In March 2014, Elke Matthaei, a PhD candidate at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, interviewed four out of five adults living in the Omahalya Village in the Omusati Region in Namibia, to understand how local people view registration and its impacts. Find their views below.
Although Namibia is a middle-income country, with extensive mineral resources bolstering a high per capita income, the country has the highest income disparity in the world. Some 70 percent of Namibians live on and off the country’s communal land, where subsistence farming and livestock rearing on the mostly arid land produces food, but rarely income.
Seeking to sustainably allocate, develop and manage natural resources in communal areas, the Government of Namibia passed the Communal Land Reform Act (CLRA) in 2002. The law establishes State ownership of all communal lands, which are administered by Traditional Authorities who can allocate and revoke land rights to individuals or families according to customary laws. The Act also established Communal Land Boards (CLBs) that are tasked with ensuring the procedures land registration are followed in accordance with the Act.
Any citizen of Namibia can apply to have a communal land right registered in his or her name. Improved legal rights and secured access to land are particularly important for women and marginalised population groups.
Once a land plot is granted under the Communal Land Reform Act, certificates guarantee the use of the land in perpetuity, and the right to inherit land. The holder of a land right certificate can transfer that right to others, or leave it to the surviving spouse or dependents as an inheritance, or relinquish it to the Traditional Authority.
Secure, documented land rights established under the law aim to encourage investment in land by subsistence farmers, reduce land grabbing and land conflicts, improve food security, and ultimately reduce poverty through better incomes and access to credit.
Of an estimated 245,000 communal land parcels that are envisaged to be registered, 160,000 parcels have been mapped, and thereof 82,000 parcels have been registered with certificates issued since 2003 (status: August 2014).
Views of Land Registration in Omahalya Village
“Land is our most valued asset. If I didn’t have this piece of land, I would have nowhere to go and settle. I wouldn’t have animals and even a house if I didn’t have a piece of land.” -- Villager in Omahalya
Omahalya Village is located in the Omusati Region in north-central Namibia, one of the five poorest regions in Namibia. Rural communal areas and conservancies make up over 90 percent of the entire region.
Here, people farm, raise livestock and practice freshwater fish farming when the rains allow, thus allowing for an additional source of income for many- especially during the wet season.
With 240,900 inhabitants in this Region, the population density of 9.1 persons per square kilometre is significantly higher than the national average of 2.6. Nine different traditional authorities lead the region. The average parcel size is 9.8 hectares.
Of an estimated 54,000 Communal Land parcels (land that is not privately owned, and that can be used for residential and/or residential unit), 55 percent have been mapped and had their land boundaries and GPS coordinates entered into the computerized National Communal Land Administration System, and 30 percent have been registered and certificates issued. The government envisions that by the end of 2014 all land parcels will be mapped in Omusati, which will facilitate and speed-up the registration process.
Omahalya village consists of about 50 households, most of which depend on their land for food security and on access to the commonage for grazing their cattle. The villagers mostly plant maize, mahangu (pearl millet), beans and sorghum, only selling their produce on the rare occasions when they have a surplus beyond their immediate needs. Most people living in this region own livestock, usually large animals such as Nguni cattle or donkeys.
Connection to the Land
“Having land is very important. How do you survive if you don’t have land and are not able to feed your family and your cattle?” Joseph, resident of Omahalya
Like most Namibians living in the communal areas, the villagers from Omahalya place great value on their land.
Traditionally, people living in communal areas sought to protect their land rights through oral or informal written agreements with the Traditional Authority. Today, only a minority of households feel that this customary way of protecting their rights is better than a legally certified right.
Value of Registration
Since land is regarded as a vital asset, most villagers from Omahalya welcomed the registration of their land parcels, and say that, once registered, their land rights are more secure than before.
As Demitilie explains: “It’s like when you are born and don’t have a birth certificate, you always feel insecure because you have no real identification. Not having a land rights certificate feels the same.”
Hilma, a mother of a big family, also feels more secure after registering her land parcel: “The certificate has boosted our confidence. We are now sure we can live on this land and are secure here, so we know our hard labor and the money we have invested here cannot be lost. If you are always worried that someone will take away your land, you might not put in as much labor as the land deserves, so you will not have big crop harvests.”
Protection from Land Grabbing & Conflicts
“For the first time since moving here, I feel really safe, knowing that nobody can ever harass me about my land. I can show them the certificate if they do, and if they continue harassing me, I can go to the Traditional Authority or Ministry for help.” -- Woman in Omahalya
Registration is seen as especially important because settlements and towns are rapidly expanding into communal areas, causing a general fear amongst communal farmers since at least a few such incidences have already been reported. Increasing population pressure in communal areas also means that demand for land is drastically increasing, often leading to corruption and unlawful allocation of land.
Since the introduction of Communal Land rights registration, the number of land disputes has decreased and decisions regarding land disputes are made more quickly and fairly.
Most disputes in the village concern the size of land parcels and their boundaries. Such disputes can now be solved quickly, since the boundaries and corresponding GPS coordinates are clearly shown on the certificate.
Disputes arising from corruption have also decreased due to registration. As Joseph explains: “If someone wants land, you approach the headman [who is part of the traditional authority structure] who will come with representatives from the village as witnesses to demarcate your land parcel. This is still the procedure for getting a land parcel, however the difference is that now your parcel boundaries do not depend on verbal agreements, you have to adhere to your boundaries as indicated on your certificate, and the witnesses cannot turn against you due to bribes.”
Investing in Their Land
"I always wanted to invest in my farm, but after getting my certificate I now have proof it belongs to me and nobody can take my land away from me. Now I am much more willing to spend my savings on my land than before.” -- Man in Omahalya Village
The sense of tenure security Omahalya villagers get from land rights registration has encouraged them to invest more in their land. Nearly 38 percent of villagers said they had spent more money on infrastructure and 25 percent have reported increased agricultural productivity since registering their land rights.
An elderly man describes how an improved sense of security has helped him invest in his land: “Every farmer dreams of improving his farm. This land was given to me by my family and I want to take good care of it. Having a certificate has influenced my decision to construct a permanent building (of bricks) on my piece of land. I always wanted to invest in my farm, but after getting my certificate I now have proof it belongs to me and nobody can take my land away from me. Now I am much more willing to spend my savings on my land than before.”
Women’s Empowerment and Land Registration
“I don’t have a job, so having this land means I can sustain myself and my children,” -- Single mother in Omahalya Village
The land registration and certification process has also contribution considerably towards women’s empowerment in the village. The Ministry has recognised women’s individual land rights and women’s land rights within the family and marital system through joint registration of rights that previously were only vested in men in the CLRA. Previously, a woman’s husband or another male family member had to sign the registration form when a woman wanted to apply for a land right certificate. However, as of 2013 a woman can apply for a land rights certificate in her own name, regardless of her marital status.
Today, widows are also treated differently under the law. In many places it is customary for the man’s family to reclaim his land parcel after his death, often leaving the wife and children destitute and without shelter. The CLRA addresses this inheritance issue by providing that on registered land the wife and children are now the legitimate heirs upon the death of the man.
The widows and other women from the village are relieved by this provision. As one widow explains, “It is us women who work the hardest on the land—we raise our children, ensure that traditional values are passed on and cultivate the fields. So why are we the most vulnerable ones who get chased off the land first when our husbands die? At least now with a certificate we can enjoy what we have worked so hard for until we are very old.”
As another widow put it: “If you have land you can become self-sufficient and don’t have to depend on others for food.”
While the new inheritance provision seems to be generally accepted by men and women, some evidence suggests that cultural traditions and social norms still hamper the access of younger women to land, and that younger single women can face difficulties in getting their applications approved in more conservative areas of the country.
One area that needs more attention is the land held in common for the community. Under the CLRA, Traditional Authorities administer rights to use the commonage. Access to the commonage is vital, since many residents of communal areas depend on the natural resources found there, including grazing lands. If a commonage area does not have a legal status such as a community forest or conservancy, it is the role of the area’s Traditional Authorities to ensure that the commonage is used sustainably.
However, in all parts of the country, the commonages are dwindling in both quantity (allocation of land rights in areas that form part of the commonage; illegally fencing off parts of the commonage) and quality (overgrazing, deforestation etc.). It is within the powers of the Traditional Authorities to address these issues and to report them, since the violation of rules regarding the commonages does constitute a criminal offence. However, Traditional Authorities rarely make use of their powers in this regards and thus the management of the commonages remains a concern. There are currently debates in Namibia on how best to protect the commonages, for example, through the development and enforcement of area-specific grazing-management plans at village level.
Omahalya village is a promising example of the benefits of Communal Land rights registration. The villagers feel safer on their land, invest more, have fewer conflicts and more equitable inheritance. While land rights registration alone will not bring prosperity to communal areas, it does bring additional social stability and cohesion to communal areas, and has already significantly improved the lives of the households in Omahalya village.
Dienst, J. 2011. Integration of Customary and Modern Land tenure: Communal Land Boards-Experiences from Botswana and Namibia.
Thiem, M. 2014. A Decade of Communal Land Reform in Namibia: Review and Lessons Learnt, with a Focus on Communal Land Rights Registration. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH,