Golden Ghana: Pressing problems and new solutions for land management

Vincent Oberdorf is a student of International Development Studies at Utrecht University who recently conducted research on land issues in Ghana for his Master’s thesis. Here he writes about some of the things he encountered.

In Ghana, land is under increasing pressure. In some parts of the capital city, Accra, land prices are higher than in Manhattan, and in rural areas, stakeholders ranging from Chinese goldminers to European bio-fuel producers are after a share. However, the country’s land documentation and administration systems are poorly developed, making indigenous landowners vulnerable to double claims on their land and land grabbing. This is why several Ghanaian and foreign enterprises have developed digital property documentation and management systems and services. For my master thesis in International Development Studies, I analyse the perspectives of several potential user groups of these new, digitized services.

Ghana’s Western Region is well-known for its cocoa production, but cacao farmers experience increasing pressure from illegal, small scale mining, or galamsey. The galamsey is dominated by illegal Chinese operations which dispute the boundaries of the cocoa famers’ land in attempts to claim it. When entering Wasa Akropong, one of the regional centers for Ghana’s cocoa industry, we are immediately confronted with the reality of disputed land: as if we have taken a wrong turn, all of a sudden we are surrounded by Chinese signs – restaurants, stores and even casinos. As the land rights of Ghanaian farmers often are not documented well, and as many Chinese miners are engaged in corruption on all levels of Ghanaian government, the galamsey is a serious threat to the farmers’ land and livelihoods. Their operations also expel Ghanaian miners from their livelihoods, disintegrate the environment and pollute the regional water supply.

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Chinese establishment in Wasa Akropong

Landmapp, a Dutch profit-for-purpose start-up, sensitizes and educates traditional authorities on the importance of documentation, after which its surveyors establish an ownership-history of the land and conduct a GPS-tracking and mapping of the property with the farmer and his neighbor. The documentation that Landmapp provides can bring great relief from the increasing pressure on their land, both from the gold mining and pressing land- and border disputes. Although the Chinese miners are said to engage with corrupt officials, having the correct property documentation brings protection to the farmers in case of a dispute, enabling them to enforce their land rights. Many farmers are convinced of the value of the documentation to prevent or resolve land disputes, and they are willing to pay up to half a month’s wage for Landmapp’s services, which they see as a guarantee to safeguard the land for future generations in case of inheritance procedures, sharecropping arrangements, or through double land sales.

During a visit to the cocoa farm of Mr. Mensa and his family deep in the forest near Biokrom village, the rising pressure on land becomes clear.  As I am speaking to Isaac, Mensa’s youngest son, about his plan to leave the farm to become a nurse, the conversation is disturbed by a loud, industrial noise. When I ask what the noise is, Isaac shows me something unexpected: as we move through the dense forest just behind the family’s house, suddenly a gaping crater emerges, housing the biggest mining operation I have seen so far. The deforested plain of sand dunes and pools of dirty washing water and crawling CAT-diggers is a depressing contrast to the vivid green forest surrounding it.  I look at Isaac: ‘Galamsey’, is the only word he wants to spend on the scene, nodding at the mining ground. Landmapp officials tell me that the father has endured increasing pressure by the Chinese to sell part of his land, and that he already sold a quarter acre of exhausted land for 2000cedis (US$500) as a bargain, an amount that would take a year to earn if he had farmed the land.


The mining site

Every Ghanaian you encounter will confirm that theirs is an incredibly rich country. The ways in which this wealth is explored, divided and protected, however, will decide the future of the country and the livelihoods of future generations. Landmapp’s property documentation is a sure step in the right direction for cocoa farmers and, potentially, other property owners in Ghana that want to claim their rights to land. The company is currently expanding their services towards peri-urban dwellers in Ghana, who are pushed to the fringes of urban centers by urbanization. The effort of companies like Landmapp, however, have to be sustained and supported by other developments in (inter)national public and private policy. The Ghanaian government recently started arresting and deporting groups of Chinese miners, but at the same time it knows that it cannot afford to offend the Chinese government because of its important economic influence in the country and the region. Facing these complex challenges is of key importance in creating a more sustainable future for Ghana, and for the next generations of the Mensa family.

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The Mensa family