What is your land tenure type?

Here's how to talk about land tenure, land rights and security of tenure on land without confusing your readers, listeners or self.

The reason am writing about land is because I traveled to Africa (?) and visited family, friends and strangers in many parts of the country. I now find it hard to keep the stories to myself. Today and in the coming weeks I will write posts on the realities I encountered in the areas of access to land, food choices and people's livelihoods in general. I will start at the beginning by revisiting my article on which land tenure type, between communal and individual private is most suited for arid and semi-arid lands of Africa? 

Pros and cons of holding land as communal Vs individual private tenure

While at the lands office waiting to be served, Pulei, in his 70s, finds himself seated between two young men in their mid twenties. After a brief exchange of greetings, the young men continue with a conversation on land tenure. One says he prefers if all land in the country was subdivided and registered in names of individuals. The other objects, asking what would happen to the many people who access land as a group, especially in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). 

Pulei initially had decided to find a different waiting bench when the two young men arrived and sat on either side. He changed his mind about relocating on hearing the words title registration mentioned by the two young men, the issue that had brought him to the lands office. 

Unlike few minutes before, Pulei now wished that his turn to be served would not be soon, not until the two young men completed their argument. 

The day before, the local Chief had arrived at his homestead accompanied by a smartly dressed young man who said had a title registered to part of the land accessed by Pulei and his extended family. 

To follow the conversation with ease, Pulei mentally allocated names to the two young men - Private and Communal.

Private: Men! There is nothing comparable to having a title to land registered in your name. It is like having a log-book to a car, prove that the car belongs to you. Belongs to you means that you are the owner and can decide when to give someone a ride and when to ask them to pay. That is the way I would like to hold my land.

Communal: I now understand the reason you no longer get along with your cousins. Are you trying to tell me that interests on land held on group basis are not protected like the car imaged in your head? There are rules which guide users of communal lands. The rules give authority to community members to include and exclude outsiders from resources within their land, just the way you plan to do with your car. How is that different from what you call ownership?

Private: Looks down on the floor of the lands office and shakes his head without uttering a word.

Communal: I sense a big misunderstanding here. Did you not know that our communal lands are private to our community? The only difference with your desired individual rights to land is that we have not divided up our land into individual parcels. The elders of our community, not the current ones, but our forefathers reached a decision not to subdivide land into smaller parcels. The decision was based on the realities of our climatic zone, arid and semi-arid lands. These ASALs are favourable for the practice of pastoralism as a livelihood strategy. The elders agreed that each member of the community will have rights to the resources on land based on kinship which offers long term security of tenure and access rights to the resources therein.

Private: Those ideas of yours will change once you complete your degree program at the university. By then you would have new knowledge on the land tenure type that is holding our people from progress. My advice is that you go register to take the development course I took in my third year at university, where I encountered a man called De Soto. 

Communal: Was that one of your lecturers, or a fellow student? Is that the reason you talk so against our communal land tenure? Thanks for confirming what I had sensed, that you must have encountered something strange in your studies last year. 

Private: I actually did not meet with the person. What I am telling you is from his writings on the only way our people will make progress. De Soto is of the opinion that some dead capital is tied up in all these communal lands. He explains that the dead capital will only come to life when one is allocated individual land and formalizes the land through title registration. By doing so, the title holder will be able to invest on the land, or sell it. 

Communal: I don’t think our people are ready for that type of individual land tenure. A tenure type that will imprison them with tight rules on how to relate with their family and neighbours. I prefer our current communal land tenure, guided by familiar customary rules. And, the rights to land are long term, as long as one is on earth. I prefer group rights to land for they allow reciprocal relations among people.

Private: As I said, remember to take that university course next year, that is where your liberation will begin. I had no idea that you do not like absolute control over things. Registering title to individual land provides security of tenure, thus reduces uncertainty of future access. Remember that once you register a title to land, you are free to sell the land to a person of your choice; you have no reason to ask anyone for permission.

Communal: I do not think I like your type of private land tenure. It scares me that one day I can return home from university to find that our father has registered title to land and sold it without my knowledge, or the knowledge of my mother or siblings, or our uncles. That will be a terrible day!

Private: What would you say if I told you that the opposite is more likely to happen? There is nothing worse than you returning from university after three months to find a stranger in charge of your land. A stranger flashing a title deed onto your face and telling you that the land belongs to them because they hold a title registered in their name. By registering title to your family land, the land will be protected from outside appropriation. And, once you know that the land belongs to you, you are more likely to make improvements on the land.

Communal: Hahaaha! You make me laugh. Where will a normal person get courage to go register title on the land of another? Remember that all the neighbours on communal land know one another, and will never let strangers come in to disrupt their way of life. Your main role as an energetic young man within the community is to provide security to all community members, from such outsiders.

At this point Pulei hears his name. He reluctantly leaves the bench and goes to talk to the land officer. Pulei is now very confused. When he left his house in the morning, he had a clear idea on the protection and benefits provided under communal land tenure. He is now confused after listening to the debate between the two young men on the pros and cons of holding land on communal or individual tenure . What will he tell the land’s officer?

Stay tuned for the next blog post to learn more on the land tenure type that Pulei has decided to hold the land accessed by his household.

In your opinion, which of the two land tenure types, between communal and individual will provide security of tenure to land users in ASALs of Africa? Join the debate.