Ghana’s farming communities of Prestea, Himan, and Bondaye have been in conflict with the Plant North Pit gold mining operations of Golden Star Resources, a Canadian mining company, for more than a decade. The villagers are outraged with a foreign mining company taking large amounts of their agricultural land; the high levels of water, air, and noise pollution they now experience; and the small compensation they have received for their losses. Recently, the disputes turned violent. On September 3, 2013, a police and military team, together with security personnel from the mining company, stormed several houses in the three communities. The operation destroyed property and injured four villagers and a civil society advocate.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Land use conflicts between communities and mining companies—as well as oil operations, logging companies, and other natural resource extractors—are common across Africa.

Overlapping Land and Resource Rights

In much of Africa, the bundle of land rights that most rural people legally hold is relatively small—usually limited to surface rights and certain rights to some natural resources on and below the surface, such as rights to water for domestic use. Many high-value natural resources—such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and wildlife—are governed by separate legal regimes and administered by different public institutions. Africa’s governments often allocate these rights to outside, commonly foreign companies for large-scale operations. In other words, while many communities hold rights to the land, foreign companies hold the rights to the natural resources on or under the same plot. These overlapping rights oftentimes lead to conflict, unsustainable use of resources, and injustices.

So, why do governments grant companies rights to natural resources on land held by rural communities? And how can rural landholders in Africa be included in decisions that affect their land and livelihood? WRI’s new animated video, A Farmer In Africa: Overlapping Property Rights, explores these issues—and highlights some potential solutions.

Research on Land and Resource Rights

Four findings from recent research on overlapping land and mineral/petroleum rights in Ghana, Liberia, Uganda, and Kenya are worth highlighting:

  • Most privately-held land is available for mineral and petroleum operations.
  • Governments are not required by law to have the consent of landholders to allocate mineral and petroleum rights over privately-held land. In most countries, however, the company must notify the landholders before beginning mineral or petroleum operations.
  • Companies must meet some social and environmental safeguards, but they have broad and expansive authorities to conduct mineral and petroleum operations on privately-held land.
  • Mineral and petroleum laws do not explicitly provide landholders with many significant rights over their land. Some laws restrict the construction of buildings or other structures, or to upgrade to a higher value crop without the written consent of the companies. Some specifically provide that interference with operations is a crime punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. Certain mineral laws provide landholders with the right to cultivate crops or graze livestock, but only in-so-far as the activities do not interfere with operations.

Strengthening African Communities’ Land Rights

As Africa’s governments grant companies rights to more of their natural resources, instances of overlapping land and natural resource rights are becoming more and more common. Such overlapping rights are also a growing source of rural conflict as the various holders pursue competing and contradictory land use practices.

Africa’s laws grant broad authority to companies and significantly restrict land rights for landholders. This creates problems both for business and for rural communities. Conflicts over land use from overlapping land and natural resource rights have increased the risks and costs of doing business, while also creating hardships and losses for landholders.

Africa’s governments must better balance companies’ authorities to use natural resources with the villagers’ rights to use their land for their livelihoods. This would allow for genuine negotiations and the crafting of compromises that work for both companies and landholders.