Podcast + transcript: did we get it wrong on land grabs in Africa? In Conversation with Laura German

May 18, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Laura German is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, and author of Power/Knowledge/Land: Contested Ontologies of Land and its Governance in Africa (University of Michigan Press)

Duncan: I’m really pleased about this conversation because I’m way out of date on this topic. This is about land ownership and what we used to call land grabs. I last worked on this probably about 15 years ago when Oxfam took a big interest in this. What some people called ‘large scale land investments’ were going on all over the world and the narrative then was that people were getting booted off their land and replaced by largely export crops owned by big farmers, whether they were in multinational corporations or national big farmers.

So would you mind updating us on what’s happened since?

Laura: [After the period you mention] within a few years there was a convergence onto this concept of land governance. So you had, back in 2008, just like you described, a lot of antagonism between those who were saying more investment in the rural areas of Africa was a good thing, while others were saying ‘this is a neo-colonial land grab’.

Over time these different actors began working together, and a set of joint concepts and practices emerged. Now, with a few exceptions, the entire development establishment has gotten in line with a set of core shared concepts such as land rights, tenure security and women’s empowerment, and the practices that are supposed to advance them, like land titling and community consultations. The book looks at those very carefully and tries to bring these dominant ideas into conversation with the published evidence, but also into conversation with ideas and practices that exist within African societies about what land is and how people should relate to it.

For example, what is “security”? When we use the word security or tenure security, what is it that’s in the minds of people who are using that word? And is it the same thing that’s in the minds of a small-scale farmer or pastoralist when they think about security?

For the World Bank and other bilateral “land donors”, tenure security is thought of as individualized and alienable rights. Each of those things can be looked at from the ethnographic perspective. If you look at the literature on how African societies think about and enact or practice security, it looks very different.

So for example, there is a very widespread practice for land to be held through land-holding lineages, in which a dominant principle is to avoid the alienation of land away from the landholding group. A strong emphasis tends to be placed on belonging, and on practices that actively defend land from being transferred to individuals who are not members of these land-holding groups.

And even this concept of rights. [In African societies], a lot of emphasis is placed on responsibilities and duties to group members, to ancestors, and to future generations or those not yet born. The whole way of being with land, they’re just operating on fundamentally different principles.

Duncan: So when people miss the point, when they’re not aware of this other way of thinking about security, and a government or a private investor wants to buy a big chunk of land, what is the result of that clash of ontologies, if I’m using the term correctly, for people on the ground?

Laura: I’ve talked about ideas, but there’s also a few key instruments that have been used, that align with these ideas or that are supported by these ideas. Take the ‘solutions’ to land grabbing. One is the formalization of customary land tenure through state-recognized title. Land regularization, land titling, or formalization are all words that have been used to talk about this. It can be in the name of individuals, of married couples, or it in the name of a community of users. The second instrument is community consultations in the context of outside interest in customary land. These interventions have been pitched as progressive solutions to tenure insecurity in the context of land grabbing.

The book explores how those very practices can actually allow for the commercial acquisition of customary land to continue. So, for example, when you formalize title, you draw boundaries around parcels of property and around persons, and the nature of the rights that you recognize are rights that are alienable. So it becomes part and parcel of the process of enabling land to be extracted from these land-holding groups. You grossly simplify the entitlement structure to one or two individuals, or in the case of communities to a specified group that can negotiate on behalf of the collective.

Duncan: Tell me how this interacts with women’s rights and gender. Some people say women’s rights are more respected under customary regimes. Some say it’s more respected under individual land titling formal systems.

Laura: Women’s land rights are the topic of so much of the webinars and the glossy brochures and campaigns. So what are the ideas that are governing all this interest in women’s land rights and do they hold up under scrutiny?

One key idea promoted within international development circles is that women’s land rights are fragile under customary tenure – that women are in a state of precarity or insecurity. One idea within that is that women’s rights are undermined by their secondary status, that their rights are acquired through their relationship with male relatives and not directly.

