legal.

Q2: Are property rights a boon or a barrier to rural economic development?

A2: Tenure security rather than just property rights is the linchpin to rural economic development. Obtaining secure property rights is critical to smallholder development and equitable growth. With a system of property rights that is viewed as legitimate, smallholders can use their claim for collateral for agricultural inputs, improvements, innovations, and expansion of their enterprises.
To achieve tenure security, however, property rights are only effective when combined with other measures, such as affordable access to legal services, trustworthy land administration, and honest, fair, and gender-neutral enforcement and judicial systems. Without these additional conditions, property rights alone have minimal impact on land tenure security and the commitment of smallholders, particularly women, to invest in improvements or innovations.

One caution is that as property rights become acknowledged in the formal land market without these other elements, property often becomes easier to acquire by large landowners and enterprises. In general, property rights in conjunction with equitable administrative and judicial systems can be a boon to a country’s rural development but on their own can become a barrier.

Q3: Have recent cadastral innovations improved land management systems and made property rights more secure?

A3: Advances in spatial data systems have led to improvements in cadastral land surveys and land management systems. Current paper-based land information systems often suffer from lost or misplaced documents and spotty and inconsistent record keeping. These systems are seldom integrated nationwide and fail to detect multiple, overlapping, or ambiguous land claims. These uncertainties tend to reduce individual investments in property development or innovations. Moreover, because the system is unreliable, even titled land is usually not acceptable collateral. With geospatial digital cadastral systems, including maps and diagrams, many of these information failures can be overcome. Geospatially based land management systems can be more precise about property rights and community boundaries and can eliminate many disputes between customary and statutory law. Digital land records can be indexed, simplified, and made available at the national and local levels.

Land administrations in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and several other African countries, for example, have turned to geospatial cadastral surveys to create more accurate nationwide land tenure systems. While these innovations have not solved all the problems associated with property rights, geospatial cadastral surveys will enable land registration to become more transparent, reliable, and accessible to all land owners at all income levels.

Q4: Do property rights improve or exacerbate gender inequality?

A4: Secure property rights offer a way forward for the majority of the developing world’s smallholders—mostly women—to achieve independence and begin to escape poverty. Women, however, own less than 1 percent of the land in Africa. Customary law focuses property rights on men or kinship groups dominated by men, and thus the ability of women to claim or inherit land is extremely limited. While statutory law may be gender neutral, customary law prevails and is based on a patriarchal system.
Securing property rights for women is crucial to the economic development of Africa. Studies have shown that women smallholders are more effective and entrepreneurial than men and that they more often use their earnings to improve their enterprises, provide health care for their families, improve their families’ nutrition, and ensure their children’s education.

Land rights for women are particularly important in areas with high incidences of HIV/AIDS. In these environments, there are greater numbers of female-headed households. Research shows that widows are the most likely sector of society to lose their land and other assets, further disadvantaging them and their children.

Property rights by themselves, however, will not help achieve the goal of securing land tenure for women. For property rights to improve gender equality, legal services and reforms must be available; national and especially local institutions must include women in land management and allocation decisions and in dispute resolution mechanisms to build social legitimacy for the role of women; and the institutions’ actions and decisions be must transparent, seen as legitimate, and be accorded legality.

Q5: Are there examples where progress is being made in Africa in property rights administration?

A5: The focus on property rights and the role of women is growing throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Progress is being made in decentralizing land management organizations and in rationalizing customary and statutory laws in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Zambia. Ghana has established Customary Land Secretariats that include training programs in record keeping and dispute resolution, and women are a special focus of these programs. Uganda and Tanzania have gone beyond most countries in decentralizing their land tenure administrations and establishing regional and community land management administrations. They have also introduced innovative education and training programs and workshops on adjudication and dispute resolution mechanisms. Women are being integrated into all levels and aspects of the land management enterprise.

William J. Garvelink is a senior adviser with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

William J. Garvelink