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close this bookReversing the Spiral - The Population, Agriculture, and Environment Nexus in Sub-Saharan Africa (WB, 1994, 320 p.)
close this folder4. The Nexus of population growth, agricultural stagnation, and environmental degradation
View the documentThe main linkages
View the documentTraditional crop cultivation and livestock husbandry methods
View the documentLand and tree tenure systems and the Nexus
View the documentDeforestation, fuelwood, and the Nexus
View the documentLogging
View the documentNotes
View the documentAppendix to chapter 4

Land and tree tenure systems and the Nexus

Critics of traditional tenure systems in Sub-Saharan Africa argue that these constrain agricultural productivity and cause environmental degradation—because land resources are not privately owned, but arc either common property of a community, clan, or ethnic group or are openaccess resources owned by no one. They further argue that users of such resources have no incentive to limit their consumption thereof because they cannot be certain that other users will similarly limit theirs. Lacking secure property rights, individuals are dissuaded from adopting long-term conservation, investment and production strategies. There are two possible solutions, it is argued, to this problem: (a) establishing firm rules, with enforceable sanctions, which limit individual use of the resource for the common good; or (b) individualization/privatization of resource ownership and tenure, and registration of individual titles. In the critics' view, rapidly rising population pressure makes effective common ownership regulation increasingly mere difficult Based on the "tragedy of the commons" argument, they urge that land be placed in individual private ownership.

Opponents of tenure individualization focus on its alleged negative impact on land distribution and social equity Evaluations of tenure reform in Kenya and Botswana are cited as showing that individualization of land tenure has led to land grabbing, concentration of land ownership, de facto expropriation of women, landlessness, and increasing marginalization.

Box 4-4 Examples of Indigenous Land Tenure Systems

In The Gambia, each village has an identifiable land area that is administered by the village headman. Any compound can clear unclaimed land outside the village jurisdiction and claim it for the village. Land is passed on through the male lineage. Women obtain land for farming mainly from their husbands, but also receive some from their parents. Men cultivate groundnut, millet, and sorghum; women grow rice and vegetables. Maize is grown by both men and women. Women help with millet and sorghum harvesting and are beginning to grow some groundnuts. Seasonal migrants from other parts of the country or from Senegal (strange farmers) can obtain land for cropping in return for working several clays each week on the fields of the compound head) they return to their own villages at the end of the cropping season (Norem and others 1988:303-304).

In Tanzania, land was traditionally controlled and allocated by patriarchal clan leaders to heads of households or extended families. Today, all land is owned by the state, and the "Village Act" requires that each member of the village, male or female, be assigned separate plots to cultivate specific crops that are designated in the village bylaws. It is reported to be widespread practice for land to be allocated to male house-hold heads, who in turn assign plots to their wives, sons' and daughters. Often, vestiges of the traditional system remain, and the original users, usually males, retain some right over land even if it is currently lying fallow (Mtoi 1988:346).

Among the Bemba in Zambia, landholdings are semipermanent. Local chiefs allocate land according to farmers' ability to cultivate (dependent especially on the availability of draft power). Tenure is based, thus, on customary rights allocated by local chiefs and secured through clearing and continuous use of particular plots. Land use rights are passed on through the matrilineal kinship system. Farm sizes are large, averaging close to 100 hectares, but only about 5 percent of the farm is actually cultivated at any given time under the land-extensive traditional farming system (Hudgens 1988:373-387; Sutherland 1988:389 406)

Reality is far more complex. There is a wide diversity of farming systems in Sub-Saharan Africa, determined by differences in population density, agraecological conditions, sociopolitical organization, lineage and descent definitions, inheritance and residence patterns, agricultural technology, and degree of commercialization. The correspondingly wide range of seemingly different land tenure systems is therefore not surprising. There are, however, important similarities among most of them. Most define land rights, particularly ownership rights, for groups. Individual or family use rights rest on customs recognized by the group. The group, not the individual, owns the land—although there is no formal recording or land titling. An individual's entitlement to the land is transitory, although in most cases lineages enjoy continuous use rights over specific parcels. As fallow periods become shorter and cultivation of plots becomes more continuous, land is increasingly retained by families, households, or individuals and transferred or bequeathed under prevailing customary rules (Migot-Adholla and others 1991; Netting 1993:157-164). There is, thus, gradual institutional change in response to rising population pressure, and this change accompanies and facilitates the evolution and intensification of agricultural production.