Another idea is that the state is the best protector of those rights. Another premise is that transferability of title is key to tenure security, which I find very peculiar – that security is best advanced through rights that can be taken away or sold.

The book reviews the evidence on these things and finds so many flaws. It’s not to say that these are never true – they might be true in some places in some ways, but the exceptions are just as prominent.

Let’s take the assumption that women’s rights are fragile under customary systems. First of all, practices of inheritance and the status of women in the roles of wives, widows, daughters and sisters are highly variable, making any kind of claim about a generalizable experience false.

Wives and widows are seen to be discriminated against, for example, because they gain access to land through their husbands or they lose certain entitlements. In the case of widowhood or divorce, that tends to occur due to the logic of keeping land in the hands of patrilineal land-holding lineages. Because if a woman marries into the patrilineage of her husband, and then he dies and she takes a husband from outside that group, that is seen as threatening the integrity of those landholdings and  the attachment of lineages to place.

This active defence of collective territory benefits everyone – all members of that patrilineage, including women born into it, men, youth, elders. To treat women as uniformly dispossessed, or to elevate only the experience of widows or divorcees, misses this logic and misrepresents the evidence. It focuses in on all the negative and fails to recognize this entire system that’s designed to uphold the rights of all.

I realize that sounds quite controversial. I imagine that some feminist scholars would disagree with that. I’m not saying that women are never oppressed or disadvantaged – there’s ample evidence that I also review in the book on that. My point is that if the narrative only focuses on the negative and then you reform societies, you may have some gains, but you also have a lot of things that are being lost in the process. So I feel like we need a much more nuanced discussion of the way things work in particular places. Let’s not assume that individual title is the solution for all contexts and for women in all social positions.

There is a long history of titling prior to this emphasis on women’s rights that showed titling to disadvantage women. And that was largely a product of the tendency to place title in the name of a single individual. That single individual was often the husband and the husband could then go and sell the land.

So that clearly produces some vulnerabilities. But there are other things to consider. African land-holdings often have overlapping claims or what has been called a “web of interests” on the same territory, right? So it’s not like in the West where you have a parcel of land, with clear owners who have exclusive rights, and anyone else who enters that land or tries to harvest something is a violator. Instead, there are many overlapping claims, circumstantial access, conditional rights, that are continuously negotiated through informal practices.

When you boil that complex entitlement structure down to a single individual, obviously you have one winner and many losers. And that’s just the nature of the titling process. That you simplify the entitlement structure.

Furthermore, while the tendency is to focus on the vulnerabilities of women in patrilineal societies, there are also matrilineal societies that place men in a similar situation, right? Nobody’s talking about how men are disadvantaged in matrilineal societies. So there is a bias in these representations of African societies that serve to reinforce the call for intervention.  

But it would be unfair to only to stop there because the latest wave of titling is very intentional about gender parity – do they fare better in the literature?

There’s a lot of evidence that there are clear gains in many contexts, in terms of the number of women who have their names on titles. But there is a widespread failure to recognize the rights of women in informal or polygamous unions in several countries where I have evidence, or to protect the rights of children from common law unions.

Can I add one more example? The issue of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC. This is a concept that has come out and has a lot of currency right now. A lot of people are fighting for FPIC as a right that is respected for indigenous people and others.

But when you look at the kind of glossy brochures that are put out about that, it’s free prior and informed consent in the context of land acquisitions. So why is it that, why is it not about free prior and informed choice surrounding one’s own self-determined development aspirations and trajectories? Why is it always in the context of land acquisition? In doing so, we’ve already narrowed this space of choice and decision-making, right?

DG: So, final topic. You’ve got some really good research here, which demonstrates the bias and the weakness of many of the arguments, the lack of data, the potential negative consequences of a particular framing of investment in agriculture and land rights. So what would your advice be in terms of doing things better?

I would say that those who are working in the development establishment who have as their goal improving the welfare women and disadvantaged peoples should be very careful and self-critical about their ideas and assumptions.

