Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

1. A conceptual framework for land policy and agricultural development

Land tenure, policy, and management in english-speaking African countries
Land tenure and the developing society

Land tenure, policy, and management in english-speaking African countries

H.W. West
Assistant Director of Development Studies and Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK


Intentions and Objectives

The poverty of the third world is increasingly seen as an international issue. There are many facets to this problem. Some of the more fundamental relate to resource endowment, access, and use. This chapter is put forward as a contribution towards the solution of a range of practical questions concerning land-resource use in English-speaking African countries.

It is well known that most African countries south of the Sahara suffer from relatively poor resource endowment. Out of these, 12 countries may be grouped together for present purposes because they exhibit a degree of homogeneity due to some similarity of recent historical experience and of governmental institutions and of an official language inherited from British rule. These countries are: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. More significantly, these 12 have, in common with other African countries, similarly inherited traditional African values and concepts relating to land, particularly a very close emotional attachment between social groupings and the land from which they draw their sustenance.

Directly or indirectly, these countries remain heavily dependent on land for the elemental needs of survival, for habitation, subsistence cropping, or for foreign exchange earnings; their socio-political structures have frequently been determined by access to and control over land resources.

It is submitted that, under these circumstances, the manysided relationship between population and resources must be fundamental and that an understanding of this relationship must form a major part of the base upon which sustainable development may be built. The nature and significance of this relationship was sometimes changed or obscured during the colonial period and frequently overlain by "received" ideas, so that it is necessary now to reconceptualize this relationship and to re-articulate it in the modern idiom. It is now intended to analyse and to explore the relationship between land and population, as expressed through resource utilization and decision-making, planning, and practical administration.

This study is largely institutional; its purpose is to take a broad overview of the situation. It is aimed at policy, for which purpose, brevity may be seen as an advantage in itself; but, because of the diversity of experience, a good deal of generalization is inevitable.

It is hoped that the practical and developmental contribution of this volume will lie in its future use as a basis for consultation among African countries concerned and for an educational programme aimed, in the first instance, at the actual or potential policymakers in government service, in universities and in related professional organizations. Much has already been done in some African countries towards translating theoretical conclusions into requirements both for policymaking and for training, but more remains to be done.

A further intention of this chapter is to demonstrate that there is here a major sector of policymaking in which African countries must help themselves-a sector in which the policymaking and implementation effort must be predominantly internal-and to indicate the nature of the tenurial and administrative structures required for the purpose.

African Environmental Conditions: Pastoralism and Irrigation

About 60 per cent of the African continent is included in the dry zones and is either arid desert, or semi-arid and liable to degrade to desert conditions. Large areas of five of the countries considered here are within the arid zone and in further areas the seasonality of the rainfall limits agricultural productivity.

Until recently, African communities generally subsisted on small areas of cultivated land of about 0.5 hectares per head. But in the course of the present century, very significant changes have taken place; populations have multiplied by a factor of about 5 and commercial outlets have provided the incentive and agricultural innovations the capacity to farm more land. The market for livestock products, together with the growing number and needs of pastoralists, has led to rapid growth in stock numbers. The result is an increase in pressure on the resources of semi-arid lands, and local scarcity has begun to give arable land a cash value which it formerly lacked.

In consequence of the changing relationships between land and population, there are dangers to both. Land may be overworked and so lose its productive capacity; while a relatively small group of people might acquire a disproportionate share of the land resources available and so deprive others of the basis of their security.

Most African dry areas are given over to pastoralism. Unfenced rangeland extends from the desert margins to include thorn scrub, grasslands, and savannah. While the more arid areas can be utilized only by the hardier animals, cattle and cultivation occupy the less arid regions. Where pastoralism and shifting cultivation prevail, land rights are generally vested in the family, lineage, or clan, although improvements such as boreholes may be privately owned and individual property rights are appearing in areas of settled cultivation, especially where there is cash cropping. The grazing territories of some pastoral communities extend across international frontiers.

FIGURE. Generalized climatic zones of English-speaking countries in Africa

Because of the prestige attached to the possession of large herds, the risks of losses in times of drought and the increasing needs of a growing population for milk and for marriage payments, there has been a general tendency for the numbers of livestock to increase. So long as grazing land is a free resource, there is an incentive for each man to build up his herd. Numbers have multiplied in the course of this century and especially in the period since 1950, partly as a result of disease control. It is widely believed that numbers have now exceeded the capacity of the rangeland to sustain production under current management conditions.

At the same time as herds have been increasing in numbers, cultivators have been encroaching on grazing lands, more particularly on the dry season grazing reserve, which reduces the maximum number of animals that can survive the dry season. On the other hand, governments, and in some cases individuals, by drilling boreholes and excavating reservoirs, have allowed cattle to graze rangeland that would otherwise have been closed to them. However, control over numbers and grazing intensity has rarely been effective. (See Hitchcock and Nkwe, chapter 11.) Furthermore, periods of severe drought can result in herds being isolated near wells, but without adequate grazing in the vicinity or along routes to better watered areas.

From the viewpoint of government there would seem to be advantages in settling pastoralists in defined areas where they can more readily be provided with educational, veterinary, and other services. When attempts have been made to establish ranches for individuals or groups of pastoralists, difficulties have usually arisen because of the pre-existing rights of cultivators, or hunting and collecting groups, in areas which have been thought to be available for allocation. When ranches have been delineated, the pastoralists have been inclined to continue to move, especially in times of unusually severe drought or invasion of pests. Furthermore, there is no certainty that pastoralists will limit their stock to the number their land is capable of supporting in the long term, even though they have long-term rights to a particular ranch.

Indirect management of rangelands is made possible by the activities of a number of government agencies. The selection of sites for boreholes and reservoirs, veterinary clinics, and marketing centres all affect the distribution of pressure on resources; taxation policy can also influence the numbers of stock.

Probably the greatest changes in pastoral society have resulted from monetization. With the demand for meat from urban centres, the need for money to pay taxes, and the desire to acquire trade goods, the offtake from herds has been increasing and production has been becoming more commercialized. But herd owners are in a weak position in relation to traders and are less secure in some respects than sedentary cultivators. As a result, herds are increasingly falling into the hands of urban traders or villages whose young men have been initiated into the practice of animal husbandry. At the same time, individuals among the leading pastoral families have profited from new opportunities to exert their authority through government structures, and, in general, relations within pastoral societies are becoming more individualistic. Groups are less cohesive than was once the case, and this may add to the problems of developing management systems to sustain production from rangelands.

Whereas pastoral societies can exploit the resources of rangeland through individuals or groups concentrating on the well-being of their own herds, irrigation, except on the smallest scale, automatically demands co-operation between those utilizing a source of water for crop cultivation. Unless agreement is reached about the division of water, the resulting inequalities will lead to social dissension. Communal activity is also required for building dams and excavating canals. On the other hand, individual investment in sinking boreholes, levelling plots, and raising perennial crops may also be considerable. As a result, tenurial and management practices have evolved in conjunction with technical innovations to a much greater degree in small-scale irrigation than has been the case in pastoralism. Individual tenure seems to be the rule, with the sale of land becoming an acceptable practice where irrigation has been on a modest scale.

The main problems have arisen in connection with large-scale irrigation schemes which have been planned and put into operation by agencies outside the community. Such schemes, involving heavy investment and advanced technical skills, have frequently been instituted by central governments and implemented by contractors, usually from overseas. Cultivators in areas developed through large irrigation schemes are much less mobile and resilient.

In general, it would seem that the complexity of introducing an irrigation scheme operated by indigenous cultivators demands a period of several years for effective management and production methods to be worked out. In the case of the Sudanese Gezira, survey work was commenced in the first decade of this century and a pilot scheme was in operation before the First World War, but the Sennar Dam was not completed until 1925. It was necessary to acquire the land on a long lease and to work out a system of tenancy agreements, which has been criticized but which has worked reasonably well. Elsewhere, and more recently, funds have been expanded rapidly and suddenly and it would seem that insufficient time and care have been taken to solve technical and planning problems and to ensure the wellbeing and willing participation of the agricultural communities affected.

Land Tenure

The Meaning and Significance of Tenure

The study of land-tenure systems analyses the sociopolitical relationships between man and land and between man and man in respect of land. These relationships have always been fundamental in any economy or society, and they remain particularly so in pre-industrial societies where land usually constitutes the primary form of wealth and source of power, an indispensable factor of production and a major determinant of social structure.

In a narrow legal sense, land tenure is concerned merely with the differential distribution of ownership and usufructuary rights in land and water among persons or groups in society. In the much wider sense employed here, it embraces the form and composition of the whole pyramidal power structure relating to land: a power structure which governs access to natural resources, which moulds the incentive, opportunity, equity and reward patterns in land use, which brings together governmental, planning, professional, corporate, family, and personal endeavours and investment, and which determines the shape of many socioeconomic institutions and relationships in landbased societies.

Tenure relationships can regulate the security of the individual or group and hence influence social stability. They can dominate access to credit and to new technologies, and they may also help to determine the levels of capital formation and investment. They may exert considerable influence over income distribution and consumption patterns, over rural employment and the differentials of labour absorption capacity, over the substitution of labour for capital, over the size, manner of extraction, and mode of utilization of the agricultural surplus, and over the intensity of land use.