Customary tenure systems involve important intricacies. Ownership, management responsibility, and use rights are often not identical. Use rights to different products from the same piece of land may be vested with different individuals or groups. Pastoralists and sedentary farmers may coexist on the same land, with farmers having cultivation rights and pastoralists grazing rights after crops are harvested. On the same plot of Land, the right to the products of trees and the right to plant annual crops may be quite distinct and vested in different individuals or groups (see below).

Where, under customary tenure systems, usufruct rights are acquired simply by clearing land, the incentive has been strong for settlers to move into previously uncultivated forest or savanna areas and to clear the land quickly in order to strengthen their claims and weaken those of other potential (even current) users. In Mali, for instance, many farmers plow far more land than they intend to crop in order to establish and protect their land use rights for the future. (Plowing without establishing crops renders the Land even more vulnerable to erosion than if it were cropped.) Even under government-sponsored land development schemes, the ability to clear, rather than to develop, the land is often a key determinant of eligibility.¹ This extends cultivation to marginal lands, is environmentally detrimental, and imposes costs on the previous users—often pastoralists or traditional forest dwellers.

As fallow periods shorten or valley bottoms are taken under cultivation. land rights of farmers tend to take precedence over those of herders, who are then forced to remain on more marginal and more rapidly degreding rangeland. Where sedentary farmers and transhumant herders have coexisted in symbiotic land use systems, the incorporation of livestock activities into settlers' farming systems also tends to cause difficulties for the pastoralists, who are then compelled to keep their herds increasingly on pasture land alone. As a result, soil fertility declines more rapidly on such rangeland (Gorse and Steeds 1987; Stocking1987; Falloux and Mukendi 1988; Nelson 1988; Mortimore 1989a and 1989b).

Box 4-5 Land Tenure and Gender Roles in Farm Production among the Fula and Mandinga in Guinea-Bissau

Among the Fula and Mandinga in Guinea-Bissau, land is communally owned by the resident clans of the village and is allocated by the male clan elders to the individual compounds. The male compound heads then allocate land to the individuals within their compounds. Use rights can be granted on a collective or individual basis. Men and women, married or not, can obtain use rights to individual plots and have the right to dispose of the harvest from these.

Collective fields remain under the control of the compound head, who is responsible for maintaining the collective granary, and work on collective fields has priority over work on individual plots.

Grasslands around the settlements are farmed exclusively by men, in a grass-fallow rotation of four-to-eight-year cycles, with sorghum, millet, fonio, cassava, groundnuts, and cotton. Male collective fields must be planted with subsistence crops (millet, sorghum) for home consumption. Male cash crops (groundnuts, cotton, cassava) are grown only on males' individual plots. Upland forest areas are used, with men and women working together, in long cycle slash-and-bum shifting cultivation to grow upland rice, millet, maize, and tubers.

River valley land with sufficient moisture is utilized and controlled exclusively by women; they make all planting decisions and have the right to distribute and/or sell the product from their individual fields. Female collective and individual fields are always located in the valley bottoms and are used for rice cultivation. The clans' senior women allocate this land to the individual compounds, and the senior woman of each compound is responsible for the compound's collective fields and allocates individual plots to the compound's women. The senior women also hold the rights to the oil palms in the valley bottoms.

All women receive from the village elders rights to water and land for gardens where they grow vegetables; they have the right to dispose of the produce of then garden.

Some men grow cassava, cocoyam (taro), maize, sweet potato, and beans in their own gardens (Lifton 1991:1-19).

In many customary tenure systems, land for farming is assigned to eligible claimants on the basis of their ability to dear it and to establish field crops. In others, bush or forest fallows tend to revert to communal authority and can be reassigned to another claimant. The shortening of fallows may therefore also be the result or the cultivator's attempt to safeguard his or her rights to the plot. Because land is becoming scarce, shortened fallows may also be caused by someone else moving in too soon after the previous cultivator has left the plot to natural regeneration.

Understanding the complexities of local tenure systems is especially important for comprehending the incentive system that applies to agroforestry activities. It also often helps explain deforestation. Tree tenure may be distinctly different from land tenure.² One person or group may have rights to the land, while others have rights to the trees on it, or to certain products from certain trees at certain times. In northern Sudan, for instance, a tree and its fruits may belong in shares to the owner of the land, the person who provided the seedling, and the owner of the waterwheel that irrigates the land (Gregersen and others 1989:156). In some systems, tree clearing may be the only way to establish uncontested usufruct rights for cultivation. Elsewhere, tree planting may be regarded as laying claim to land In many areas, diverse arrangements concerning rights in trees are common and of considerable relevance to those deciding whether to plant trees and which trees.

