Princetonlaan 8a, 3584 CB, Utrecht +31 30 253 13 63

Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field

In this blog series, professionals and graduate students working on land governance issues share their field work experiences. Blog posts include topics such as community land trusts in Kenya, nature conservation in Costa Rica and pressing problems and new solutions for land management in Ghana.

Are you a professional or graduate student working on land governance issues and would you like to share some of your recent field work experiences? Please send an e-mail to

Southern Africa: Land Matters

Land Matters in Contemporary Southern Africa

Stasja Koot, Catie Gressier and Robert Hitchcock

Originally posted July 2019, reposted December 2019.

Etosha National Park, former Hai//om land, Namibia

A series of recent events in southern Africa reveal that the land question—and especially that related to land reform—is a long way from being resolved. There are currently no indications that these issues will be addressed quickly or efficiently. Land reform is at the top of the South African agenda at present, and this is true in Namibia as well, which had its Second Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question in October of 2018. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president after ruling the country for 37 years in November 2017. Arguably, Mugabe’s most controversial political activity had been the fast track land reform programme, in which mostly white farmers were dispossessed of their lands, obviously also having a very strong effect on the, mostly black, farm workers. However, today Zimbabwe’s next president, Emerson Mnangagwa, has announced that Zimbabwe will allow white farmers to get 99-year leases of land again. Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country should speed up the land reform process, including by appropriating white farms without payment of compensation. Likely, Ramaphosa and his party have felt the pressure of new, but highly popular, parties such as the EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters, for whom land appropriation without compensation is their ‘first non-negotiable cardinal pillar’. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the ANC-led government’s budget for land reform has never exceeded 1%, and since 2007 the process has only slowed down (Nkosi 2018). In a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, it is then not surprising that more radical groups like the EFF can easily affect high level policy decisions and national political strategies, when large parts of the population feel their needs are not being addressed and promises remain unfulfilled. All of these issues make up some of the subject matter in a (part) special issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2).

The frustration also shows when white and black farmers get attacked at their farms, attacks that sometimes also come with brutal violence, torture and rape. Of course, such violence should never be allowed, and therefore groups of both whites and blacks have protested against such attacks and asked the government for more protection. What is regrettable though, is that the focus in such protests for some vocal groups remains only on white farm attacks (even white ‘genocide’), and not on violence more generally (see, for example, the view of AfriForum and the response by Elmien du Plessis). In the end, the farm attacks, however brutal and horrific, only form a fraction of the violence in the country (Du Plessis 2018): most of the violence in South Africa (street crime, but also domestic violence) takes place among marginalised people who live in townships or impoverished rural areas. Focusing solely on the white farm attacks arguably creates more racial and economic tensions, strengthening feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’ while ignoring structural issues of racial and economic inequality, which is nowhere as apparent as it is in the land question.

Who does the land belong to? Or: Who belongs to the land?

So in post-independent and post-apartheid southern Africa two questions that are still highly relevant are Who does the land belongs to?, and the preceding question: Who belongs to the land? The answers to both questions create a large variety of contestations: Under neoliberal capitalism, which currently thrives in southern Africa, private ownership is an important anchor. However, ownership of land is not necessarily congruent with the question who belongs to the land. Many instances show that the latter question continues to lead to heated debates and a large variety of political dynamics, of which we will only highlight a few here. ‘To belong’ is to have a sense of connection; it implies familiarity, comfort and ease, alongside feelings of inclusion, acceptance and safety. The way people belong to place is often informed by political strategies, conscious and unconscious, through which access to various rights and resources are sought and contested. Land has long been among the most highly valued of resources, and nowhere has this been more evident than during the liberation struggles across southern Africa. Claims to belong frequently invoke unique relationships to the land and nature (Gressier, 2015), which, in neoliberal contexts, are simultaneously constructed as highly commodified resources, in different ways by various ethnic groups.

A diverse set of ethnic groups is white southern Africans, who remain the most powerful set of ethnic groups from an economic point of view and who have always strongly identified with nature (McDermott Hughes, 2010). Take, for example, how white Namibians who work in the tourism industry and construct belonging through articulating a strong connection to the mostly essentialised local indigenous San people as people of nature (Koot, 2015). Or what about the coloured and white farmers of the highly commodified famous rooibos plantations in South Africa? Both groups struggle to express an ‘authentic’ sense of belonging, but have creatively, and in somewhat different ways, been able to identify more with the plant than with the land (Ives, 2017). These examples are important reminders not to reduce the politics of belonging to place as only a politics of land. And neither is it solely a positive politics; it is mobilised just as frequently in processes of exclusion that are shaped, more often than not, by dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. Take the key issue of labour and its consequent processes of (rural–urban) migration (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019), which keenly demonstrate that ‘inherent to belonging is always the potential for its opposites: insecurity, alienation and exclusion’ (Gressier, 2015). Xhosa people working in Cape Town often keep a strong sense of belonging with their rural homes in Centane in the former Transkei, a phenomenon which is referred to as Ekhayeni (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019). Labour in particular demonstrates how the politics of belonging are integrally related to a variety of economic push and pull factors, with immigrants stereotypically regarded as a threat to an often already limited pool of work; economic migrants, temporary workers, asylum seekers and illegal migrants are then seen as those who do not belong and, as a consequence, are all too frequently confronted with xenophobic violence (Mosselson, 2010).