They need to read outside of their knowledge ecosystem. For example the call to “save women” has many parallels with colonialism, the so-called “War on Terror” and other imperialist projects. How is the woman question deployed historically? Is evidence for the kinds of interventions that we’re supporting strong? And how do our assumptions play into broader interests in land beyond the local context?

There’s work from the University of Michigan (Kelly Askew with Howard Stein) collecting data from thousands of households, to test this theory change about the different benefits that titling is supposed to deliver. And they find that the impacts are neutral or negative for all five outcome variables that they study. So we’ve got to be careful about our assumptions or we’re going to end up doing more harm than good.

The second question we’ve got to ask is, ‘is this really demand driven?’ I think we need to stop trying to assume we know the solutions for Africans and engage in a deep dialogue with them about their challenges and aspirations. We may be surprised to hear that tenure insecurity is not the first, second, or third thing that’s mentioned, but other things, which would put the entire land governance project into question. And if tenure insecurity is mentioned as a priority, we should be asking what security means for them and how it can best be advanced in ways that cater for the interests of all current land users.

May 18, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. “I think we need to stop trying to assume we know the solutions for Africans and engage in a deep dialogue with them about their challenges and aspirations.” I do wonder whether many Africans might be a bit tired of having dialogues with “us”… But a really fascinating conversation – thanks both.

  2. When I worked on land grabs in Colombia between 2007-2010 the whole direction of our work was towards community ownership precisely so that land could be less easily sold (under great pressure or fraudulently) in the market place.

  3. This is really interesting and helpful, in particular in the context of working on M&E for a land titling / cadaster rollout programme in Colombia

  4. I enjoyed listening to this but have some doubts about the different ontologies as it concerns land tenure security (without having read the book!). Regularisation programmes that I have participated in or read about evidence a willingness of smallholder farmers to pay for land titling certificates (see Tanzania) especially in peri-urban areas. This ‘willingness to pay’ provides (some) evidence that there is a perceived utility in state sanctioned title from smallholders – and that the tenure and collective security/benefits provided by lineage networks is not longer offering much in the face of growing marketisation and interlinkages between customary land management and the state (the phenomenon of Chiefs selling off customary land to outsiders in some parts of Africa provides a good example of how the lineage system is not as effective in providing collective benefits anymore). This is not to say marketisation is good – simply to say that it is happening and people with some degree of have agency are choosing to engage and support state sanctioned title (although problems do arise with them going forward with subsequent registrations).

    Having written this, land regularisation/formalisation is no panacea for many other problems in African societies, including the weakness of the rule of law, poorly functioning and undercapacitated land institutions, and weak value chains for smallholders. As mentioned, in many cases regularisation doesn’t provide the security it promises nor result in the greater investment in land /access to credit that is often presumed to follow from formalisation of land rights. Part of this is not the problem of land regularisation as a concept, but rather the absence of any linkages of regularisation programs with other agricultural, rule of law or access to credit programmes (i.e. a design problem rather than an inherent deficit of land formalisation). I would also note that registration does not necessarily mean individualisation and alienation in all contexts (especially outside Africa – i.e. Pacific countries). Non-alienable land can be recorded and protected – in that boundaries are mapped and this land is marked as unalienable and/or there are procedures to invalidate transfers due to its protected status under constitutional or other legal frameworks. These are rare but could grow with the emphasis on conservation. It is worth noting that some land regularisation programmes have also embraced nuance and the incorporation of customary rights onto the titling/registration certificate. This means including on model certificates customary forms of land rights that are less than full ownership – following the ‘bundle of rights’ theory for land, rather than titling just one or two freehold owners of an estate following ‘western’ principles of land ownership . Further thinking in this space is required…apologies for the long post!

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  5. I appreciate the time taken by Renee to share her reactions to the podcast. Let me address her comments one by one.

