Land and natural resources lie at the heart of social, political, and economic life in much of rural Africa. They represent fundamental assets—primary sources of livelihood, nutrition, income, wealth, and employment for African communities—and are a basis for security, status, social identity, and political relations. For many rural people, land and resources such as water, trees, and wildlife also have significant historical, cultural, and spiritual significance.

Given the importance of land and natural resources to local livelihoods and well-being, rural people and communities need strong, secure rights over their property. Strong rights help protect rural people from expropriation, losing their land, and facing eviction. By raising expectations that people will capture returns from their land investments, secure rights create incentives for people to improve land management and agricultural production, such as by planting trees or building bench terraces to reduce soil erosion. Secure land is also a common form of collateral for acquiring a bank loan. Research shows that strengthening land tenure often results in improvements in land management, agricultural productivity, and household welfare.

Property rights issues, however, can be complex; they’re often misunderstood, even by many policymakers and development practitioners. To this end, WRI and Landesa have launched a fully refreshed online education website—Focus on Land in Africa (FOLA)—designed to provide easy-to-understand information and resources on land and natural resource rights. By de-mystifying property rights, FOLA can contribute to more informed decisions that support—not undermine—land and resource rights in Africa.

A Look at Land Tenure in Africa

Many African countries are responding to the global demand for food, fuel, and raw materials. In recent years, there has been an uptick of large-scale land acquisitions by foreign governments and agricultural investors, principally for the production of food and biofuels. Governments are allocating new oil, mining, and logging concessions for large-scale industrial production, as well as acquiring land for much-needed infrastructure, such as roads, rails, and ports. Many countries have also expanded their network of protected areas in order to conserve biodiversity, store carbon, and safeguard ecosystem services.

In other words, competition for access to Africa’s land and natural resources is increasing. This situation can lead to the displacement and resettlement of many rural people and create insecure tenure situations for those who still remain on their land. Under weak tenure circumstances, people will often mine their soils and extract natural resources to maximize short-term benefits, eroding the resource base, negatively impacting ecosystems, and undermining long-term agricultural productivity,

Some governments, like Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Kenya, are beginning to take notice. With the support of international partners and local civil society organizations, these governments are ushering in new policies and investments designed to secure land tenure and strengthen natural resource rights, including the recognition of customary land (land held by communities or indigenous people and administered in accordance with their customs, not national laws). Many of these country experiences are presented on FOLA. For example:

  • In Ghana, the government and its development partners are documenting customary tenure arrangements and mapping community land and family plots;
  • In Burkina Faso, a new land law decentralizes land management, recognizes customary land practices, and formalizes community rights; and
  • In Kenya, the 2010 Constitution and several new land laws provide that women have rights to land equal to those granted to men.

Still, many new policies and development interventions in Africa fail to adequately consider property rights. These measures are unlikely to meet their goals, and may actually weaken tenure and threaten local livelihoods.

Decision-makers fail to appropriately account for land and resource rights for several reasons. Some do not appreciate that property rights are central to achieving development outcomes. Others lack access to quality, up-to-date information on how land is being used by local communities. Still others find property rights issues too complex and lack the guidance needed to take effective measures to strengthen land tenure. In many cases, this knowledge deficit is principally a communication challenge.

Using the FOLA Website

FOLA is intended to meet this communication challenge. It aims to help government officials and development professionals make informed decisions and take appropriate actions that strengthen local land rights. It can also be used by educators to train the next generation of policymakers, practitioners, advocates, and scholars in matters of land use, agricultural development, and tenure.

The site provides country experiences and lessons concerning complex land tenure matters in ways that are easy to access, appealing, and informative. Some of the information on the FOLA site includes:

  • Brief, concise introductions to critical property rights themes and issues;
  • Written briefs, slideshows, videos, and other visual resources on land and natural resource rights;
  • Commentaries by African government officials and civil society leaders on land tenure issues;
  • A news feed that provides the most recent articles on land-related developments in Africa.

In time, WRI and Landesa hope this information hub will help secure land and resource rights for Africa’s vulnerable populations.