What must we do to secure community land tenure? – Samuel Nguiffo

The world is currently in a phase of fierce competition among major companies for better access to land and natural resources. Logging activities, mines and oil extraction, sport hunting, agro-industries, big infrastructures projects, and new carbon-stocking projects are requiring larger and larger spaces and resources. And coincidentally, these spaces are mostly located in rural areas.

Armed with a historic reputation of vacant plow lands, the African continent is at the center of competition among diverse actors, both local and external. This rush for land and natural resources acquisition is encouraged by African governments that see the sector as a potential for economic growth.  Indeed, for many African countries aspiring to become emerging powers, the dramatic rise in the exploitation of natural resources is a unique opportunity. In this context, it is crucial to reinforce the recognition and protection of community land tenure and rights to resources. And this understanding, for at least three reasons, is critical:

1.  Peace and stability at local and national levels. Food security mainly depends on land accessibility, and family/community-based farming has always played a central role in providing big cities with commodities. In 2007-2008, hunger strikes across the continent tragically demonstrated the vulnerability of the African states against the fluctuations of food commodity market.  Only a few observers could notice a direct link between this crisis and the tenuousness of community land tenure in African rural areas. Although after a thorough analysis, one can easily see a clear correlation between the decrease of agricultural production and the drop of investments in the sector due to uncertainties marked by the lack of long-term land tenure in those areas. In Africa, as in most places around the world, actively productive areas constitute a key factor of stabilization and socio-political peace. The current economic trend that consists of prioritizing large-scale investments on land at the detriment of family/community-based farming can be very dangerous, especially if it does not capitalize lessons from past experiences of countries considered as a model in this regard. China, for example, is currently conducting land tenure reform in order to provide more land to small peasants. India, Brazil and South Africa on the other hand are still characterized by a significant ratio of rural to urban population and by significant social inequities. These examples show that the sole growth in GDP is insufficient for peasants to leave their regions for big cities – peasants will always need their lands. In these countries, food insecurity indexes are also very high, and should sound off a warning for African countries: will we slavishly risk replicating mistakes by emerging economies and keep dispossessing our communities for the benefit of large-scale investors? Will we take the risk of sewing the germs of future local conflicts that can easily morph into movements at national level and cause considerable political unrest?

African populations are still rural in their vast majority, and depend on agriculture and the gathering of natural products to ensure their food security. Large-scale investments on their lands deprive them from these essential resources and increase their vulnerability to conflict.

2.   Maintaining cultural diversity and, guarantee the survival rural communities. The traditional link to the land is a key component in African cultures. Before colonization, land was not something for sale. A community leader could allow foreigners to settle on their land only if the conditions were accepted by the whole community. While changing land management systems, notably with the introduction of the state as a central actor in land attribution and affectation processes, colonization has led to a deep fragmentation of this link to the land. Consequently, we are witnessing more and more cases of lands being sold by rural communities or community lands being grabbed and secured by individual elites. The prevalence of such practices, however, does not imply that they are the only way forward, as some have unfortunately been led to believe. It is crucial that this essential dimension of community identity is considered as a priority, as it makes communities more resilient to the current social and economic upheavals.

3.  In systems characterized by the weakness of the rule of law, the recognition of land rights does not impede their violation. Consequently, the non-recognition itself is a guarantee of their violation, by the state itself, and by the investors interested in rural land.

The issue of peasants’ land tenure therefore goes far beyond its economic dimension, and points out the more global problem of the inclusion of poor, rural people in development strategies of African countries: will they be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth, or will they be reintroduced as the pillars of endogenous development? That is a question African leaders must ask themselves.

Taken from Samuel Nguiffo’s presentation given at ‘Scaling-Up Strategies to Secure Community Land and Resource Rights’ conference co-hosted by ILC, RRI and Oxfam International in Interlaken, Switzerland on September 18th, 2013. Samuel Nguiffo is the Secretary General for the Center for Environment and Development (CED) in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.  A lawyer by training, Nguiffo has devoted himself to the task of stopping the liquidation of the region’s forests for short-term profit.  He is the recipient of the 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists.