By the FOLA team at WRI and Landesa

(Note: This commentary first appeared on the Land Portal Blog)

When Dutch traders purchased Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians for $24 in 1626, it was more than an unfair deal.  It was a collision of two different systems of property rights.  The shock waves of that collision, and the many injustices perpetrated in its course, are still felt by the descendants of dispossessed Native peoples across the Americas.  

But such collisions are not only a thing of the past.  They continue today, including in African countries where competition for land and natural resources is escalating; large-scale land acquisitions often lack transparency; and local people hold land largely under undocumented, customary tenure arrangements. As a result, the land and natural resource rights of hundreds of millions of people are tenuous.  Rural women are particularly at risk, as they must already contend with profound inequities in access and rights to land.

Across Africa, secure property rights are essential for food security, income generation, and prosperous communities. They are a critical, yet often overlooked, aspect of development. But until development initiatives understand, respect and help strengthen the rights of local people and communities to land and natural resources, sustainable development will remain a distant goal, and conflict will escalate.  

Fortunately, a growing body of experience points towards solutions.  A wave of land governance reform is underway, including reform of outdated laws, institutions and customs regarding land rights.  These changes ultimately impact everything from agricultural development, to women’s empowerment, children’s health, urban poverty, and environmental sustainability.  Whether on a national, local or landscape scale, innovations, experiments, failures, and successes have resulted. Examples abound:

  • In Loliondo, Tanzania, the Maasai people have turned back a government plan to establish a 1,500 square mile wildlife corridor, which would be off-limits to the Maasai and their cattle, but open to private big-game hunters. The Maasai are now working to clearly document their rights to this land, which borders the Serengeti National Park.
  • In Rwanda, a nationwide land titling program-based on the registration of virtually all individual land holdings in the country has given smallholder farmers the incentive to invest in their farms, increasing productivity and incomes.  The law recognizes customary land rights as well as equal land rights for women and men.
  • In Kenya, a new Constitution and land laws explicitly recognize that women have equal rights to land, and pilot projects are working to make this promise a reality for Kenyan women. Meanwhile, a Community Land Law is being developed to strengthen rights to land held in common by communities.
  • In Rivercress County, Liberia, a new land policy that would grant secure land rights to rural people has already encouraged women to plant life trees—rubber and plantain—that will bring needed income and add value to their farms (Ali Kaba, Talking Land).


Continent-wide, the Land Policy Initiative (LPI), a joint effort of the African Union Commission, the Economic Commission for Africa, and the African Development Bank, is building consensus around land rights issues. African Heads of State have committed to promoting the LPI’s Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa. And, internationally, the Committee for World Food Security endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure in May 2012. The G20, G8, some private sector companies, and others are now backing its implementation.

Momentum is growing to address land and natural resource rights within development contexts.  The issue is complex, and the exchange of knowledge and experience is critical. Focus on Land in Africa one resource through which the development community can share insights regarding land and natural resource rights in Africa.  

Whether you are new to the topic of land and natural resource rights, or a land tenure expert, we invite you to use, share and contribute to FOLA.  Together, the development community can find solutions that uphold the rights of local people and avoid the disastrous consequences that occur when property systems collide.

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