It is an age-old story in the developing world, one that rarely ends happily ever after. Communities without economic power that live off of land to which they do not “own” are devastated when their government transfers the property rights to wealthy outside interests, who exploit the natural resources. These land deals often result in chaos, strife, and large-scale human tragedy.
According to a new report and a series of issue briefs issued by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the majority of 1.4 billion hectares (approx. 5.4 million square miles) of uncultivated land in Africa are claimed by regional or national governments but are “held in common” and managed by local communities. Less than 2% of African forests, for example, are formally owned or administered by communities, leaving states free to hand out the remaining 98% in the name of economic development.
At least 428 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa rely on the land without holding Western-style legal ownership. As a result, when this land is sold or leased in the name of economic development, these communities lose their livelihoods. And according to experts, the pace of these deals has intensified lately.
“With the speed and scale of this surge into Africa in the last five years, the chief concern should be that investors are cutting deals with governments for land that really belongs to individual rural communities,” concluded international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, who wrote the reports. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner.”
The United Nations champions land rights and tenure key to addressing and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and points to the erosion of these rights as “an important driver of deforestation and unsustainable land management.” But this advocacy in internationals circles is often lost when development deals are struck.
“Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there is every reason to be concerned that conditions are ripe for new conflicts to occur in many other places,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programs for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Liberia’s recent land transactions, under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, present a perfect case study. Over the past five years, the Liberian government sold or leased more than one third of the country’s land to private investors for logging, mining, and agriculture. One recent transaction, with Sime Darby of Malaysia, provided a 63-year lease to develop 220,000 hectares of land for palm oil and rubber production.
After local residents filed an appeal to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international certification body whose stamp of approval is valued by the company, the company froze its operations and began meeting directly with the villagers. But President Sirleaf stepped in and ended these discussions, telling the communities that attempts to defend their land rights “undermined” the Liberian government.
“You don’t need guns to kill people,” said Alfred Brownell, an attorney and director of Liberia’s Green Advocates. “When you take food from a village by destroying farm lands and cash crops, you are starving its people. If you destroy their grave sites, poison their drinking water, obliterate their cultural heritage, divert their rivers, streams and creeks, there is no doubt you are removing an ethnically defined population from their land.”
Of the 35 African nations covered in RRI’s analyses, only nine received high marks with Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and South Sudan rated as having the strongest laws. But even in those countries, Alden Wily said, the laws are not respected in practice, and local communities are rarely included in negotiating the terms of a purchase or lease, even in countries where laws recognize such lands as private property.
South Sudan, for example, is not only the newest country in the world but one whose laws provide substantial protections for customary land rights. But the government signed deals for control of nine percent of the new nation’s lands even before announcing its independence, according to RRI’s report. With new agreements signed since 2011, the percentage is expected to be even higher, said David Deng, research director, South Sudan Law Society, South Sudan.
“Land was at the heart of the civil war in South Sudan,” said Deng, who spoke at a roundtable that RRI sponsored in releasing the reports last week. “And now, with independence, communities expect that the sacrifices that they made during the war will be repaid by recognizing the legitimacy of their customary land tenure. Anything less would undermine the nation’s fragile peace.”
“It’s tragic, since these conflicts between people and their governments, and risks to investors and development, can so easily be avoided,” said Andy White, Coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative. “We are hoping that the governments that gather in Rio de Janeiro for the UN conference on sustainability in June will respond to this potential, and quit handing out the peoples’ land and forests to outsiders.”