Indigenous peoples and their many court cases surrounding protected areas

Despite a lack of formal recognition of the unique histories of the region’s indigenous people, the governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are attempting to assist indigenous (mostly San or ‘Bushmen’) communities as ‘marginalised’ or ‘historically disadvantaged’ through various state-sponsored programmes (Sapignoli and Hitchcock, 2013). The San, who are often considered the ‘real’ indigenous people of southern Africa, continue to endure the region’s highest rates of impoverishment, landlessness and political alienation. While material resources are far too frequently scarce, as Richard Lee pointed out, indigenous people have “what migrants and the children of migrants (i.e., most of the rest of us) feel they lack: a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in place” (Lee, 2003, p. ).

Indeed, the San often articulate themselves —and are often articulated by others—as having a special relation to the land and nature. For the last few centuries, they have been among the most prominent victims of evictions for the sake of nature conservation. This is still visible today, when a large variety of San groups are in the middle of a court case or has won court cases already to get (access to) land. The Hai//om of northern Namibia, for example, have filed a collective action lawsuit in 2015, to be able to receive a share of the benefits from the highly profitable tourist gem Etosha National Park and from an area called Mangetti West. However, the Namibian government continues to push those Hai//om who still live in the Etosha park out, under the banner of ‘voluntary’ resettlement. Large donors and the Hai//om traditional authority (who was appointed by the government and not democratically elected) support this process (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Such problems with traditional authorities seem to be widespread over southern Africa, from Namibia in the West all the way to northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in the East, and it does not seem to be restricted to indigenous people only (Aardenburg and Nel, 2019). Meanwhile, the Hai//om at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, to the east of Etosha National Park, experience a high level of in-migration, which leads to a variety of social problems, including the rise of shebeens (where the sale of alcohol leads to many socio-cultural problems, such as prostitution, violence and ethnic tensions). Ironically, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 the land reform programme has predominantly favoured those with good connections in the government instead of marginalised groups, showing new elitism based on the privatisation of property. And further to the north, impoverished Hai//om at Mangetti West are today denied access to large tracts of land where they used to gather for food because cattle farmers from far away have now illegally fenced off large parts of the area (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Other San groups have also experienced difficulties with illegal fencing in northern Namibia, such as the San of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy. Despite winning a court case against the illegal fencers in 2016, so far the fences have not been removed and no pressure seems to have been put on the illegal fencers, despite the Minister of Environment and Tourism himself stating that the government will “ensure that the rights of the San are protected” (Namibian Sun, 2016, see also Van der Wulp and Koot, 2019).

Cloudy sky at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm

Furthermore, in neighbouring Botswana, the G//ana and G/wi San and Bakgalagadi of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) continue to be cut off from most government services. This is the latest strategy in the Botswanan state’s sustained campaign to evict residents from the protected area, despite the San having won four (!) court cases affirming their right to continue to reside within the CKGR (Sapignoli, 2018). Such strategies, as well as the land reform programme in Namibia, make you understand why many San in southern Africa consider the ‘new’ governments just as bad as, or at times worse than, colonial governments. Moreover, in South Africa, where the ≠Khomani San have received eight farms back based on past evictions from the current Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is not always a given that receiving land ‘back’ automatically also accounts for ‘development’: throughout the years the meaning of land has essentially changed from a ‘total environment’ that was taken away from hunting and gathering people under colonialism, to land as a purely commodified resource today, meant for the development of people who are identifying as hunter-gatherers, but who are first of all people of contemporary society where there is hardly any space for a ‘real’ hunting and gathering lifestyle (Koot and Büscher, 2019).

Reclaimed land in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

The recent (part) special issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2), for which we have been guest editors, addresses the above issues in more detail. The editorial ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’ (Koot, Hitchcock and Gressier, 2019) introduces the above topics and some of the case studies mentioned in this blog. It is clear that land remains politically highly sensitive in southern Africa, and the questions of who belongs to the land, and how this belonging is articulated, seems to be more relevant than ever.