Tree tenure issues are particularly critical where deforestation is severe and the fuelwood crisis pressing, but also where tree crops have potential for environmentally sustainable and profitable agricultural development. In some countries, because all forest land is owned by the state, people may fear that if they plant trees their land will revert to the government. In parts of the Sahel, people have been unwilling to plant certain trees because these are on the forest department's protected list, and to cut or prune them would require going through tedious procedures to prove they own the land and planted the trees and to obtain cutting permits (Timberlake 1986).

Box 4-6 Tree Tenure Rights

Tenure rights in to trees comprise a variety of specific rights, primarily

· Use rights include: (a) gathering rights—for example, the right to gather or lop dead branches for fuelwood, to gather things growing on a tree (such as fungus or insects), or to gather tree products from under the tree, such as fallen leaves or fruit; (b) use of the standing tree—such as hanging honey barrels in it, (c) cutting parts or all of a living tree—for livestock fodder or building material, for instance; (d) harvesting produce

· Disposal rights comprise the right: (a) to destroy (by uprooting or felling individual trees) or to clear a section of forest; (b) to lend; (c) to lease, mortgage, or pledge; (d) to bequeath; and (e) to sell (Gregersen and others 1989:155-157).

A recent study in Ghana, Kenya, and Rwanda found that customary land tenure systems do not appear to be insecure (Migot-Adholla and others 1991). Many farmers enjoy transfer rights on their lands—although these rights may be subject to approval by family or lineage members. Women's tenurial security is generally far less certain than that of men (see Chapter 5), but the opposite may be the case in some matrilineal-matrilocal societies. To the extent that the social system sanctions transactions in land, such transactions are sufficiently recognized. Traditional tenure systems continue to evolve, and many have over time accommodated increasing degrees of individual ownership and management control. Rapid population growth and growing commercialization of agriculture increasingly necessitate investing in land management and improvement, hastening the individualization of land rights (Migot-Adholla and others 1989).³ In many cases, private rights to land have become virtually exclusive, although they fall short of outright ownership Other members of the community may have secondary concurrent or sequential rights that permit, for instance, fuelwood collection or livestock grazing. Inheritance has emerged as the most significant form of acquisition of agricultural land in traditional rural society, and rights to such land are very secure; nevertheless, security of tenure is strengthened by continuous occupation and cultivation Restrictions on the sale of inheritable land may still apply in some systems (as in the northern Mossi Plateau in Burkina Faso), but in others land has been sold for half a century or more and can be mortgaged and leased (as in the Hausa areas of southern Niger and northern Nigeria). Purchases are becoming an increasingly important means of acquiring land. This is occurring in Kenya, with its history of land registration and government intervention in land matters' but also in Ghana and Rwanda' where governments have been less active in providing and enforcing a welidefined legal framework for land transactions (Migot-Adholla and others 1989).

Problems arise as traditional tenure systems begin to impose constraints on evolving agricultural production systems and on the adoption of technological change. Unfortunately, most African governments and external aid agencies have mistakenly believed that traditional community ownership of land did not provide adequate tenurial security, and that it discouraged investment in the land This perception arose largely from failure to understand fully the intricacies of customary tenure systems with their emphasis on venous user rights and the often subtle, but important, differences among different communities arrangements. A particularly important aspect of most, if not all, ancestral African land tenure systems—the concept of the inalienability of land—has been widely regarded as an obstacle to agricultural development: land markets did not readily develop, and individual land ownership was difficult to establish as collateral for institutional credit. (Of course, smallholders anywhere in the world are extremely reluctant to mortgage, and hence risk losing, their land).

There has also been an erosion and breakdown in customary laws and rules governing sustainable use and management of land and other common property resources. This has occurred under the pressure of rapid population growth and has been exacerbated by large-scale rnigration in many countries and by changing social values and customs. Increasing commercialization of agriculture has induced changes in land use, farming systems, and cropping patterns. Inappropriate pricing signals arising from government interference in input and output markets have often hastened such changes into unsustainable directions. And central authorities have frequently undermined the capability of local decisionmaking bodies to manage their natural resource environment by imposing tight controls over local organizations, removing authority to central agencies, and creating new organizations that compete or conflict with traditional ones (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; Gorse and Steeds 1987). In many areas, resources that were under effective communal management have, as a result, been converted into de facto open-access resources (e.g., Nekby 1990).

