Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Tackling land questions: Searching for systematic solutions amid a web of politics

Across the world, access to land and related resources are probably our most hotly contested political issues: who does the land belong to, who has the right to access the land, who gets to make decisions about land use, and who is barred from the land are tied to people’s history, culture and ability to pursue decent livelihoods.

In an effort to reduce contestation, most countries have developed complex systems of laws to govern land, some with more success than others. But for many African countries these are still open questions — with different systems of land governance, chosen and imposed, clashing, as countries try to keep space for traditional, customary land practices, grapple with the land legacies of the colonial era, while trying to make land systems that are legible to and compatible with globalised capital.

Amid these tensions, the inaugural Conference on Land Policy in Africa started on Tuesday 11 November 2014 at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Contradictions abound: UN and World Bank aficionados praising the technical solutions many African countries are beginning to find, and the compatibility of these new systems with the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, while the reality ‘large scale land investments’ hit home with many African communities facing devastating land loss as a result.

And yet, there are some innovative solutions to addressing land questions. For example in Uganda, women have started coming together to actively contest customary and legislated land rights, as a group demanding attention and access with some success, as discussed by Joyce Nangobi from Slum Women Initiative for Development (SWID). Or the Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM) being used in Uganda, Zambia and Kenya to determine land rights. The model involves training and working with local people to mark off existing land plots using GIS and aerial photography, alongside community mapping, while also facilitating participatory processes among different stakeholders to negotiate and determine land rights locally.

What these innovations show is that technocratic top-down solutions are not the answer; whatever land rights are ultimately determined need to arise out of local relations, and governments need to become much more adept in navigating the local, taking cognisance of the particularities of each environment. This is not without challenges: whatever land rights are ultimately determined there will be winners and losers, so even when systematic solutions are found, they will still be political, open to change and contestation.

Determining the future of land in Africa cannot be a final solution — contestations will be ongoing, but if governments become more listening, more participatory and more responsive to the needs of people to access land, perhaps the solutions can be more equitable. Such approaches are not without their challenges — complexity being chief among them, but it is likely that negotiated processes can hold up against the tide of pressure to simply sell off land to the highest bidder — if there is political will.

By Rebecca Pointer, PLAAS

This post originally appeared on the PLAAS blog.