  • Aardenburg, E. and Nel, A. ‘Fatalism and Dissidence in Dukuduku, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Ongoing Contestations over Land, Resources and Identity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
  • Du Plessis, E. ‘AfriForum’s Own Farm Murder Stats Don’t Support Their Claims’, News24, 7 May 2018, available at, retrieved 21 July 2019.
  • Gressier, C., At Home in the Okavango: White Batswana Narratives of Emplacement and Belonging (Oxford, Berghahn, 2015).
  • McDermott Hughes, D., Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • Ives, S., Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea (London, Duke University Press, 2017).
  • Koot, S. ‘White Namibians in Tourism and the Politics of Belonging through Bushmen’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(1–2), (2015), pp. 4–15.
  • Koot, S. and Büscher, B., ‘Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
  • Koot, S. and Hitchcock, R., ‘In the Way: Perpetuating Land Dispossession of the Indigenous Hai//om and the Collective Action Lawsuit for Etosha National Park and Mangetti West, Namibia’, Nomadic Peoples, 23, (2019), pp. 55-77.
  • Koot, S., Hitchcock, R. and Gressier, C., ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
  • Lee, R. ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa’, in B. Dean and J.M. Levi (eds), At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 80–111
  • Mosselson, A. ‘“There is no Difference between Citizens and Non-citizens Anymore”: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3) (2010), pp. 641–55
  • Namibian Sun, ‘Shifeta Fights for San Rights’, Windhoek, 26 September 2016, available at, retrieved 21 July 2019
  • Njwambe, A., Cocks, M. and Vetter, S., ‘Ekhayeni: Rural-Urban Migration, Belonging and Landscapes of Home in South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
  • Nkosi, M. ‘Is South Africa’s Land Reform an Election Gimmick?’, BBC News, London, 11 August 2018, available at, retrieved 20 August 2018.
  • Sapignoli, M., Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  • Sapignoli, M. and Hitchcock, R., ‘Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa’, The Round Table, 102(4), (2013), pp. 355–65.
  • Van der Wulp, C. and Koot, S., ‘Immaterial Indigenous Modernities in the Struggle against Illegal Fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Namibia: Genealogical Ancestry and ‘San-ness’ in a ‘Traditional Community’’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

About the authors

Stasja Koot – Assistant Professor at the Sociology of Development and Change group of the Wageningen University, the Netherlands, and Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Geography, Environmental Management & Energy Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Catie Gressier – Senior Learning Skills Officer in the STUDYSmarter team. A cultural anthropologist by training, her research explores the ways in which the cultural values and practices of settler communities influence, and are influenced by, the particularities of their social and natural environments.

Robert Hitchcock – Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA. He has worked with San peoples in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe for the past 30 years. In addition, he has worked with indigenous peoples in Guatemala, Hawaii, California, Canada, the Great Plains, and the southwest, as well as with various groups in eastern and central Africa (e.g. in Somalia, Uganda, and Gabon).

Building Towards Ownership: Exploring the Role of a Community Land Trust in Sustainable Development

Eva Labrujere
Graduate Student Urbanism
Delft University of Technology

This project explores how local knowledge and a community-based approach can provide a base for a strategic framework to guide sustainable development in Mathare Valley (Nairobi, Kenya). The developed integrative strategic framework aims to build towards overcoming socio-spatial exclusion by triggering the self-strengthening capacities of residents and to co-operatively build up and manage different types resources crucial to local development.

As it would be too much to describe the developed framework in its totality, in this blog I will focus on residents’ deprivation of access to one particular resource: land. By recognising the potential of collective forms of land ownership and community-led housing development approaches, I am asking the question: What role could a Community Land Trust play for community-based sustainable development in the case of Mathare Valley? 

Image 1. Mathare Valley (Jason Corburn)

Background: Land issues
Nairobi’s long history of conflict and struggles for land (public land grabbing, corruption, illegal land transactions and lack of land management and administration), has impacted the formation of many of its informal areas, including Mathare Valley. Here, irregular land subdivisions and allocations have led to various conflicts in the settlement, fragmented ownership of land, and a lack of security of tenure. The type of land ownership differs for each of the thirteen villages that constitute the area, with the majority being privately owned land, and some publicly owned.

Only few of Mathare Valley’s residents actually have property rights. The majority (83%) are tenants (MuST and SDI, 2012), often renting their homes from ‘absentee owners’. This results in a victimised position, as they become subject to local predatory crime and bureaucracy. Lack of tenure security prevents any form of ownership and saving opportunities and residents live with the continuous threat of possible eviction and/or demolition of their houses.