Tenurial relationships may also present a primary obstacle to economic development, to new enterprises, and to social change. They may reduce or frustrate economic opportunities; legitimize existing inequalities; limit the power of choice and action of families or individuals; or curtail rights of association and prevent the achievement of minimal social and political freedoms.

In particular, property rights can operate as a social support, bringing with them security, confidence, incentive, or group identity. But imbalance will produce dependence and disharmony, and the institutions of private property may come into conflict with human rights and concepts of "social justice." Ownership of land has frequently carried with it control over rural labour, control over the local hierarchy in both formal and informal leadership, control over investment of social overhead capital, over religious institutions, and even over government itself. In a pre-industrial situation a maldistribution of land ownership can cause the polarization of wealth and power, and hence a distorted pattern of income, savings, investment, employment, and internal terms of trade.

For these reasons, land tenure systems should be of central concern for political leaders, economic planners, and architects of social policy, for they link "human" with "natural" resources, and it is only through their examination and analysis that this fundamental relationship may be understood and thereafter planned. In the study of land tenure systems, we have an analytical tool, applicable both to urban and rural land, which enables us to come to grips with a wide range of the deeper structural problems of development.

A search must be made for new and alternative forms of socio-economic organization relating to land. Such organizations are cultural inventions and will reflect cultural values. There is no simple answer; no single system is universally acceptable as ideal and there is no standard formula. Development has been achieved within a variety of systems and hard experience has shown that tenurial institutions can seldom be successfully transferred directly from one country to another.

The Nature of Traditional African Tenure Systems

In this section it is proposed to present a simplified model of the traditional tenure systems thought to have predominated in Africa south of the Sahara during precolonial times. A wide range of variations and permutations doubtlessly existed, particularly between cultivating and pastoral economies, and it is necessary now to generalize and to simplify. Nevertheless, many salient characteristics are still evident in current practices.

The systems were based upon the blood relationship between lineage head and lineage member, and the basis of this relationship was social and political. The community was utterly dependent upon land, but land use was only incidental to this relationship. As these societies became more firmly established, the heads of lineages or descent groups were recognized as holding administrative powers over land. These included powers of allocation, revocation, and reallocation amongst their lineage members, and the latter received users, rights for purposes of habitation, cultivation, or grazing only.

The closest possible bond was generated between members of the group and the land from which they drew their sustenance, and it was quite impossible to visualize one without the other. Some groups went further and attached a religious significance to land as the earth-goddess and it is from these traditional "cognatic" (i.e. relating to "cognates" or persons claiming descent from the same ancestor) interests that there arose the concept of land as a sacred family trust. The essentials of this concept are the identification of the land with the family through corporate ownership, the continuity through time of both the family and its land holdings, and the limitations of the powers of the present land user by the rights of both the dead and the unborn.

Land came to be traditionally recognized as the main element providing security and identity for the group and a high sense of dependence on land was inculcated (Busia 1971). Its emotional and spiritual significance came to evoke a religiomystical response completely alien to Western commercial values. Clans were seen as belonging to the land, rather than the land belonging to the clans. To be deprived of land was an emotional shock, a psychological trauma, rather than merely an economic loss.

There was a pre-eminence of community interest, yet because it was generally in adequate supply, land was seen as a "free good." In accordance with the concept of a sacred trust, interests in land were not negotiable; to sell land was inconceivable as this would be to defraud generations yet to come. The inalienability of land outside the family became the salient feature of this form of tenure.

Within the descent group each member of marriageable age had a right to the possession and use of a portion of group land. It was obligatory upon the hereditary chief or family head to allocate land on the following general conditons: that the overall distribution of land within the group was equitable and each member received sufficient for his subsistence needs; provided certain social obligations were discharged, that the allot-tee could remain in possession indefinitely; that the use-right was not transferable, except possibly through a pledge within the group (a form of mortgage in which the mortgagee goes into possession); that investment of labour and latterly even of capital (e.g. on planting tree crops or improving water supply), did not entitle the group member to claim separate ownership of his allotment, but only of his improvement; and that, on the death of the allottee, his successors normally remained in possession. The burial of the dead of several generations on the holding tended strongly to reinforce the successors' claim to continued possession.

With the consent of all its members, a descent group could grant use-rights over unallocated land to "strangers," defined as any persons not belonging to the group concerned. Such a grant was usually conditional upon the payment of periodic dues, not as economic rental but as tribute in acknowledgement of the grantor's superior interest and the subservient position of the "stranger" (Parsons 1970).