    In terms of the observed “willingness to pay” in peri-urban areas: My research focuses on rural land, so I can’t claim to know all the dynamics involved. But two things come to mind. The first is how titling programs may themselves create insecurities, as complex entitlement structures (“bundles of rights” or “webs of interests”) get simplified through the formalization process. This may create an artificial rush to title – lest there be nothing left. This also raises questions such as “whose demand?” and “whose benefits?” I heard of instances in peri-urban Nairobi of land being sold off by a single family member once titled, leaving other family members destitute. I also know of instances of urban elites acquiring land on the cheap and titling it themselves to reap the benefits. Of course, there are folks interested in securing title in their name and shedding the duties they have towards others. However, that does not necessarily mean it is beneficial for all or even most.

    Regarding the observation that the collective security provided by lineage networks is not working in the face of growing marketization. This is at least in part because of the effects of the discursive and institutional dynamics I’ve been studying, that introduce the outright sale of commonly held land to strangers as something legitimate. Placing blame on chiefs for their participation in the kinds of transactions that have been pushed for and sanctioned by governments and development agencies seems misplaced. Secondly, there is evidence in West Africa for the growing defense of those same lineage-based networks in the face of increasing market pressure. This suggests that these customary landholding mechanisms are not obsolete, as is often argued by the proponents of these reforms, but vibrant — at least for the youth and others who see their entitlements eroding under this shift to conceptions of land as a freely tradable commodity. “It is happening”, yes, but do we understand the causal mechanisms involved and the distributional effects? And is it truly a choice that people are making, or are they given no other option in the face of titling-induced insecurities?

    On the question of the absence of any linkages with other programs being the cause of failure, rather than land a per se: Let’s take the case of credit. In de Soto’s own country of Peru, Haldar and Stiglitz found that the purported effect of land titling on access to credit had largely failed to materialize, because land is conceived of not as capital but as “family assets” or “something almost sacred.” What about Cambodia, the country with the largest microcredit sector in the world (on a per capita basis) – a status that has been facilitated by the extensive use of land titles as collateral? The evidence to date, according to a paper forthcoming by Milford Bateman, is that the linkage between regularization and microcredit has been very successful, but it has played a largely deleterious role in the lives of Cambodia’s poor – who have been “gently coerced into parting with their land over time in order to repay a microloan that would otherwise move into default.” In the Peruvian scenario, you simply fail to establish credit markets. Yet in the Cambodian case, the assumptions (and oftentimes, cultural arrogance) brought by outsiders causes a host of risks to be introduced into the system. So again, we have these theories of change that drive standardized solutions that are expected to follow a causal chain concocted by outsiders, but which do not occur in reality.

    On the final point that land can be recorded and protected in ways that are inalienable, I agree, although with some caveats (see Chapter 4 of my book). You say that “these are rare but could grow with the emphasis on conservation.” I would ask us to ponder why these are so rare: what is it about the wider interests in land that drive land titling programs which formalize rights that are alienable? And why should these forms of titling grow only for lands designated for conservation, and not for human sustenance? As the opening vignette in my book shows, farmers are asking for us to invest in them, not in their land. Why does land have to change hands or be left untouched for its existing uses and users to be considered “productive” or legitimate?

    1. Thank you Laura – really great points – I am especially keen on understanding the Cambodian example and to follow up with the references. Access to credit is a big and somewhat complex issue, and don’t think it works in most contexts and as you say increases household debt – my argument was slightly different though – the ‘economic potential’ of land to be used as a source of collateral (and taxation) drives and justifies land formalisation in many contexts but these (alleged) benefits don’t often result because of poor programme design….

      As mentioned I haven’t read your book but I now feel I am very keen to buy it! My only comment is that investing in production is not necessarily the antithesis to investing in people. As you rightly point out, smallholders can be the most productive. In my experience the biggest issues in some areas where I worked (Mali, Burundi, Senegal, and to a lesser degree Kenya) was not land as you mention and land tenure (in)security, but rather the utilisation of the land – not because this supported economic growth – but rather because this was a source of income and food security for the household. The first thing farmers said to me in our land registration programme was if we could help with the virus that was affecting banana trees. One could argue that formalisation of title does not have any consequences for these issues – but certainly customary land governance structures didn’t help these farmers either. Perhaps I am getting off track! But would to have a chat with you further and will try to find the book somewhere in Australia. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

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