Never gonna give you up

Liz Alden Wily notes that land grabbing in sub-Saharan African is enabled partly by the lack of formal, private land ownership:

For all the commentary on how the great buy-up of African lands might impact on the rural poor, they are rarely the legal landowners. Their governments are. For a century¬†African land laws¬†have protected private property, but have largely limited this protection to lands with registered titles. Up to 90% of sub-Saharan¬†Africa’s land area is currently untitled. Without legal owners, these lands fall to the state.

A couple thoughts on this – Wily goes on to (correctly) point out that the real problem is with bad governments which hastily sell off land on the cheap for easy revenue today at the expense of the next generation. Still, while transferring de jure¬†ownership to the people through extensive land titling would guarantee that they would at least benefit somewhat from these massive land sales, it wouldn’t¬†necessarily¬†stop the transfer from happening, for a couple of reasons.

For one, while many African governments seem to be willing to part with land for relatively paltry sums, we never witness the¬†counter-factual. Without the rural farmer being the initial holder of that land title, we can’t really infer anything about his minimum price to let go of that land. It could be higher, lower or equal to that of the government – we really don’t know. So while, in an ideal setting, transferring that property right from the government to the population will at least guarantee they benefit from land deals, it won’t¬†necessarily¬†stop them from happening – buying land directly from rural farmers might still be a good deal for foreign investors.

Furthermore, while we might still believe that land titles convey some sort of protection from the government, remember that governments themselves are the ones that create, issue and enforce property rights. Truly awful governments will not be interested in effectively expanding these rights in the first place, so pointing out how useful they are doesn’t always get us very far.

One example from Tanzania: following legislation which paved the way for private land rights, the government set out to pilot titling programs in several districts. After demarcation and registration had finished in one of these districts, land officials quickly realized they had made a mistake – the titles they issued comprised every inch of land in, with nothing left that the government could use. The government learned its lesson: since then, any major demarcation efforts are preceded by a `scheme of¬†regularization’, a plan which lays out all the space the state might want to use (usually for infrastructure improvements).

So the government can essentially thwart any large-scale attempt to solidify property rights by grabbing what it deems is necessary.¬†Of course, this doesn’t mean land titling is useless (if I thought it was, I might as well give up now on my research work) – but these programs are probably not going to act as immediate solutions to land grabs.