Do property rights protect the poor?

These messages are punchy and well articulated. Reading it from the perspective of the China and Brazil in African Agriculture research project I’m currently working on, it was also interesting to get a sense of where most of these land investments are coming from. A number of rigorous academic studies produced over the last five years show that Chinese and Brazilian investors are actually quite shy about getting involved in the fixed asset of land in Africa. It’s too risky for many of them (with the one notable exception of Brazilian ethanol agribusinesses), and loans or other forms of financial support are often confused with investments; particularly in the case of China. Sure enough, the main actors in today’s land acquisitions are from Europe, the USA, and local African elites.

Law, property rights and security

Cotula’s strong defence of poor African farmers’ access to land reminded me strongly of a similar argument repeated by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto – but with a few important differences. In his best-known book The Mystery of Capital, de Soto argues that the West has managed to incorporate its poorest citizens into a middle class, because it successfully developed a body of legislation that could translate fixed assets (e.g. land or a factory) into transferable capital (e.g. shares, debt, money, etc.).

De Soto’s theory hinges on the introduction of formalised property titles. Certainly, this does have its advantages in theory.

Exploiting land titles

In practice, however, property titles sometimes lead to more harm than good for the poor. When the poor find themselves sitting on prime real estate, these titles become highly desirable – which is where the “land grab” phenomenon comes into play. Land that was previously unrecorded suddenly has the potential to attract large investments from a private enterprise. But, local peasants have been living and/or working on that land for years or generations already.

This creates an important conflict. So what does a government do? The answer to this varies.  But governments often have more to gain from supporting the investors over the poor locals; and it is governments who have the power to shape the legislation that comes into place around these new land titles.

Recognising this, Cotula is careful not to cast property rights as a panacea, because it is clear from his case studies that property rights law can also often serve to corrupt circumstances against the poor. As I’ve already mentioned, Cotula sees those forces as a product of history, demand, and local governments (and the legislation they set). He therefore warns against the “growing commoditization of land in rural areas” in Africa; and he calls for revised legislatures that would bolster both the rights and the negotiation potential of the poorest. Among other things, this recognises the potential for the role of local chieftains as brokers for their communities.

Cotula’s book is a refreshing addition to the debate on land rights, drawing from his legal background and socio-political expertise on the issues. Rather than just focusing on opportunities for profits, I think The Great African Land Grab? gives hope to the possibility for more justice over profits. As interest in African agriculture and other land-based resources increases, this study is an important step towards understanding how foreign investors and African legislators can affect these engagements for the benefit of the poorest.

Photo: Land Not for Sale – Sign in Entebbe – Uganda by adam_jones on Flickr