Land policy for the next decade: Taking stock and moving forward

Her Excellency further observed that, in Africa, about 60% of the population derives its livelihood and incomes from farming, yet Africa’s agriculture is yet to match the needs of its growing population. The Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) is the collective approach to addressing this limitation, and to promote sustainable land management. As Her Excellency insisted, agriculture will remain key to our continent’s transformation, and will need to provide employment opportunities and livelihoods to our growing population.

His Excellency Ato Tefera Derbew, Ethiopia’s Minister of Agriculture, endorsed such sentiments. He welcomed participants and issued a challenge to all national governments: with Africa’s substantial land resource, he said, the situation of low productivity and food security is ‘not acceptable’. He called on AU member states to ‘diligently implement our continental guidelines’.

A strong foundation has been laid

A core message from the inaugural ceremony was that Africa has already laid a solid basis to secure land rights. Speakers reflected on the progress made over the past five since the African Union heads of state Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges in Africa. There is now widespread agreement that ensuring secure and equitable access to land and natural resources is essential, especially in face of increasing economic and population pressures.

European Union ambassador to the African Union, Gary Quince, emphasized the partnership and collaboration that has been forged between the EU and AU, with the EU now supporting land tenure programmes currently in ten countries. Quince pointed out that, since the AU Declaration was adopted five years ago, a lot has happened: Africa has enjoyed good economic growth, and the importance of agriculture has been recognized, while at the same time the continent’s population has increased by over 100 million. Many challenges remain: there has been an upsurge of conflict across Africa, displacing many thousands of people from their land and livelihoods, and large acquisitions are increasing.

Women’s land rights must be at the centre

If African states are to secure land rights for their citizens, then women must be at the centre of policymakers’ concerns. Speakers concurred that women are the main users of rural land for both production and reproduction.

‘We will work to ensure that marginalized groups and women’s voices are brought to the fore’, promised Kafui Afiwa Kuwonu of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAf).

She referred to the rural women’s initiative in 2012 under the slogan ‘Our Land, Our Life’ and indicated that civil society groups had met in the past two days to plan how to support rural women to advance their cause. Their initiative would culminate at a gathering of rural women from across the continent in Kilimanjaro in 2016. She issued an appeal to participants to join this initiative to ensure that rural women are at the centre of all discussions about land and other natural resource rights.

Josephine Ngure of the African Development Bank supported these sentiments, arguing that patriarchal systems have discriminated against women, reinforced by land laws that have tended to cement the discriminatory inheritance rights. If law and policy are to redress gender imbalances, she reasoned, then both customary and statutory laws need to be transformed to strengthen women’s access and control of land. This must be done in recognition of human rights, but also in recognition that women are the primary users of agricultural land in Africa.

Civil society is on board to partner in implementation

Kuwonu of WILDAf also spelt out how civil society organisations intend to use the platform provided by this conference: to share experiences and to challenge policymakers, but also to inspire participants to forge ahead with implementation and to be part of the solution.

‘We commit to disseminate information on land policy and collaborate in efforts and to share best practices’, she promised.

It’s about politics

While land rights and land tenure are longstanding challenges, these issues are receiving more attention from governments, especially in the wake of the food price hikes from 2007/8 and other global factors that have contributed, together with domestic demand, to growing large-scale commercial pressures on land. While all speakers agreed on the need to secure existing customary and informal rights to land, there was an evident tension in where they placed their emphasis. Is the priority to secure existing property rights for those who already occupy, use and claim land – or to facilitate the commodification of land rights so that they can be more readily transacted? How can these competing priorities be squared in practice? These questions will no doubt animate debates among conference participants over the coming three days.

How to secure rights in a context of rising demand for land? 

At the centre of the politics is the rising demand for arable land. Kuwonu of WILDAf declared: ‘The issue of land in Africa is at the heart of our concerns… Land is coveted by all, including farmers and fishers, but it is also subject to new demand from outsiders.’

Josephine Ngure of the AfDB argued that  ‘land grabs’ which have been described as the ‘new imperialism’ are giving rise to problems of governance. Global changes are bringing new impacts on Africa’s land, with growing demand for food, energy and water supplies, and growth in foreign direct investment in land. A key challenge is for Africa to have policies that can manage the risk of loss of land rights by the poor. In this context, how can we provide security while attracting investment, and how can we do this while ensuring our people have access to land?

As Susan Minae of FAO astutely observed, while there is a need for technical expertise and governance solutions: ‘Securing land rights is not just about governance, it’s about politics!’


To confront such competing imperatives, in the real world of politics, Africa needs strong leadership. Aisa Kirabo Kacyira of UN-Habitat declared, to nods of agreement from the audience: ‘Leadership is needed where the common good is in conflict with the private good – and land is such an area that calls for leadership.’

Without leadership, she observed, things can go wrong. The engagements at this conference, then, between policy makers, practitioners, civil society and academics, are crucial for strengthening such leadership.

Land is about industrialization as well as agriculture

Several speakers emphasized the importance of land tenure and land use management in facilitating wider economic and social change. Stephen Karingi of the UNECA pointed to the role of land in supporting national development priorities. He observed that this event builds on the Malabo Declaration, which called on African states to leverage natural resources to drive national economic growth and industrialization. In this context, land is a strategic resource and Africa needs a new sense of determination to take strategic control over its resources and maximize its value from this capital. Land has been used as the foundation of economic development elsewhere in the world, and promoted food production. In light of this, he argued, where large-scale land-based investments happen, these must be in support of national development priorities and in line with land policy guidelines.

Land is an urban issue too

Africa is the least urbanized continent, but is urbanizing faster than anywhere else, at double the global rate, making sustainable urbanization an urgent priority for policy and planning. As Kacyira of UN-Habitat insisted, we need to use this resource that has been a source of conflict and make it a driver of security and prosperity.

A new phase of operationalizing policy principles

We’re into a new phase – indigenizing these, operationalizing them in the national context in each member state, and learning from practice. The principles are well established, but how are these to be interpreted and to operationalized in the very diverse national contexts? Now is the time to focus on practice, and learning from practice. How do we bring evidence into policy?

How to secure land rights, to improve agriculture, and how to ensure that land rights of smallholders are protected against speculation and large acquisitions?

This moment is auspicious, coming in the AU Year of Agriculture and Food Security.

Complementing the AU Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy are the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Several speakers agreed that, together with the new AU Guiding Principles, these constitute a formidable basis for inclusive and sustainable investment in land while securing land rights.

A flagship sharing and learning event for Africa

Speakers reiterated their appreciation for the Land Policy Initiative, jointly convened by the AU, AfDB and UNECA, and the valuable work it does. In convening this event, they observed, the LPI is helping to promote evidence-based policy making. This ‘flagship’ sharing and learning event for Africa will enable knowledge to be shared which can support evidence-based policy and implementation.

Inclusive growth in agriculture?

In the inaugural ceremony, relatively little was said about what form inclusive growth in agriculture means, and how it can be achieved. Yet most speakers alluded to the tensions between the rights agenda and the need to increase investment, re-investment and productivity. Kacyira of UN-Habitat commented: ‘Even though land symbolizes life, it only supports life when it is translated into viable incomes that can help people to meet their needs.’

Securing land rights is not, by itself, enough, as the existing rural population needs investment in their own production. How this can be achieved, and what lessons have already been learnt, will be addressed in detail in the conference sessions over the coming three days.

Note: The Guiding Principles on Large Scale Land Based Investment, endorsed by Heads of State in April 2014, are to be officially launched on the second day of the conference, on the morning of Wednesday 12 November 2014.

This post first appeared on the PLAAS blog.