Big Men, Small Lands: owning property in Africa

Evictions are almost routine for the Ogiek,  a group of around 80,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers who have suffered repeated expulsions since being moved by the British colonial government in the 1930s. Yet this one still came as a surprise: the community is in the middle of negotiating a settlement with the local government that should see formal recognition of its right to live, graze livestock and forage on land it has inhabited for centuries.

In all rich countries, property rights are secure. Formal, legal title makes it easier to buy, sell and develop land. Buyers can be confident that the seller really has the right to sell what he is selling. Owners can use their property as collateral, perhaps borrowing money to buy fertiliser and better seeds. Legally recognising land ownership has boosted farmers’ income and productivity in Latin America and Asia.

But not yet in Africa. More than two-thirds of Africa’s land is still under customary tenure, with rights to land rooted in communities and typically neither written down nor legally recognised. In 31 of Africa’s 54 countries, less than 5% of rural land is privately owned. So giving peasants title to their land seems like an obvious first step towards easing African rural poverty.

However, it has proven extremely hard. Rwanda, for example, rolled out a programme over three years, whereby local surveyors worked with land owners and their neighbours to demarcate and register 10.3m parcels of land.,,,But even a relatively well-organised place like Rwanda has had problems keeping records up to date when land is sold or inherited.

In Kenya a large-scale titling programme was carried out in colonial times and carried over to independence. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his cronies bought the huge estates of white settlers who left. But the system is costly and ill-run. Most Kenyans cannot afford to update titles, and the government has not maintained the registry. Recognising land rights, whether customary or titled, needs to be done as cheaply and simply as possible, says Ruth Meinzen-Dick of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “The more you increase the cost, the more likely it is that urban elites and men with more ed

Being able to prove you own your land may be a necessary condition for using it as collateral, but a title deed does not guarantee that anyone will lend you money. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two economists, observe in their book “Poor Economics” (2011), banks need a lot more information to judge borrowers’ creditworthiness and be sure of repayment. And the administrative costs of offering very small loans to very small farmers, even those with collateral, are often prohibitive.

And legal property rights offer less protection in countries where big men can flout the law with impunity—a particular problem in Africa.  In recent years land grabs have sometimes made a mockery of customary ownership.

Excerpt from Land ownership: Title to come, Economist, July 16, 2016

 

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