My name is Mud

There is some lovely filth down here! Now only if we could *title* it.

About two dozen families control specific pieces of the quarry. Each hires its own diggers, sells its own mud, and sets prices independent of each other. No individuals possess formal, legal title to their portion of the mud quarry, but no one considers this strange. Claims on the mud lands stretch back to the years before Uganda’s independence in 1962, when the British managed these parts. Everyone knows that their ancestors bequeathed them the use of a particular patch of the mud quarry. No one has ever asked for proof of their ownership or even tallied the costs of forgoing title in favor of “customary law.”

That’s G. Pascal Zachary on the lack of formal land rights in the mud quarries of the village of Bukhalo in eastern Uganda (hat tip to Chris Blattman). He goes on to discuss the ways that mud `farmers’ manage, and struggle, without formal ownership, comparing them to the regular villages in Bukhalo. One, who has expanding his farm by buying up neighboring land and getting a local judge to verify the claims, eventually moves away from this practice due to legal disputes with others who stake a claim on the land.

The agreements have helped the Sakwa family prosper. But because there are no formal land titles, but only idiosyncratic contracts filed with a local magistrate, disputes are common. Having paid in advance for the use of a neighbor’s land, Mr. Sakwa sometimes faces “submarine” claims by people who say they are relatives of the seller and insist they too should receive money for his use of “their” land.

Blattman thinks that Zachary’s article is a strike against de Soto. I think it meets him half-way: what we get is a fascinating portrait of a village doing the best it can with an informal land system, yet obviously still in need of some sort of formality. I think even hardcore de Soto fans would buy that.

Full disclosure: I work on a land titling RCT in Dar es Salaam, so so find these stories particularly interesting.

5 thoughts on “My name is Mud

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    March 8, 2011 at 5:50am

    Hardcore De Soto fan says: I agree, with one caveat. I don’t think this even meets DS halfway. It’s pretty much exactly what De Soto talks about. Local people coming up with their own conceptions of legitimate ownership; where the state does not ratify these and combine them into a system that converts land into capital, they can still survive, even do quite well, but without the dynamic qualities of capitalism and the investment potential it brings.

    There’s no contradiction between the two positions. De Soto would actually love the way Zachary shows how conceptions of property emerge from the bottom-up and not top-down. His argument is that the top has to ratify and formalise what the bottom comes up with.

  2. geckonomist

    March 8, 2011 at 10:19am

    This is a typical story of bureaucrats having nothing better to do with other people’s money, while in the waiting line for a top job at a multi-donor institute.


    40 km south of that place, lies probably the greatest deposit of vermiculite in the world (attracting quite some attention from mining giants, who face major problems with property rights of the villagers on top).
    Exploiting these deposits would totally transform the trade balance (at least in volumes) of Uganda.

    Do you think our aid experts focus on these major issues that could really make a difference? Nope, let’s focus on a mudhole.

    Get a life.

    Less than 15 km east, lies an agricultural paradise: Mount Elgon. Arabica coffee grows like weed, as does nearly every other productive plant you can think of. masssively overpopulated, population pressure galore. Pressure on the land and the environment (above 2000m is supposed to be national park – yet there arabica & veggies grow best…).

    Off the radar of our development experts, let’s focus on a mudhole in totally empty useless nobody’s land, Sironko.

    What’s next, property rights of the nomads in the sahara & sahel?

    Talking of mud, a few km west Uganda clays invested in a huge tile & brick factory, doubling or tripling their capacity – taking advantage of the eternal building boom in Uganda :
    aid experts are caught unaware again.

    Again evindence that aid and their experts = useless.

  3. geckonomist

    March 8, 2011 at 10:25am

    I guess that on an average DAY, the six or so coffee exporters in Mbale, bring more cash in the local farmers pockets/economy, than such mudhole generates in a decade.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    March 8, 2011 at 12:01pm

    “Again evindence that aid and their experts = useless”

    And yet… you continue to read them.

    Seriously, you are aware that there is actually no need for everyone to focus on the exact same issues, right? I’m going to assume you’re intelligent enough to realise that one ‘expert’ looking at a small property rights issue isn’t actually preventing or significantly reducing the pool of people able to participate in coffee exports, or mining, or other economically viable activities, right? What’s more, you don’t seem to grasp that larger lessons that can give us some quite important macro policy insights can be gleaned from smaller examples. On this property issue, you may be surprised to hear that property law in America emerged from the resolution of precisely this kind of small issue.

    So why exactly is looking at a specific issue and seeking to learn what we can from it useless? Understanding property is important, not just because of how much revenue it generates but also because it affects peoples’ lives. And ultimately, that’s important, too.

    Unless you can either show that studying anything other than the few private business issues you’ve raised is damaging, I’d say your comments are at best an irrelevance and at worst an annoyance, particularly when they’re expressed in such a graceless fashion.

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