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Africa's continental divide: land disputes

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A title-based system looks entirely different: It starts and ends with money. A title system universalizes value by privatizing land, making it an asset that can be sold – or, more important, used as collateral. Any buyer with enough cash can buy a plot from a willing seller. Prevailing development wisdom says that, under this system, land begets credit, and credit begets wealth.

But that wisdom is driven largely by outsiders with hefty aid packages, and it's problematic for reasons anyone familiar with America's subprime mortgage crisis could understand. Those who push land reform "are asking people who really can't afford to use their land as collateral, who see their land in a completely different way – as their livelihood – to use their land as a source of capital," says Ambreena Manji, author of "The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets."

That land, meanwhile, is increasingly threatened. The UN Environment Program estimates that only 20 percent of Africa's land is arable; the rest – deserts, woodlands, wetlands – can't be farmed. What can be cultivated is quickly being swallowed up by countries like China and India, whose populations outstrip their agricultural capacity. Since 2004, 2.5 million acres of land have been allocated by five African governments to food production for foreign countries, often without recognizing or fairly compensating farmers with traditional claims to that land. Meanwhile, Africa's population is swelling; it's expected to double to nearly 2 billion within 40 years. If those 2 billion people doubt that they will have the land rights needed to feed and shelter themselves, experts say, the continent may yet again find itself overrun with war.

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