Image 2. Practically, public space is scarce. If there are any open spaces, they are oftentimes characterised by a lack of safety, accessibility, light, and hygiene (image: Laura Kraft, 2010)

The continuously increasing demand for housing and the high profitability of possessing land and/or structures contribute to extremely high structure densities in the area. Space becomes contested due to overpopulation and specific social dynamics of the area: the research showed that certain spaces and infrastructural objects functioned as premises tied to the internal power distributions. This can provoke territorial behaviour of groups or individuals towards these premises.

Image 3. Identified spatial elements that function as premises of internal power relations (author’s own)
Image 4. Encroachment of the public space as form of spatial contest (image: Mathenge, 2008)

What is a Community Land Trust?
A CLT is a progressive mechanism that deals with the finite nature of land use and competing land rights in slums, and offers ways to practice local tenure administration and management through communal land ownership. Also, a CLT can take up activities to coordinate community-led design processes: housing design and construction, community improvement projects, as well as community financing schemes.

A CLT is an institution specifically created to acquire and hold land in trust for a given group (Bailey, 2010). It is based on the holding of two constituent parts: land, and the improvements upon it (Midheme, 2012). Individuals, the dwellers in this case, own improvements, but lease the underlying land. So, the CLT subleases the land to the residents through residential licenses. The land is held jointly by all homeowners via the registered trust, and is equally divided into plots for incremental housing construction. CLTs are formed to hold property in perpetuity and it separates land from its productive use, so that the impact of land-value appreciation is ‘locked’ into the community (BSHF, 2005). This means it can enable affordability of housing in perpetuity and thus sustainable local development. Long-term security is also important in shaping voluntary resource mobilisation from communities and commitment from other stakeholders (University of California et al., 2014).

Image 5. (Author’s own).

Ownership over development
In the developed strategy, the CLT is a key to achieve sustainable development, because it drives ownership over the development process on different levels. It is instrumental to:
1) mobilise the community and existing CBOs and other groups as critical mass to claim rights in a position to advocate for change (through promoting declaration of the area as Special Planning Area) and hold government accountable;
2) localise decision making process (coordinating the process of needs identification, to definition of the intervention, to implementation of that intervention). Under the right support (temporary, until self-sustaining), the community is able to do this inclusively and democratically.
4) facilitate community capacity building, in order for people to feel socially and economically empowered to take part in the process;
3) build collective resources and manage these. Through collective ownership over resources as land, knowledge, and finance, accessibility to these is increased and community becomes less dependent and vulnerable to factors of exclusion and exploitation.

Image 6. existing CBOs and FBOs (Faith-based organisations) play an essential role in the framework (author’s own)

These provisions are underscored by the position that “The foundation of almost any solution to the problems of the urban poor lies in their potential to organize themselves, to make effective decisions, and to negotiate and collaborate with local government and other partners.” (UN Millennium Project, 2005, p.28).

Furthermore, building towards ownership at the individual level has shown to be essential. The envisioning of a possible future that includes ownership over a house with an actual house number is a huge change in perspective for the residents. It allows for long term aspirations and creates incentive to believe and engage in participative activities (B. Ochieng, personal communication, Feb 5, 2018). It is the meaningful manifestation of the – long-time considered impossible – acquirement of their rights as citizens.

Image 7. Kambi Moto, a successful community-led upgrading initiative in Nairobi (image: @justempower)

I would like to give two examples of my strategic framework on how providing ownership in local development through a CLT is instrumental for more contextualised and in-situ, hence sustainable solutions.

1. Adaptation to ‘informal’ governance

Train the youth to be the security guards of the project, instead of securing it from them”

(B. Ochieng, resident/local activist/founder Mathare Youth Talented Organization)

Within participatory slum development, it is increasingly acknowledged how informal governance and power relations are essential practicalities in developing and managing participative projects and sustainable change. This is underscored by the research’s finding of the aforementioned spatial premises, as well as the notion that the structure of the local governance (especially the central administration through the chief-chair(wo)men cluster) derived from the actual spatial layout based on the subdivision into villages – this cluster forms the authority when it comes to resolving (spatial) contest on the ground, hence has a practically essential role in any spatial intervention and decision making process.

Image 8. Central cluster of the informal governance (author’s own)

The concept of a local institution for development presents the possibility of adaptation to the existing informal governance structures of the area. In other words, informal governance can help to determine the evolvement of such an institution. In my research proposal, this concept of a CLT was translated so as to act as the connecting element between ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ planning levels. The ultimate outcome of such measure is articulated in the diagram below.

