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New book focuses on global land governance

Alan Flurry

Should Africa’s land be owned? Westerners have a crucial blind spot when it comes to engaging with other landholding systems. Private, exclusive title backed by statutory law is sacrosanct in the West, and has been sold to the rest of the world on our behalf through international development agencies such as USAID and the World Bank. 

Many benefits are said to flow from this outside intervention in African land relations, from greater tenure security for small-scale farmers, to women’s empowerment, and economic development itself. The evidence for such benefits is patchy if not outright discouraging.

Yet these interventions have achieved other things. Reforms in African land laws and efforts to formalize customary landholdings, ongoing since at least the 1990s, have enabled land to be acquired and held securely by private investors, both domestic and foreign – typically through 99-year renewable leases. This is setting up major shifts in landholding from African smallholders to large corporations, shaping land use, land control and rural livelihoods far into the future.

The growing enthusiasm behind the spread of western ideas about property in spite of this dispossession of African smallholders has been facilitated by a set of 'knowledge practices,' argues University of Georgia Anthropologist Laura German in her new book, "Power/Knowledge/Land" (University of Michigan Press). These include the argument that private, alienable rights are superior in guaranteeing tenure “security” for African smallholders and pastoralists; the framing of customary practices as discriminatory while largely ignoring their contributions to tenure and livelihood security; and presenting African property relations as a sector in crisis and in need of Western intervention. 

"It is difficult for westerners to know land outside of the lens of property. Yet in-depth, qualitative research with societies who know land and practice land tenure differently provides a key to 'knowing land otherwise'," German said. "While emphasis lies on exclusive entitlements in the West, the customary practices profiled in this book emphasize continuity of collective landholdings, while providing for negotiability of access based on identity, circumstance and need. These practices are less about ownership than belonging (of people to place), and less about rights than responsibilities – to the land itself, to members of landholding lineages, and even to those not yet born. 

The global land governance system that has enabled and legitimated efforts to turn land (and the water tied to it) into a commodity exchangeable in the marketplace has been presented to the public as superior at safeguarding local land rights than customary land relations which emphasize the inalienability of land from the social group. This is a paradox whose contours and consequences German explores in great detail in "Power/Knowledge/Land" – a timely new book on a crucial subject across the globe.

Professor and Director of the UGA Center for Integrative Conservation Research, Laura German’s scholarship spans the social and biophysical sciences to understand trends shaping land, environment and livelihoods across the global South.


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