Sounding off on African land reform

Two farmers plow their land along the road to Simien Mountains Park, Ethiopia. In Africa, land reform and governance have a long way to go, including the resolution of land conflicts because of the lack of proper local administration. Photo by: A.Davey / CC BY

In a recent interview with Devex, Frank Byamugisha, the World Bank’s lead land specialist for Africa, called for an accelerated push to reform land governance. For the longest time, Byamugisha argued, international donors have pursued land strategies that didn’t reduce poverty and ensure sustainable development.

The interview hit a nerve with several Devex readers.

Improved land governance can mean a lot of things, wrote Bernie Warmington from New Zealand.

“Here it seems to mean (e.g.) overcoming the obstacles to large scale land assembly for commercial scale farming, as well as reducing the inequity associated with land grabs and insensitivity to local aspirations and values,” he continued. “If so I agree with the latter, however in most sub-saharan countries as elsewhere there is no ‘spare’ land (i.e. not providing either farming use or conservation values), so any land transferred into commercial agriculture means less for local farmers / wildlife to use.”

Warmington suggested a greater focus on improving local land administration through registration, providing certainty of title and other means to facilitate local use and reduce land conflicts, rather than to facilitate expropriation even if it’s voluntary and at “market rates.”

“Local market rate is usually much less than the true value of the land to international buyers, so it is hard for local farmers to compete for land in such a market,” he argued.

Richard A. Shepard, who says he’s been involved in a number of donor efforts in Africa, had a different take.

“The solution,” he said, “is not to simply provide more contracts to African specialists — not if those contracts are tied to unending studies and no funds to actually implement the findings. Land administration reform does not, as many would like you believe, require a degree in quantum mechanics. Furthermore, many foreign consultants do, frankly, understand national norms and the environment in Africa, largely because they have worked with the African specialists and most are pretty quick learners.” If Frank wants to have donors go in a different direction, perhaps a good way to start is to ask the people in the field and African specialists how it should be done.

What do you think are the biggest land administration challenges facing Africa today, and how can they be tackled?

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