Securing Land Rights in Africa

10 October 2017

Earlier this month, Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf warned that Africa would continue to be stalked by poverty, hunger, and famine until governments provide smallholder farmers with secure rights to land. According to the World Bank, more than 90 per cent of Africa’s rural land is undocumented. Africa’s small family farmers – already burdened by soil degradation, climate change, and resource competition fuelled by surging populations – face an even more challenging bureaucratic hurdle: no paper to prove that the land they call home is theirs. This is particularly true of female farmers, who face an additional thicket of discriminatory land laws and customs.

Studies show there is no way to reduce poverty, improve nutrition, or achieve other key development goals without strengthening land rights, especially for women. Secure rights to land are simply a prerequisite of development. In Zambia, in areas where women’s land rights are weak and HIV infection rates are high, women are less likely to make investments to improve harvests – even when their husbands are not HIV positive. These women anticipate that they will be forced off their land if and when they are widowed, and that expectation depresses farm investment, affecting harvests and family nutrition for years.

Given that there are 400 million female farmers, such findings suggest the high global costs – measured in terms of lost productivity and unrealized economic potential – of insecure land rights for women. Currently, Liberia’s Senate is considering legislation that would dramatically strengthen land rights for farmers, including female farmers. Many other countries in Africa (notably Rwanda and Zambia) and in Asia (including Myanmar and India) have done, or are planning to do, the same.

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