Not in my backyard

In her work on urban land titling in Peru, Erica Field maintained that squatters often needed to keep people around to protect their land, presumably from those who would try and claim it as their own, and that providing formal property rights through land titling would free these family members up to go do more productive things. While I frequently restate this idea while presenting, I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of it – the idea of a roving band of land snatchers always seemed a bit fantastical.

Until Saturday, when a colleague of mine stumbled upon a man claiming to be a victim of land theft in Mburahati Barafu, one of the unplanned, informal settlements of Dar es Salaam. We went back to interview him today. After being away from home for only ten days he found that not only had someone managed to sell his back garden to a third party, but that someone had already built a house in its place. His neighbors seem to have signed off on the deal, as did the local officials. The worst part: his own brother was the one that made the sale and skipped town with the proceeds.

Maybe a land title would have guarded against this crazy fraternal expropriation, maybe not. Other residents seem to have taken matter into their own hands to make it clear that their property is strictly off the market: another house we ran into had nyumba haiuzwi scrawled all over it – house not for sale.

3 thoughts on “Not in my backyard

  1. David Week

    July 11, 2012 at 12:08am

    Reminds me of:

    http://goo.gl/RZM3W
    QUOTE: Lal Bihari, founder of the Association of Dead People, first learned he was deceased when he applied for a bank loan in 1975.

    Proof of identity was required for the transaction. But when Mr. Bihari came here to Azamgarh, the district capital, he was told quite peremptorily that he could no longer be who he said he was. Official records now listed him as dead, something that had allowed his uncle to inherit Mr. Bihari’s share of the family’s ancestral farmland.

    ”Take a look for yourself,” insisted the lekhpal, the low-level bureaucrat who kept the appropriate books, Mr. Bihari recalled. ”It is all written here in the registry.” UNQUOTE

    The thing about land registration is that land can then be transferred with the stroke of a pen. On the other hand, land ownership which is established by a chain of sale documents held by the landowner, each certified by different notaries, is much harder to falsify. Customary land title, though subject to content within the customary group, is for outsiders impossible to falsify.

  2. Matt

    July 11, 2012 at 8:00am

    Hi David,

    I remember reading about that case – it’s a fascinating problem.

    I think I sort of agree and sort of disagree with your conclusion though. Customary titles can help in some of these situations – I think this sort of thing is much less likely to happen if you have the support of everyone around you.

    That said, let’s assume you don’t have that support – I think customary tenure systems are pretty untenable in large, heterogeneous urban areas. The main problem in this man’s case wasn’t that he couldn’t prove he owned the land (he had a sales agreement, etc), but ex-post he couldn’t prove that he owner that undeveloped portion of land next to his house, as there was no systematic survey, no document with a drawing of the boundaries, etc.

    These things aren’t usually delivered by informal systems. They *can* be delivered by customary systems, but usually only after they have been co-opted by formal systems (in Tanzania, rural landowners now acquire a customary right of occupancy, which should also indicate actual land boundaries).

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    July 11, 2012 at 10:11am

    surely, the real story here is that someone built a house in ten days! Shouldn’t we be finding this person, capitalising him and asking him to come to London and do the tube upgrades?

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