BlogField Focus Blog

Jan 16 2015

Cost-Effective Methods for Strengthening Land Rights in Africa

This post originally appeared on and

A growing population, changing weather patterns, and increased global demand for farmland affect the lives of people throughout Africa and make the security of their land rights more important than ever.

The governments of many countries are putting in place legal and institutional frameworks to ensure that their citizens, women and men, have secure land rights and can use the land to increase incomes and provide their families with adequate food and nutrition.

The enormity of this task, along with the implementation of pro-poor land laws and policies can seem overwhelming. It need not be.

Some have the mistaken belief that the problem of insecure land rights, especially in countries with precious little in the way of budgetary resources, is too big and too expensive to tackle. Not true! In Africa and elsewhere, a number of cost-effective ways to strengthen land rights have been proven successful and have dramatically improved people’s lives.

Four, in particular, stand out: 1) Bringing women into customary dispute-resolution bodies; 2) Training and using paralegals to assist the rural poor in the vindication of their land rights; 3) Distributing small house-and-garden micro-plots to the landless poor; and 4) Mobilizing new and low-cost technologies for land titling.

Bringing women into dispute resolution bodies

African countries must make better use of their human resources,including the existing 24,000 local customary justice institutions across the continent to protect and enforce women’s and men’s rights to land. The costs of removing barriers to justice are minimal; the potential gains are enormous.

Today rural women face many obstacles to accessing the formal justice system – including distance, costs, delays, and language barriers – that are hard to overcome. Yet customary institutions, which are in theory more accessible, may not adequately protect and enforce women’s land rights due to leaders’ limited understanding and application of those rights and protections, and cultural barriers and prejudices.

A pilot project in the Mau Forest of Kenya, with technical assistance from Landesa, found that with the right support, these institutions can be made far more accessible and supportive of women’s rights. By building the capacity of the customary justice system, particularly traditional elders, to understand, support, and enforce women’s land rights, women’s status in the community increased dramatically. Where previously there had been no female elders, within one year of the project fourteen women were elected to serve as elders and dispense traditional justice alongside thirty-six men1. The women elders brought a different perspective to dispute resolution, particularly in gender-related matters.

Similarly, barriers to justice were torn down in a Landesa project to strengthen women’s land rights in northern Uganda2. Landesa provided technical assistance for the training of Community Based Facilitators (CBFs), local residents willing and able to work with women in the community, as well as local and customary leaders, to address land-related conflicts and empower women to realize their rights to land.

The CBFs trained women in groups and individually, so that they could take the steps needed to achieve secure land rights. CBFs visited women and men in their homes, engaged customary leaders, and spoke on land rights at gatherings large and small. The result was a diminution of tensions, greater understanding of women’s land rights in the community, and improved land tenure security for women in the project. Of 51 land disputes pending in the local courts, 42 were able to be referred to mediation during one year of the project.

Training and using paralegals

In Africa, locally recruited community paralegals are often uniquely qualified to deal with land conflicts, as they know the local languages, stakeholders, and institutions.

Youthful, energetic and motivated, with a modest amount of training, paralegals can often provide a bridge between local modes of dispute resolution and the formal justice system, which may be difficult to access due to distance and cost, and whose case load is frequently backed up by months or even years.

Examples of strong work by paralegals can be found in many countries. In Sierra Leone, for example, the NGO Timap for Justice supports 58 paralegals in 19 offices spread throughout the country. These paralegals are trained in both the formal and customary justice systems. They use mediation to resolve disputes, and train others to be mediators.

One typical dispute involved the patriarch of the Lansana family in northern Sierra Leone. Pa Lansana had fertile land, mostly farmed by other families. Hard times, however, had left him without money. He therefore decided to collect rent from each family using his land in the form of five gallons of palm oil per harvest. Most families complied, but two did not, and these two were related to the paramount chief of the village. The chief ruled against Pa Lansana, and fined the impoverished 65-year-old for, among other things, “speaking out of turn.” That is when paralegal Michael Luseni from the local Timap office stepped in. Using his knowledge of the law, local customs, and some tactful advocacy, Michael helped Pa Lansana to prevail in the matter, and obtain his rents, without damaging his relations in the community3.

Through a similar program in Tanzania, the NGO Foundation for Civil Society funded the recent training of 50 village paralegals in the Bagamoyo township. The training raised legal awareness for implementation of the Village Land Act of 1999. Explained coordinator Daudi Mwemkulo, “We have been experiencing an increasing number of land conflicts not only between the farmers and pastoralists, but with investors as well. That is why we decided to impart the skills to the paralegals to assist them where possible to avert such conflicts4.”

Allocating micro-plots to the landless poor

With secure rights to a plot of land the size of a tennis court, otherwise landless families in developing countries can contribute substantially towards meeting their nutritional needs, including those for critical micronutrients, and even sell surplus production to supplement their income.

Apart from improving the food security of formerly landless people and helping to lift them out of extreme poverty, so-called micro-plots provide space for a home, physical security, and increased status in the community5. A woman’s name on the title gives her clout in family decision-making about home garden use and household food consumption, which in turn benefits the health, education, and future opportunities of both girls and boys in the family.

Farming families are coming to recognize that micro-plot crop production can be remarkably efficient. In the Transkeian coastal belt of South Africa, many farmers shifted from cultivation of maize in distant fields to intensive intercropping of maize and other food crops in fenced gardens adjacent to their homesteads. Research indicated that yields per unit area for the gardens were much higher than those for the fields6.

In another case, in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, micro-plots have helped to build successful businesses. Tilahun Metaferiya, a local entrepreneur, uses his 500-square-meter patch of land (1/20th of a hectare) to raise cabbage, onion, and tomato seedlings, which he sells to neighbors who previously had to rely on seed retailers providing an inferior product at an inflated price. Metaferiya’s micro-plot production thus benefits not only him and his family, but also his many smallholder farmer customers7, in a region which previously achieved wide-spread certification of smallholders’ rights to land.

Documenting land rights with mapping technology

Very large differences in budgetary costs to achieve essentially the same benefit can be found in such critical areas such as land surveying and description related to the issuance of titles and other documentation.

In Indonesia, for example, costs of small-parcel registration (10 parcels per hectare) could vary enormously, depending on the technology used. The cost of ground surveys was approximately eight times as expensive as surveys based on aerial photography, and more than 30 times as expensive as corrected surveys based on satellite imagery8.

GPS technology has the potential to facilitate the demarcation of community rights and reduce the cost of land surveys, mapping, and documentation around the world, including in Africa. On its own, however, this technology may not ensure that community rights are protected.

The NGO Namati, working in Liberia, Uganda and Mozambique, has found that a one-off GPS procedure without attention to governance issues can be counterproductive, leading to increased land alienation. Where such alienation is permitted, the problem is that unaccountable village leaders armed with a map can sell community land more easily. Therefore, land mapping must be accompanied by the development of intra-community mechanisms to ensure good governance, accountability of leaders, and protection of women’s land rights9. A moratorium on alienation in the first years after documentation can also help provide protection.


None of these methods for strengthening the land rights of the rural poor involve great costs. Moreover, all are field-tested, politically feasible, and have proven effective in providing the rural poor with that critical tool they need to climb out of poverty – land rights.

What is needed now is action – setting priorities and scaling up these and other innovative methods to provide secure land rights for women and men across African countries.

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