Sirleaf and her tiny West African country are perfect examples of the toll that insecure land rights takes on individuals, communities and countries.
Disputes over land ownership were a key driver of Liberia’s 14-year civil war. And overlapping claims to land continue to foment conflict and impede foreign investment. Not even the president is immune to weak land-tenure laws; squatters invaded a four-acre parcel that Sirleaf bought in 1979, and refused to move for years.
Stories such as these can be heard across the continent. More than 90 percent of Africa’s rural land is undocumented. Overlapping and conflicting land-management systems are the norm, as are inaccessible, out-of-date, incomplete, inaccurate or nonexistent land records.
Small family farmers — already burdened by soil degradation, climate change and resource competition fueled by surging populations — face an even more challenging bureaucratic hurdle: no paper to prove that the land they call home is theirs. As a result, their planning horizons shrink. Instead of investing in terraced fields, planting trees and buying high-quality fertilizer, farmers seek to maximize short-term profits. This is particularly true of women, who face an additional thicket of discriminatory land laws and customs.
There is no way to reduce poverty, improve nutrition or achieve other key development goals without strengthening land rights, especially for women; they are a prerequisite of development.
In Tanzania, women with secure rights earn three times more than those without. In Nepal, children whose mothers have secure land rights are 33 percent more likely to be well nourished. In Zambia, in areas where women’s land rights are weak and HIV infection rates are high, women are less likely to make investments to improve harvests. They expect to be forced off their land if they are widowed, and that expectation depresses farm investment, affecting harvests and family nutrition for years.
Given that there are 400 million female farmers, such findings suggest the high global costs — in terms of lost productivity and unrealized economic potential — of insecure land rights for women.
In some regions, poor recordkeeping and weak administrative structures have forced landowners to post notices in their fields or on their homes, warning prospective buyers that they may be duped into purchasing land from people who are not the legitimate owners. In many countries, there is no way to know who owns what.
The continent can grow its own food, but not when no one knows who owns the land.
Communities with clear legal rights manage land more assiduously than those with shaky tenure. In Ghana, farmers with strong land rights are 39 percent more likely to plant trees. In Ethiopia, farmers are 60 percent more likely to invest in preventing soil erosion when they have secure rights.
But while the evidence is clear, nearly 1 billion people worldwide have no secure rights to the land they rely on for a living. This has far-reaching consequences. Weak land rights can limit farmers’ access to crop insurance, make it difficult for their children to register for school, and can even contribute to higher rates of suicide.
Liberia’s Senate is considering legislation that would dramatically strengthen land rights for farmers, including. Many other countries, notably Rwanda and Zambia in Africa and Myanmar and India in Asia, have done, or are planning to do, the same. These efforts should be supported, expedited and replicated.
Yet people are not waiting for their leaders to act. Innovative technologies are already providing a path forward for communities in countries with unwilling or incapable governments. Advances in GPS, drones and cloud computing have given communities the ability to document land — with or without official recognition or support. Communities from Nigeria to India are using hand-held devices to map property and support land claims with hard evidence, allowing for incremental strengthening of tenure.
Liberia’s drive to spearhead a continent-wide overhaul of land rights is welcome; leaders such as Sirleaf clearly understand the challenges that come with weak land laws. But structural changes will take time. In the absence of more assertive government intervention, it will be up to communities and individuals to leapfrog conventional efforts and fill in the blank spaces on the map.
• Frank Pichel is chief programs officer and co-founder of the Cadasta Foundation.
© Project Syndicate