Conflicts over land and threats to customary tenure in Africa today: Part Two

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malawiIn the second blog of this two-part series, Pauline Peters argues that ‘land grabs’ in Africa, and the debates that surround them, have only reinforced the political importance of relations around land in the continent. Those who hold customary tenure are particularly vulnerable to foreign investors, she explains. However, whilst we need to analyse the role of foreign investors in these land grabs, we must not forget the crucial role played by public and private actors at a national level. Pauline Peters retired from Harvard’s teaching faculty and is now Faculty Fellow, CID, Harvard University. Read part one of her contribution, here.

Part Two: The newest threat – acquisition of land by wealthy foreigners and influential nationals

Over the past decade, large tracts of land, significantly always well-watered land, have been acquired by foreign governments, corporations and investment companies in generally poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. These have been acquired for production of food crops, especially by countries with land and water shortages worried by the price spike in world food prices of 2007-8; for the production of biofuel crops in light of the rising price and fears of dwindling supplies of oil; for exploitation of land-based resources of timber and minerals; and as a way of investing mobile capital in new markets in land and water.

As more information has become available, it has been possible to show the central role of national and sub-national government agencies in facilitating and managing the allocation of land to foreign agents, committing to associated investments of infrastructure as well as, critically, securing the removal of existing users of the allocated lands.

The reasons that explain the interest that African governments and other national players have shown in facilitating land deals include the loan and aid packages that often accompany land leasing; private returns in the form of fees or more indirect benefits from foreign investments; political gains for the different authority figures claiming the right to allocate land; and a growing policy determination that progress in agriculture, including food production, depends on a sharp increase in large-scale production. African governments are in competition with other states to capture mobile capital and can be seen to offer their populations and territories up as profitably exploitable factors. The intensifying class formation within countries also facilitates those with the necessary power to accumulate resources such as land at the expense of the poorer and more vulnerable.

Representatives of African governments have been quite eager to offer large areas of land to foreign investors, as seen in land deals in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Ghana, among others. Most African governments releasing land to foreign investors do so in terms of ‘development’ or ‘the public interest’. Despite rhetorical nods by investors and the government to ‘incorporating’ the existing users of land (almost all small-to-medium-scale producers), much existing research documents displacement and loss of valuable resources for the majority. Even the generally favourable report of the World Bank on land deals noted that, in Mozambique, ‘the total area over which land use titles given to investors overlapped areas previously delimited in the name of communities amounted to 1.4 million hectares in 418 cases, raising concerns about potential future conflicts’. In addition, there are many cases where the leased land is described by investors and government as ‘marginal’, ‘underutilized’ or ‘empty’ but has been found by observers to be used, either regularly or periodically, by local people. Given that the World Bank has estimated that there are between 445 million and 1.7 billion hectares worldwide of potentially ‘suitable’ lands assumed to be ‘marginal’, ‘underutilized’, ‘empty’, and ‘available’, most of which are classified as public lands, the potential for widespread displacement of people and their livelihoods is clear.

The response by agencies like the World Bank to emerging reports of displacement and dispossession of land users has been a ‘Code of Conduct’ supposed to discipline big land deals, and the ‘Principles of Responsible Agricultural Investments’ or ‘RAI Principles’. Unsurprisingly, these RAI Principles, in remaining ‘voluntary’ have proved weak in the face of powerful economic and political interests. Even the World Bank report noted that the ‘consultations’ supposedly being conducted between investors and local people frequently occurred after approval had already been granted by national governments. Other researchers in many countries have shown that if consultation did take place, it was dominated by a few elders or chiefs and provided local land holders little to no ability to shape key decisions.

One clear reason for this tendency to set aside the interests of millions of small-to-medium-scale producers and residents is the eagerness of governments to claim considerable economic ‘development’ in their areas. One recently well documented example is that of a state in Nigeria where white Zimbabwean and South African farmers were allocated land for crop and livestock production in the name of promoting agricultural development. But analysis of available evidence (which the researcher said was not easy to procure) showed that the vast investments made in infrastructure of all sorts to make production viable were overwhelmingly by the state and state-influenced banks. Of the large loans advanced to the farmers, ‘as of 2011’ not ‘a penny of these loans has been repaid’.

Another reason for dispossession is what the World Bank refers to as ‘the frailty’ of land rights held by customary land-holders. Most African states claim ultimate ownership of land, even though in most countries rural land has continued to be managed under various forms of customary tenure. Even where legal recognition has been accorded customary rights, as in Mozambique, researchers have found that it has often proved insufficient to provide effective mechanisms for land users to either reject or shape deals. In turn, this means that existing land-users can be displaced more easily and the ‘price’ of land charged to investors is very low or nil. The claims of states over land under customary tenure also facilitate the acquisition of land by private individuals with the necessary clout to claim the requisite authority, but such acquisitions are usually rationalized as being for ‘development’, as an increasing number of cases in a range of countries demonstrates.

While the World Bank sees much of Africa as a ‘vast under-utilized reserve’ and thus ripe for agricultural and other investment, the real reason it is being targeted is, in the words of a CEO of an investment company, because ‘African farmland prices are the lowest in the world’. But why are they so low? The reason for these ‘low’ prices is that customary rights over the vast majority of African cultivable (and grazing and common) lands are not deemed to be full ‘property’ and are being set aside by representatives of African states in the name of ‘development’ and ‘the public interest’, even though more often the beneficiaries are, or are likely to be, private individuals and groups with the clout to arrange these deals. The new rush by foreigners to acquire land ‘for investment’ in African countries is a further spur to displace people in the name of a spurious ‘public interest’.


Today, perhaps more than at any other time since the first colonial occupation of Africa, struggles to control land are central to social, political and economic processes. Documentation of the many instances of competition, conflict and violence swirling around land, and of competing claims over land and its resources, needs to look for explanation not to intrinsic failure of African states or to cultural dispositions towards violence or greed but to careful unraveling of shifts and persistences in political economic and socio-cultural relations around land and labour. There is a growing consensus about the extreme importance of showing how various forms of social conflict across the continent have roots in agrarian conditions and change.

Any attempt to understand ‘the question of land’ in contemporary Africa has to grapple even more than in the past with the dynamics of social transformation at multiple levels – global, regional, national, sub-national – that are reshaping not merely access to land itself but the very bases of authority, livelihood, ownership and citizenship. And in reverse, any attempt to understand the multiple transformations taking place on the continent has to include ‘the question of land’ as a central element.


Going beyond the recent African Affairs article, I would emphasise a strengthening link between land appropriation by national and international agents; an intensifying attack on small-scale producers (‘smallholders’) as backward, unable to produce the food ‘the continent needs’; and the proposed solution of  large-scale, mechanized agricultural production in the hands of large-scale entrepreneurs. This appears to echo the late colonial effort and the many development interventions from the 1960s on to ‘modernize’ agriculture. But the currently revived animus against ‘illiterate’, ‘backward’, ‘subsistence’ farmers is being led not by colonial officers or modernizing aid donors but by representatives of a fast-growing entrepreneurial national elite eager to take control of the land resources they see as necessary to their productive and speculative visions. The new opportunities provided by capital and partnerships from foreign agents, promoted by governments and donors with a rhetoric of agricultural development are fuelling a land rush that is disinheriting those living on customary lands. At the recent ceremonial opening of a large, irrigated, rice farm and rice milling factory, a highly successful Malawian businessman with national standing and international partners, said, ‘The problem in Malawi is that our economy … is in the hands of illiterate peasant farmers while in countries such as South Africa, rich and well-educated farmers are involved in agriculture’. He is not alone in blithely ignoring the fact that the vast majority of maize and other staple foods as well as a considerable proportion of exported burley tobacco are produced by those ‘peasant’ farmers because similar statements come from the Farmers’ Union, from academic and government economists and others. We need to explore the reasons why.

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