This tenurial system operated in conjunction with primitive levels of technology and was normally associated with a degree of communal land use, very frequently in shifting cultivation. In respect of grazing land (or cultivable land after the harvest), use-rights were generally exercised in common, any separate property right being deemed to apply to the stock rather than to the land. in respect of land for cultivation, the actual user was generally the immediate or nuclear family and, within the nuclear family, cultivation was carried out jointly by family members. In addition, there was likely to be some degree of communal effort outside the nuclear family, particularly in initial clearing and harvesting, probably with the help of the traditional beer-party. But there was usually a limit to spontaneous co-operation of this sort. Communal effort was usually sporadic and reciprocal and should not be allowed to obscure the fact that userights were allocated to the nuclear family.

The role of the hereditary chief or family head did not extend to land management, nor was there any concept of resource conservation.

An Evaluation of Traditional Tenure Systems

For the most part, these systems were well adjusted to the physical and biological environment under which they evolved, for under the marginal conditions frequently encountered in Africa, any failure to adjust would quickly have spelt disaster. They may be described as having been in a "stage of symbiotic equilibrium with ecological conditions" (FAO and ILO 1970). The sytem of shifting cultivation (e.g. the Citemene system of Zambia) represents an adjustment to marginal conditions in climate and soils; it is not ecologically harmful provided the cultivation cycle is sufficiently long to allow for the natural rejuvenation of fertility.

These traditional systems were, and residually still remain, integral and inseparable parts of the social structure. Through a close connection with the elemental basis of survival, they offered a means whereby a society could cling to a familiar way of life, closely linked to an enduring past.

These systems were essentially defensive; the group was protected against centrifugal tendencies and against anti-social behaviour by individuals because joint ownership guarded against alienation leading to dispossession of group members and their descendants. Under the degree of population pressure experienced, these systems provided all the security necessary for subsistence cultivation and grazing and did not, in fact, exclude cash cropping when opportunities later presented themselves. The nonnegotiability of interests in land continued to provide a defence against the social disruptions to which most individualized systems of tenure have been prone, such as the excessive aggregation of property rights, absentee landlordism, and overburdening indebtedness. The practice of allocating approximately equal shares of land to all lineage members helped to avoid intracommunity jealousy; the systems tended to promote cohesion and harmony by providing a sense of corporate responsibility and mutual aid and they militated against the development of class distinctions and antagonisms. Moreover, the method of allocation produced a small-farm structure in agriculture, and necessarily retained a very large proportion of the population on the land.

When judged on general social or "welfare" criteria, their performance, then, was creditable. Yet, when viewed against more modern production requirements, they will be seen to have provided social security only by limited economic opportunity. They were premarket, pre-scientific, and pre-capitalist systems, and they were also pre-state (Parsons 1970). How could they be expected to give positive support to the commercialization of agriculture, particularly under conditions of increasing individualizations and to the promotion of higher productivity levels and the accumulation of surplus? How well equipped were they to meet the increasing demands of urbanization or to provide an institutional framework capable of satisfying the needs of society developing within either a mixed or a centrally planned economy?

These systems were inseparable from subsistence or barter economies. Product markets were not highly developed and there was a complete absence of markets in both land and labour. There was also a lack of innovation and negligible capital investment, with very low levels of expertise and standards of living. When viewed against individualistic tendencies, it may be argued that the nonnegotiability of land acted as a brake on commercialization and diversification; entrepreneurship and the division of labour were discouraged and the more efficient land user was prevented from acquiring land from the less efficient (Johnson 1972). In these senses, the systems were inclined to be static rather than dynamic.

Corporate ownership sometimes led latterly to the loss of development opportunities and could stifle personal initiative and industry. The right to use a resource depended merely on birth rather than on ability or capacity for work; neither reward nor penalty was provided in respect of land use and there were no means whereby the idle or incompetent cultivator could be dispossessed. No channels were provided for the investment of capital in agriculture through the extension of agricultural credit from either state, institutional, or private sources. Consequently, the rural sector was starved of development capital and land was seen merely as a facet of kinship, not as an important link in the process of production. Nor was there the knowledge or the initiative necessary to promote the enhancement of fertility levels.

All in all, therefore, the strength of the traditional systems lay in their ability to provide group continuity at a low level of equilibrium. They must be judged to fail when viewed against the quite different and mainly economic criteria upon which more modern requirements have come to be based.

The consequences of the traditional systems of land tenure in Africa have been profound. There can be no doubt that the nature and incidents of "cognatic" tenure (as the traditional African systems are increasingly called) have on the whole prevented the polarization of property rights and the consequential economic and social differentiations that are so apparent in many individualized systems, particularly those in Latin America. With some notable exceptions, which will be considered more fully below, English-speaking African countries have not been characterized by massive inequalities in land ownership and hence in the distribution of wealth and power. Instead, and notwithstanding the changes and innovations of the colonial period, one should be able to discern in these traditional tenure systems a societal foundation upon which it should still be possible to build.