The response of many governments has been to nationalize land ownership' but then to allow customary law to guide the use of some land while allocating other land to private investors, political elites, and public projects. This has reduced, not increased, tenurial security. Investing in the land becomes risky for farmers, since governments can and do reallocate land to serve "national purposes." In many cases this accelerates the breakdown of customary land management systems and emergence of openaccess conditions in which exploitation by anyone is permitted.

In much of the West African Sahelo-Sudanian Zone, for instance, pasture end even croplands are often treated as a free good under current policies Wells have been sunk to permit access to ostensibly unexpIoited or underexploited rangeland, and settlers in less densely populated areas are not subject to any land use guidelines. In both cases, legal incentives would help by offering land rights in exchange for management responsibilities (Gorse and Steeds 1987). In most countries, forest land has been taken over by governments, overriding the rights of indigenous populations. Though nominally controlled, these "protected" or "reserved" forests have become virtually open-access resources for large - and small scale exploitation, because the responsible agencies have not been able to provide effective management.

Box 4-7 Common Property vs. Open-Access Regimes

There is much misunderstanding of the difference between common property and open-access regimes. Open-access resources are at great risk of over-exploitation, since they lack clearly defined ownership and use rights assignations as well as effective management. Common property systems, by contrast, are well-structured arrangements in which group size is known and enforced, management rules are developed, incentives exist for co-owners to adhere to the accepted arrangements, and sanctions work to ensure compliance. There is a set of agreements within the community over the rights to use of communal land resources by venous members and/or subgroups of the community and by strangers, even in sparsely settled areas. Communal land really means not so much communally managed land, but land to which members of the community have rights, while outsiders do not or only under specific and tightly prescribed conditions (Repetto and Holmes 1983; Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; Bromley and Cernea 1989; Barnes 1990a).

Open-access systems, found especially in forest and range areas, result in rapid environmental destruction—a repetition of the process widely observed before the agricultural transformation in Europe and usually (albeit mistakenly) labeled "the tragedy of the commons." Openaccess systems are not conducive to resource conservation or to investment in land This problem was resolved in Europe largely by the allocation of land to individual owners who then had an incentive to invest in it, develop it, and conserve it.

As noted earlier, there may be a further problem in open-access systems, which may also be a problem of customary tenure systems In most of rural Sub-Saharan Africa, access to nonfamily labor is limited. Hiring wage labor is rarely an option, simply because there is, as yet, no class of landless laborers, although population pressure is leading to the emergence of seasonal and migrant wage labor in rnany countries. More common in many communities is the pooling of labor for certain tasks, sometimes among gender and age mates within a village, more often among members of a larger kinship group. Granting access to land for farming to members of a community on the basis of their ability to cultivate it may therefore be a disincentive to control human fertility, because the ability to cultivate land is generally determined by the ability to mobilize family labor (e.g., Amankwah 1989:21). Field studies report this to be an important incentive to increase family size through polygamy and pressure on women to bear many children.

The "solution" often proposed to overcome these various problems is the allocation of individual land titles, through large-scale titling programs. But the experience with such programs has been poor. Individualized land titling in Kenya and Botswana has facilitated land grabbing, concentration of ownership, and concomitant landlessness. In Nigeria, large tracts for which members of the political and economic elite obtained occupancy certificates under the provisions of the 1978 Land Use Act have been rapidly cleared of vegetation with motorized equipment so as to preclude any possibility of smallholders remaining or becoming active on such land; this has been an effective way of eliminating potential contestants to land claimed under the provisions of the Act, but it has also been extremely abusive of the environment. Such land grabbing had been practiced by European colonists, and some of the new elites have used the same methods.

However, the problems in Kenya, Botswana, and Nigeria may be associated more with the problem of transition from traditional to modern tenure systems. The rights of customary land and tree owners were largely disregarded, and members of the political and economic elite too easily manipulated the legal and administrative systems to wrest land from its traditional owners. However, once obtained, individual land ownership does provide an incentive to develop and maintain the land. This can be witnessed in the intensive sustainable farming practiced by smallholders in the Kenyan highlands, by private landowners in Zimbabwe and Botswana, and on tree crop plantation in Cd'Ivoire.

To avoid the problems associated with an unduly rapid move to private individual titling, or the even greater problems of nationalizing land ownership, it will be prudent to establish legal recognition and protection of customary tenure systems, combined with an effective and transparent mechanism to provide individual or group titles on demand and only with the agreement of the traditional landowners and users (such as pastoralists). Only a demand-ariven process of individual land titling will be possible and advisable However, as traditional land tenure systems break down, and to resolve existing problems in open access systems), land titling wiIl be necessary for agricultural growth, soil conservation, and forest protection.