Land, technology and communities struggle for balancing act

Friday, 2 May, 2014

Africa’s effort to reform its land tenure is making headway with new schemes and the help of technology according to the World Bank, but land grabs persist with NGOs fearing increasing numbers of landless and disenfranchised communities.

“Geographic information, obtained from satellites, drones, databases and other sources such as traditional surveys and presented in computerised form, enables governments, companies and communities to rapidly access information about land ownership, boundaries and value that may help expand socioeconomic development”.

Rwanda’s remarkable growth on the back of a humanitarian disaster has many admirers, and land reformers are certainly one of them. The east African country initiated a scheme in 2009 that “demarcated 10.4 million plots - its entire landmass - in a three-year project that ended in 2012”.

Now, according to a land consultancy group “they realise their property is worth something, they maintain it and can use it as collateral for investments."

Africa’s troubled political landscape, its many pastoral communities and traditional religious or customary forms of tenure has resulted in ambiguous ownership of land; ironic in a continent where demand for land is highest. This high demand combined with few rights or titles, has meant a growth in conflict over land.

Many are wary of the World Bank’s triumphalism, claiming that land grabs are still ongoing. "The goal isn't mapping and documentation, the goal is to protect peoples' lands and their way of life," said the legal empowerment NGO Namati.

One prime example is currently taking place in Kenya on a large scale, in the north-west of the country. Forest communities are being cleared from their ancient lands on the basis that they are damaging the forest ecosystem and pollute the water catchment area that provides for the cities.

“The Kenyan government says it needs to remove communities from Embobut Forest because their presence threatens the forest's biodiversity as well as urban water supplies.”

It’s another instance of 'capital D' Development pitched against poor, indigenous or rural communities that is characterizing developing countries world over, frequently in contravention of the UN declaration of Indigenous Rights. Yet with such high demand for land, (after all “it’s the one thing they’re not making any more of”), it’s hard to see where a balance will be struck.