If this is so, it is submitted that African countries south of the Sahara (and other countries in the Pacific and residual enclaves elsewhere) are facing a task which is generally distinct from the types of land reform demanded by most other third world countries. In these latter countries private property rights are the long-established norm and market forces have allowed the accumulation of all-pervading inequalities in land ownership, for which the treatment must be some form of redistribution, either radical or gradualist. By contrast, in Africa south of the Sahara, cognatic interests have been the established norm, with individualized interests the notable (albeit increasing) exception. In formulating future tenure policy, therefore, this generic distinction should be recognized and one should think not in terms of "land reform" but rather of "tenure conversion," except in those areas where both may be required.

The Socio-economic Forces of Tenurial Change

Although the maritime powers of Western Europe first made contact with western Africa south of the Sahara in the late fifteenth century, the main "penetration" of the continent occurred much later, that is, during the latter part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries. The boundaries of most English-speaking African countries were demarcated at this time, with the establishment of colonial and protectorate governments.

The traditional land tenure systems, as hypothetically outlined previously in the section on the nature of traditional African tenure systems, were by this time already undergoing modifications, for example, through the replacement of hereditary chiefs by appointed territorial chiefs. More particularly, these systems had in some areas long been overlain by Islamic notions of property, as in northern Nigeria and the east African seaboard. The early explorers, missionaries, and administrators came into contact with many tenurial variants, Iying mostly but not always within the generalized model already outlined, but they had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to study these systems, which were invariably nonstatutory and consequently elusive. As a result, they tended to ignore or positively despise them.

Some administrators, without any sympathetic understanding of likely consequences, followed their own convictions and made sweeping alterations (e.g. Sir Harry Johnson in Uganda); others more openly advocated the displacement of traditional systems by English notions of real property law, particularly where this afforded opportunities for white settlement (e.g. Judge Morris Carter in Kenya); yet others who encountered the Islamic overlay tended merely to confirm the existing structures (e.g. Lord Kitchener in the Sudan and Sir Frederick Lugard in northern Nigeria).

As the cultural conflicts inherent in the intermingling of tenurial concepts became more apparent, with occasional social unrest (as in part of Uganda in the 1920s), there was an increase in administrative reluctance to become involved, and a laissez faire policy of non-intervention in respect of customary tenures developed. Land found to be unoccupied and deemed to be unclaimed was designated Crown land. Exceptionally, where environmental conditions were found to be suitable for white settlement, land was alienated for European use. In some countries, governmental departments of lands were established, but their responsibilities were frequently confined to the administration of Crown land, and this led to segmented thinking and dualism.

Administrative interest shifted instead to the establishment of entirely new urban centres, little attention being paid, for example, to the ancient cities of western Africa. For these new administrative and commercial centres, the necessary land was expropriated through the process of compulsory acquisition, whereby the customary systems of tenure were locally extinguished. Although policy varied both in time and place, officialdom usually considered African people to be permanently rural dwellers. The new urban centres were designed and continuously planned as European enclaves; English real property law was introduced along with British social values and building standards; physical planning was given a definite urban bias by the adoption of English town and country planning legislation; and British professional bodies and institutions began to operate on a limited scale. One overall result was to establish in each country a complex and awkwardly dual system of land law, an uncomfortable marriage between African customary law, applicable in the rural areas, and "received" status law, operating chiefly in urban centres.

For these English-speaking countries, the colonial period drew to a close with a development orientation closely linked to the interests of expatriates and national elites, with alien values and standards established in urban centres, and with the growing realization of immense rural problems yet to be tackled.

During the colonial period, cultural contacts with the metropolitan countries, the improvement of transport and communications, and the new obligation to pay personal taxes in cash had brought about an exposure to the capitalist system, to the market economy, and to world demand for primary commodities. The economies of these English-speaking African countries started to move away from subsistence and local barter towards greater commercialization, with participation in international trade. The new economic opportunities lent themselves to individual, rather than communal, exploitation. The introduction of perennial crops and technological improvements tended to make agriculture both more permanent and more profitable, while the growth of cash cropping offered further possibilities for individual exploitation. The construction of buildings in permanent materials also involved a prolonged personal effort which tended to foster insistence on more personal benefit. The increasing shortage of land and various investments in improvements imputed a more functional and commercial attitude towards land, and a monetary value to what was previously a "free good." Moreover, the increasing need to raise credit for development also promoted the move away from traditional structures and practices. Descent groups or lineages had no legally recognizable identity under statute law and their interests in land were not negotiable, whereas the availability of credit was mostly controlled by Western-style agencies thinking in terms of personal contract and individual security.

