by Rachael Knight
Rachael Knight is the Program Director of the Community Land Protection Program at Namati, a new global legal empowerment organization, and author of its recent report on community land titling. She previously served as Director of the International Development Law Organization’s (IDLO) Community Land Titling Initiative, working to document and protect the customary land rights of indigenous groups in Uganda, Liberia and Mozambique.
For billions of rural people, land is their greatest asset: the source of food and water, the site of their livelihoods, and the locus of history, culture, and community. Yet more than ever, rural land is in demand. In recent years, governments in Africa have been granting vast land concessions to foreign investors for agro-industrial enterprises and forestry and mineral exploitation. According to recent data, transactions covering at least 57,393,083 hectares of land have been granted or are under negotiation. Often, governments grant concessions with the goal of stimulating development and strengthening the national economy. Yet such concessions are further exacerbating trends of growing land scarcity and weakening the land tenure security of rural communities.
Even when communities welcome private investment, they may not be consulted about the terms of the investment, properly compensated for their losses, or given a say in land management after the investment is launched. Alternatively, such investments may be undertaken in ways that lead to environmental degradation, human rights violations, loss of livelihoods, and inequity. In this context, protections for rural communities and their lands are urgently needed.
In some countries, national laws allow communities to register or title their lands as a whole and then manage their land according to local needs and interests. Such community land documentation processes – which document the perimeter of the community according to customary boundaries – are a low-cost, efficient and equitable way of protecting communities’ customary land claims. Community land documentation efforts not only protect large numbers of families’ lands at once, but also the the forests, water bodies, and grazing areas that rural communities depend on to survive and are often the first to be allocated to investors, claimed by elites, and appropriated for state development projects. Importantly, formal recognition of their customary land claims gives communities critical leverage in negotiations with potential investors.
However, because these laws transfer control over valuable lands and resources away from the state and into the hands of the community members themselves, governments have so far dragged their heels in implementing them. For example, in the 14 years since the passage of Uganda’s Land Act (1998), not one Ugandan community has yet gained title to its customary lands.