African farmers Majority World/Getty Images

Securing Land Rights in Africa

Across the continent, insecure rights to land are robbing millions of financial stability and long-term prosperity. While new technology is giving people the tools to define what’s theirs, governments must recognize that certainty of ownership is a prerequisite of sustainable development.

WASHINGTON, DC – Earlier this month, Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf warned that Africa would continue to be stalked by poverty, hunger, and famine until governments provide smallholder farmers with secure rights to land. She was speaking from experience, both personal and political.

Sirleaf and her tiny West African country are perfect examples of the steep toll that insecure land rights take on individuals, communities, and countries. Disputes over land ownership were a key driver of Liberia’s bloody 14-year civil war. And overlapping claims to land continue to foment conflict and impede foreign investment. Not even the president is immune to weak land-tenure laws; squatters invaded a four-acre parcel that Sirleaf bought in 1979, and refused to move for years.

Stories like these can be heard across the continent. According to the World Bank, more than 90% of Africa’s rural land is undocumented. Overlapping and conflicting land-management systems are the norm, as are inaccessible, out-of-date, incomplete, inaccurate, or nonexistent land records. But while dysfunctional systems of land tenure have no doubt cost African governments millions in foreign investment, they have hurt African farmers most directly.

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