Over the same period, community control over land tended to decay, for, where little land was available for allocation and none was abandoned, it followed that rights of allocation vesting in the chief on behalf of the community were seldom exercised. Corporate rights have also been further eroded by partition, for which the demand has extended not merely to sublineage but to small family units as well (Meek 1957), so that many systems are now well advanced towards the individualization of property rights. In inheritance, the customary concept of succession to personal status has been giving way to the more materialistic notion of succession of property, which has contributed to the weakening of kinship bonds and the focusing of more attention on the immediate family and the individual. The unprecedented increase in population has also tended to forge a closer personal identification with a specific parcel of land and to promote the spread of more intensive methods of land use; the interdependence of traditional society has been found increasingly incompatible with a market economy.

At the same time, power has been passing away from the traditional patriarchs and towards elected councils and educated Úlites: rights of control over land have been increasingly divorced from the other powers and responsibilities of chieftainship; there has been a reduction of the individual's dependence on the kinship group for his security; and traditional relationships have been further eroded by the acquisition of new skills, by the appearance of new forms of employment, and by the comparative freedom of urban life.

All these internal changes have been closely related to and deeply affected by external influences originating mostly from Britain. From Britain some developing African societies have acquired different attitudes towards land, different notions of property, and different views on cultural transformation. They have also met the novel (but not necessarily acceptable) propositions that land is a fully negotiable commodity, that all land must be owned by someone, that individual rather than cognatic ownership of land is the cornerstone of a progressive society, and that the ideal form of society is a "property-owning democracy." A considerable impression has also been made by imported or received legal concepts relating to land such as "eminent domain" (i.e. the right of a government to acquire private property for public purposes, compulsorily but on payment of prompt and adequate compensation) or compulsory acquisition by the state, prescription (the vesting of a right by reason of lapse of time), and adverse possession, the attachment (the seizure, by legal authority, of the property of a judgement debtor) of land and its sale in civil debt, the strengthening of the title base through land registration, and many others.

All in all, the greater diversification and intensity in land use is carrying with it a greater particularity and exclusiveness in respect of interest in land, though this is much less evident in pastoral societies. The processes of modernization (from the indigenous, customary, and traditional to the Western, capitalist, and "progressive") are providing a strong incentive to move towards greater individual rights and the abrogation of group control (Dorner 1972), and the trend towards a commercialized economy is promoting increasingly strident demands for rights to alienate land and for greater negotiability. The present and readily discernible trend towards the individualization of interests in arable land is accompanied by a proliferation of customary easements and separate rights in ''improvements,'' by the rapid subdivision and fragmentation of individual holdings, by the appearance of entrepreneurial tenancies, by the establishment of local land markets operating under a legal fiction, and by a general rise in the levels of litigation.

The central question which must now be asked concerning the individualization of interest in (particularly arable) land is therefore: What policy should be adopted in respect of this essentially capitalistic trend? Should it be permitted, promoted, redirected, or reversed?

Further Problem Areas

The previous sections have introduced the fundamental and background issue in land policymaking, namely that of tenure conversion. Similar issues have arisen in many other societies, not excluding the European. Its occurrence may therefore be regarded as normal, although the exact forms in which this issue has arisen in Africa have been strongly affected and aggravated by specific colonial influences operating over the last century or more.

Many surviving parts of the traditional tenure structures still lie firmly embedded in the fabric of most African societies. They are frequently of considerable social importance and must not be lightly disregarded. They include the extensive and communal grazing rights and agistment rights (the right to pasture cattle on the land of another, on certain conditions) of pastoral and semi-pastoral societies, and changing customs in the inheritance of social status and their impact upon property or use-rights in land. Also involved are burial practices and the traditional rights of clans and descent groups to burial grounds, the conceptual difficulties inherent in the change from customary allocation to personal contract in the creation of land-use rights, and the many and varied problems involved in the changing role of women, in the partition of land-use rights, and in male insecurity associated with uxorilocal marriage.

Another range of problems stems from modernization: from the commercialization of agriculture already mentioned, from the transfer of technology; from the needs of resource conservation and environmental health, and also from the requirements of urbanization and urban planning. Some of these problems will be recognized as a legacy of colonialism, brought about by hasty and sometimes exploitative policies which had the effect of crudely modifying or extinguishing the traditional system. Such policies included the granting of concessions for purposes such as mineral exploitation (as in Ghana), extensive grazing or defence (as in Swaziland), attempts to transform indigenous chiefs and other influential persons into "improving landlords" (as in the Mailo settlement in Buganda), and the establishment of foreign-owned and foreign-managed plantation enclaves, with little understanding of their adverse social and environmental implications (as in Tanzania and Malawi).

