People in a field in Ghana

Growing interest in land for commercial farming and urban expansion threatens to push many poor, rural Ghanaian farmers off of the land they depend on for their livelihoods.

In December 2012, a rural chief in the Ashanti Region of Ghana sold his community’s cemetery, cocoa, citrus and food crop farms to outsiders, leaving local families bereft and without the sources of their livelihoods. The chief was unable to account for the income of the land sales and those that had lost their farms were not compensated.

Such issues are not new in Ghana, where weaknesses in land governance have allowed some corrupt local leaders to benefit from rising land values at the expense of their community members.

In Ghana, land is governed by a pluralistic tenure system of statutory and customary laws. Under statutory law, communal lands vest in customary authorities. Chiefs are the trustees of the land, and are obligated to manage the land for the benefit of their people, who share a common ancestry and historical relationship with the land. While this would seemingly preclude transactions that are driven by the desire for personal gain, chiefs’ rights to transact in lands within their jurisdiction are not explicit in either statutory or customary law.

Chiefs’ rights to administer communal land have been subject to significant reinterpretation in response to rising population pressures, growing demand from commercial investors and consequent increases in land values. Some chiefs have utilized the legal ambiguity and their position of authority to sell or lease community lands to outsiders for personal gain, leading to the dispossession of small-scale farmers.  The problem is particularly acute in rapidly developing peri-urban areas and in fertile rural areas.

The passage and enforcement of statutory laws that clearly limit the rights of chiefs to unilaterally sell or lease communal land to outsiders could help protect the rights of smallholders. Without harmonized customary and statutory land policies, chiefs will likely be able to continue selling or leasing land to the detriment of their community members.