Wed, Oct 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Securing land rights in Africa key to achieving development

By Frank Pichel

Earlier this month, Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf warned that Africa would continue to be stalked by poverty, hunger and famine until governments provide smallholder farmers with secure rights to land.

She was speaking from experience, both personal and political.

Johnson Sirleaf and her tiny West African nation are perfect examples of the steep toll that insecure land rights take on individuals, communities and nations.

Disputes over land ownership were a key driver of Liberia’s bloody 14-year civil war, and overlapping claims to land continue to foment conflict and impede foreign investment.

Not even the president is immune to weak land-tenure laws; squatters invaded a 1.6 hectare parcel that Johnson Sirleaf bought in 1979 and refused to move for years.

Stories like these can be heard across the continent. According to the World Bank, more than 90 percent of Africa’s rural land is undocumented. Overlapping and conflicting land-management systems are the norm, as are inaccessible, out-of-date, inaccurate or nonexistent land records.

However, while dysfunctional systems of land tenure have no doubt cost African governments millions in foreign investment, they have hurt African farmers most directly.

Africa’s small family farmers — already burdened by soil degradation, climate change and resource competition fueled by surging populations — face an even more challenging bureaucratic hurdle: no paper to prove that the land they call home is theirs. Uncertain of their ability to control their farms into the next season, farmers’ planning horizons shrink. Instead of investing in terraced fields, planting trees and buying high-quality fertilizer, Africa’s farmers seek to maximize short-term profits. This is particularly true of female farmers, who face an additional thicket of discriminatory land laws and customs.

Studies show there is no way to reduce poverty, improve nutrition or achieve other key development goals without strengthening land rights, especially for women. Secure rights to land are simply a prerequisite of development.

In Tanzania, women with secure rights earn three times more than their landless counterparts. In Nepal, children whose mothers have secure land rights are 33 percent more likely to be well-nourished. And in Zambia, in areas where women’s land rights are weak and HIV infection rates are high, women are less likely to make investments to improve harvests — even when their husbands are not HIV positive.

These women anticipate that they will be forced off their land if and when they are widowed, and that expectation depresses farm investment, affecting harvests and family nutrition for years.

Given that there are 400 million female farmers, such findings suggest the high global costs — measured in terms of lost productivity and unrealized economic potential — of insecure land rights for women.

In Africa, the signs of insecure land rights are literally etched into the landscape. In some regions, poor recordkeeping and weak administrative structures have forced landowners to post notices in their fields or on their homes, warning prospective buyers that they may be duped into purchasing parcels from people who are not the legitimate owners.

Communities with clear legal control over land manage those resources more assiduously than those with shaky tenure. The same can be said for individuals. In Ghana, farmers with strong land rights are 39 percent more likely to plant trees. In Ethiopia, farmers are 60 percent more likely to invest in preventing soil erosion when they have secure rights to their plots.

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