But of far greater political significance were the policies adopted in two principal areas where white settlement was found to be a practicable proposition: that is, to a limited extent in Kenya and to a more general extent in Zimbabwe. These involved not only the expropriation of lands held under the traditional system and their alienation to white ownership, but also the establishment of racial reserves or Tribal Trust Lands; and it is these policies that have proved to be most damaging, both socially and environmentally. They were, fortunately, not typical of all Englishspeaking African countries, yet it must be recorded that shortsighted and ill-advised policies such as these have left behind a legacy of racial injustice, social disharmony and congestion, economic disparity, and environmental degradation.

The Parameters for Tenure Conversion

The problem of tenure conversion must be viewed against the backcloth of changing socio-economic and environmental conditions. The structure which relates "human" to "natural" resources must be an integral part of the national infrastructure. There must be some such structure, whatever its nature might be; no country may opt out of it. A tenurial structure should provide whatever the economy, the society, and the policy require at any particular stage of development. Policy in respect of tenure conversion, therefore, must be guided by and accommodated to ruling conditions, which will involve conceptual changes and redirections of attitude.

First, there is the need for a move further away from general subsistence cultivation or grazing towards more specialized commercial agriculture and more distinctly urban and resource conservation uses. This shift to commercial agriculture is necessary in order to produce a larger marketable surplus for the support of urban populations and for the earning of foreign exchange. It means that the cultivator or pastoralist is demanding more and more from his land and this involves a change from land rotation to crop rotation, from a natural fertility to an investment-based agriculture, and guardedly from an energy-extensive to an energy intensive system.

Second, there is the need to provide for current and future population growth. As noted above, most of the English-speaking countries of Africa must be regarded as relatively poor in terms of natural endowment and, together with French-speaking and other African countries, are increasingly regarded as constituting, not a third, but a "fourth world." Moreover, many of them are presently affected by negative environmental trends, by the processes of desertification and the breakdown of cultivation cycles, so that there is a need in policy-making for a better understanding of both environmental trends and actual, potential, and optimal population/resource distributions. In general, a solution to the problem of population growth is likely to depend, partially or even largely, on the availability of some form of employment "frontier." This frontier may be occupational, involving the transfer of labour from cultivation into urban-based commerce and industry, yet the labour-absorptive capacity of African urban centres is currently proving totally inadequate for this task. Or the frontier might instead be geographical, implying the resettlement of people on land hitherto underutilized or unused. But it must be noted that the transfer of surplus population across national frontiers is now generally impracticable, and internal redistribution will depend for success on the investment of considerable capital resources and on the availability of expertise in regional planning. Moreover, the task of restructuring and redistributing the labour force in these English-speaking African countries is greatly complicated by the general need to accommodate more people in the rural sector, rather than less.

Third, there is the need for planning intervention. By now there must surely be acceptance in principle that aspirations towards national development are unlikely to be realized solely through the free operation of market forces and the unfettered exercise of private property rights. African countries have only to observe the current situation in the Latin American republics to realize the probable outcome of such a course of action. The principle of planning intervention and the need for land policy-making would seem to be established; the current ideological debate (of which more will be said below) concerns instead the degree, the level, and the form of state intervention and the motivation and capabilities of each African government in this respect. To what extent are African governments prepared to exercise controls and capable of planning intervention? With what degree of clarity has a national or a regional government understood the nature of the tenure conversion problem and realized its central importance in land policy formulation? To what extent is a solution to these issues seen as truly fundamental for the sustained development of essentially landbased economies and societies?

Land Policy Formulation

Overall Policy Objectives

It is assumed at the outset that an equitable and sustainable relationship between human and natural resources is, in the fullest sense, fundamental and essential to stability and progress at the national level. Its successful rationalization and optimization, therefore, must be an integral part of the overall process of planned development.

The rationalization of this relationship within an essentially land-based economy (or within the urban and rural sectors after more economic diversification and specialization have taken place) must be very largely a question of controlling the distribution of and interplay between rights of sovereignty and of property, since these determine access to and benefit from land use.

In respect of the distribution and interplay of these rights, a virtual infinity of different structures is possible and each country or region must design the structure that best suits its own requirements. Land nationalization is nothing more than an assertion of the right of sovereignty by the state. Subject to that right of sovereignty, rights of property may then be exercised by the state or by groups or individual persons. The individualization of property rights is the reverse process whereby private property rights are established or confirmed and subjected only to residual rights of sovereignty. Between these two extremes lies a wide range of possible variants.

