by Rhodri C. Williams
In a post late last month, I delved into the problem of ‘public/state land’ and the opportunity that this overwhelmingly post-colonial tenure form presents for state predation in a context of spiraling commodity prices. In taking on such a broad and complicated topic, I am afraid I may have oversimplified things. Toward the end of the piece, I noted Shaun Williams’ suggestion (in an earlier TN post) that focusing on effective management of urban public land was likely to be both more feasible and more rewarding than dealing with customary tenure issues for low capacity governments interested in reforming their land systems. Shaun’s insight on the relative tractability of public land issues was reinforced by Erica Harper’s previous description of the difficulties inherent in implementing – or even generalizing about – reform of customary law systems.
All that said, having pushed the ‘publish’ button, I reflected on the fact that this dichotomy between state and customary tenure regimes might be a bit too pat, at least as a global generalization. After all, Shaun’s comments were focused on urban land and the particular context of the Solomon Islands. Was it not actually the case that in rural contexts, in particular, the problem was precisely that the two categories overlapped, with both the state and customary communities essentially ignoring each other’s mutually exclusive claims to the same land until they came into direct conflict? By and large, this seems to be the issue, with the maintenance of public land regimes allowing inchoate colonial era mass-expropriations to be projected into the twenty-first century with a veneer of legality.
This sense of things got a significant boost with the launch last week of a new report – Turning Point: What future for forest peoples and resources in the emerging world order? – by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). As indicated in the launch webpage, RRI has traditionally been concerned primarily with forest tenure. However, this report, as well as an accompanying set of issue briefs by Liz Alden Wily, reflect the fact that forest land now faces many of the same pressures as other rural land, and that the tenure rights of forest dwellers are no more secure than those of smallholders anywhere. The basic issues at stake are set out starkly in the RRI’s press release on the report:
In presenting the results of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, by international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, [RRI Global Programs Head Jeffrey] Hatcher noted that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.” Alden Wily’s review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting “a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner,” Alden Wily concluded.
The launch of the RRI report was accompanied by a panel discussion describing the effect of large-scale land investments and concessions in a number of settings. One of these was South Sudan, and it is a pleasure to announce that the corresponding observations, by David Deng, will be reproduced in the form of a guest posting on TN tomorrow.
Those familiar with the increasingly urgent debates surrounding the ‘global land rush’ will be aware that Mr. Deng authored a report published last March by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) indicating that as much as nine percent of South Sudan’s territory – an area larger than Rwanda – may have been ‘spoken for’ before the country came into formal existence. Mr. Deng was also one of the contributors to a massive study on transnational land deals and human rights undertaken by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) in support of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He is now Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society.