What happened in Zimbabwe wasn't land reform. And when it comes to first having a just governance structure to make such changes effective, they're about last in line.
What these all countries need first is not land reform, but governments that are filled with non-corrupt politicians held to high standards of accountability and transparency.
"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.
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.
Despite constant talk of tribal tensions, experts say that in Liberia – and in much of Africa – ethnicity is rarely the real issue. Mr. Unruh, at McGill, says ethnic conflict, or even drought or famine, are usually symptoms of a deeper land dispute. "Underneath all of that," he says, "is an ongoing land conflict, or different understandings about how land is accessed and used."
But those understandings aren't static. Across Africa, circumstances are changing the way people think about land. In some places, such as Darfur, global warming is shifting natural boundaries, inviting clashes between once peaceful, pastoral farmers and nomadic herders over shrinking pastures; in others, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, war has shifted cultural norms of authority.
Liberia's outlook is mixed. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is much beloved at home and abroad. She's taken an uncompromising stand on the land issue, refusing to sign deeds for the sale of public land until the land commission recommends reforms. Because all customary land is considered public, that effectively halts land grabs, at least by large-scale entrepreneurs eyeing rural Liberia's abundance of timber, rubber, and diamonds.
But Liberia's capital, Monrovia, is beginning to crack. The world is in the midst of a sweeping rural-to-urban migration that seems especially stark in Liberia; nearly half of the country's 3.5 million people live in Monrovia.
"The greatest issues in my view are the urban land issues," says Brady. "They involve the majority of our poor people, who reside as squatters" in urban shantytowns. Until they are addressed, he says, they will "bog down the judicial system" and inhibit investment.
The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.
"Some people must make sacrifices. They must," says Brady. "It's as simple as that."
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