The essence of land policy-making lies in the establishment of a contructive balance between these rights of sovereignty and of property in such a way as to promote the achievement of a range of objectives. Requirements must vary over time and space, but experience has shown that the enlargement of either group of rights to the exclusion of the other will probably lead to a loss of energy within the society concerned.

In general, the objectives of land policy-making should be regional, national, and possibly international, and should transcend and, where necessary, supersede the aspirations of the social group or individual. Stated another way, the essentials of land policy-making must lie in the achievement of wide public objectives, but without eclipsing or ignoring the rights of the individual.

Land policy objectives will be seen to coincide frequently with those of development in general. They may include the economic objectives of optimal factor utilization, of employment creation, particularly in the rural sector, and the production of a marketable surplus with equitable distribution of the proceeds. Also included may be the generation of selfreliance, and a sense of security and confidence. There may also be a general need for the reduction of wage differentials or even for improving the status and role of women in village society by easing the burden of daily drudgery. Land policy may also play a part in the promotion of national integrations through the removal of internal differentials and deterrents, in the centralizing or decentralizing of control over resource use, and in the improvement of public participation in decisionmaking and in changing the pattern of rural-urban relations. In environmental terms, land policy-making must embrace resource conservation and consumption rates, environmental rehabilitation and protection, and assessment of carrying capacities, sustainable production levels, and self-sufficiency capabilities.

English-speaking and other African countries will appreciate the significance of these objectives in development. Although confronted with complex and formidable problems, these countries should also recognize certain advantages in their present position, which enables them to benefit from the past experience, omissions, and policy errors of others. Europe is at present offering two basic land tenure models to Africa, the individualist and the collectivist, and neither of them is immediately acceptable. The need for tenure conversion presents to African countries a unique opportunity for innovation, invention, and planning. This opportunity must be seized in order to avoid not only the undesirable social consequences of unfettered private enterprise, but also, alternatively, the disincentives and diseconomies that have been found to accompany certain forms of collectivism.

The Dimensions of Analysis

The interrelationship between human and natural resources is varied and complex and, before we grapple with it, the different fields must first be more clearly conceptualized and the study broken down into more manageable sections.

The recognition of "land" as a synthesis of biological and physical resources and human rights and as the interface for policy-making and planning goes some way towards this goal. But the basic relationships still remain too intricate to grasp; there are still too many facets and variables for simultaneous consideration, and further analytical instruments are needed to help break them down.

Over the last 30 years or so, three such intellectual tools of general (and not solely African) application have been developed exclusively for this purpose. To borrow an analogy from weaving, these three instruments or dimensions of analysis may be seen as the "warp" of our understanding, to be viewed against the "weft" provided by the economic, social, and political analyses and objectives briefly outlined above.

These three special dimensions of analysis may be summarized as follows:

(a) The environmental dimension. This views land as a compound of physical and biological resources and, more particularly, as a complex of biological and physical processes continually changing over time. It focuses interest on the cultural relationships between man and natural resources and the way in which these interact. The study involves the classification and evaluation of environmental resources, as well as assessment of their life support capabilities under changing technological and marketing conditions, and an understanding of their multiple and frequently competitive uses. More particularly, and of special relevance in the African context, this dimension of analysis aims at an understanding of the physical, biological, and, above all, the cultural forces of environmental change, the linkage between tenure and environment, the identification and weighting of operative factors, the social consequences of environmental degradation, and the weighting of operative factors, the social consequence of environmental degradation, and the formulation of corrective conservation measures.

(b) The spatial dimension. This views land essentially as the stage upon which all economic activity must take place, and it seeks, through spatial, physical, or landuse planning, to rationalize distributions in a geographical sense. The study consequently embraces a wide range of additional factors such as location, concentration, density, distance, migration, proximity, and isolation. Spatial analyses were first developed in respect of urban centres where problems of urban design and of over-concentration and congestion arose. But they have more recently been extended to cover problems of regional identity, of the planned reduction of inter- and intra-regional disparities, and of disequilibrium in rural-urban relationships.

(c) The tenurial dimension. This views land, and hence natural resources through the interface of land, primarily in a social context. This study is institutional and legal in terms of proprietary and tenurial systems analysis and is also distributional in a social or hierarchical sense. It analyses the different forms and structures in land holdings and their broad implications for the economy, society, and policy. It explores the ideological debate over property rights and it identifies needs and recommends policies in respect of both tenure conversion and land or agrarian reform. Because of the power implications in property rights and because of its concern for "social justice," this analysis is generally regarded as central to the whole study of the man-land relationship.

These three broad dimensions of analysis together outline the course of land policy formulation. They replace the ad hoc and crisis decision-making of the past; they characterize the enquiry and distinguish it from other fields of development study.


Contents - Previous - Next