Innovations et Réseaux pour le Développement
Development Innovations and Networks
Innovación y redes para el desarrollo

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Securing Land Rights in Africa

Across the continent, insecure rights to land are robbing millions of financial stability and long-term prosperity. While new technology is giving people the tools to define what’s theirs, governments must recognize that certainty of ownership is a prerequisite of sustainable development.

WASHINGTON, DC – Earlier this month, Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf warned that Africa would continue to be stalked by poverty, hunger, and famine until governments provide smallholder farmers with secure rights to land. She was speaking from experience, both personal and political.

Sirleaf and her tiny West African country are perfect examples of the steep toll that insecure land rights take on individuals, communities, and countries. Disputes over land ownership were a key driver of Liberia’s bloody 14-year civil war. And overlapping claims to land continue to foment conflict and impede foreign investment. Not even the president is immune to weak land-tenure laws ; squatters invaded a four-acre parcel that Sirleaf bought in 1979, and refused to move for years.

Stories like these can be heard across the continent. According to the World Bank, more than 90% of Africa’s rural land is undocumented. Overlapping and conflicting land-management systems are the norm, as are inaccessible, out-of-date, incomplete, inaccurate, or nonexistent land records. But while dysfunctional systems of land tenure have no doubt cost African governments millions in foreign investment, they have hurt African farmers most directly.

Africa’s small family farmers – already burdened by soil degradation, climate change, and resource competition fueled by surging populations – face an even more challenging bureaucratic hurdle : no paper to prove that the land they call home is theirs. Uncertain of their ability to control their farms into the next season, farmers’ planning horizons shrink. Instead of investing in terraced fields, planting trees, and buying high-quality fertilizer, Africa’s farmers seek to maximize short-term profits. This is particularly true of female farmers, who face an additional thicket of discriminatory land laws and customs.

Studies show there is no way to reduce poverty, improve nutrition, or achieve other key development goals without strengthening land rights, especially for women. Secure rights to land are simply a prerequisite of development.

In Tanzania, women with secure rights earn three times more than their landless counterparts. In Nepal, children whose mothers have secure land rights are 33% more likely to be well nourished. And in Zambia, in areas where women’s land rights are weak and HIV infection rates are high, women are less likely to make investments to improve harvests – even when their husbands are not HIV positive. These women anticipate that they will be forced off their land if and when they are widowed, and that expectation depresses farm investment, affecting harvests and family nutrition for years.

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