"In Africa, most of the population has no documents. They believe they own the land as a group because they have been there for millennia," says John Unruh, a land tenure expert at McGill University in Montreal. "Their mythology about how they came into the world involves that specific location, so identity is often very much tied up in where groups want access."
But often outsiders didn't know – or just ignored – this. When European powers sliced up the continent in the late 19th century, they thought of Africa as an empty mass free for the taking. Colonial rulers brought along the notion of private property. Suddenly, the land system changed. In the old system, an entire community owned land, managed by the elders. With the advent of private property, history meant nothing next to paperwork: Title to land trumped tradition. But as is often the case with indigenous groups around the world – including in the United States – those who walked away with legal deeds for the land and those who lived and worked on those lands for generations were usually not the same people.
As a result, one big tension in today's Africa is about how groups get that access – by tradition or by title. Today, according to the United Nations Development Program, roughly 90 percent of rural Africa – 500 million people – have access to their land because their ancestors did. They trust this traditional system to give them the chance to farm crops and build homes. That utility is what gives their land value.