Image 9. Role of the CLT within the proposed integrative strategic framework for Mathare Valley (author’s own)

2) Adaptation to local urbanism : community-led design process
With a locally central facilitator such as a CLT, the local perception of the spatial environment and of the requirements of spatial interventions is preserved. Contrary to state-led intervention as the standard in slum-upgrading programs, fuelled by prevailing modern Western urban imaginaries, a community-led process would maintain the existing symbiotic relationship between housing characteristics and the local social and economic networks and patterns, such as social ties connected to collectively shared inner courts in Mathare Valley, and livelihood strategies that are enacted with housing, as in found in most cities of the Global South. Such a process leads to more sustainable solutions because it drives attachment and belonging, while mainstream upgrading practices show housing typologies which appear incompatible in accommodating the way of life practiced locally.

Image 10. Example of state-led housing: commercial facilities in Kibera Soweto East, Nairobi (taken by author)

Innovative concepts are needed to change current exclusive systems of land tenure and land governance in Kenya, and cities in the Global South in general, that deprive the urban poor of the right to access land and adequate housing.

A CLT offers a way to practice land tenure regularisation on a small scale. It can be central to a community’s capacity building in order for the urban poor to acquire communal ownership of land on which they very often have been settled for many years. It holds the potential to bridge institutional regulations and the ‘rules on the ground’, thus accommodating inclusive decision-making, and hence fostering sustainable development based on peoples’ actual needs and local circumstances.

Image 11. Expression of a possible outcome of community-based upgrading for Mathare Valley.


  • Muungano Support Trust (MuST), Slum Dwellers International(SDI), University of Nairobi – Dept. Of Urban and Regional Planning, University of California Berkeley – Dept. Of City & Regional Planning, (2012). Mathare Zonal Plan, Nairobi, Kenya – Collaborative Plan for Informal Settlement Upgrading
  • Bailey, N. (2010). Building Sustainable Communities from the Grassroots: How Community Land Trusts can create Social Sustainability. In Manzi, T., Lucas, K., Lloyd-Jones, T., and Allen, J., (Eds.), Social Sustainability in Urban Areas: Communities, Connectivity and the Urban Fabric. Pp.49-64. London: Earthscan.
  • Midheme, E. (2012). (Re)designing land tenure to meet housing needs of the urban poor. Implementing community land trusts in Kenya. Planum – The Journal of Urbanism, no.26, vol.1/2013. ISSN 1723-0993.
  • Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF). (2005). Redefining The Commons: Locking in value through community land trusts.
  • The University of California, Berkeley, Department of City & Regional Planning, Akiba Mashinani Trust, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, University of Nairobi, Department of Urban & Regional Planning, Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and Strathmore University. (2014). Mukuru Studio – Inclusive upgrading frameworks for Nairobi.
  • United Nations Millennium Development Task Force. (2005). UN Millennium Development Library: A Home in The City – Achieving the Millennium Development Goals – Improving the lives of Slum Dwellers. Routledge.

About the author
My name is Eva Labrujere. I am a graduate of the Urbanism master degree at Delft University of Technology. My graduation thesis (a research-and-design project) addressed sustainable development in the informal settlement of Mathare Valley, in Nairobi, Kenya. Its outcome included an academic research and a spatial plan that offered a possible, feasible vision for the spatial development of the Mathare community, developed with stakeholders on the ground. The proposed strategic framework takes into account the particular local urbanism, the informal institutions and traditional (and sometimes considered illegal) practices.

Any comments or questions, please contact me at If you are interested in my graduation thesis, it is available here.

Let People Protect Nature: A botto­m-up perspective on environmental conservation and local development in Costa Rica.

Alice Brignone
Graduate Student Sustainable Development
Utrecht University

OSA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA. In the existing contrast between environmental conservation and local development, local people are often not taken into account. However, The conciliation between these two lies upon the local people.

Sign of forested area benefitting fom Payment for Environmental Services in the RFGD

Living off the forest
Eulalio is waiting for me at the beginning of the path. He greets me with a smile as white and broad as his hat. We ride horseback for over an hour up in the primary rainforest; it’s still very early in the morning and the wildlife of the most biologically intense place on Earth surrounds us.

Suddenly the rainforest turns into grassland: 60 hectares clear-cut with chainsaw and fire. This area was way wider when in 1965 Eulalio’s family obtained rights to possess no-one’s land through deforestation and created their ranch. Now the whole area belongs to the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve (RFGD), a buffer protected area that surrounds the Corcovado National Park. Eulalio and his family live out of farming: rice, beans, cattle and few pigs. However, his livelihood has been notably affected by the Reserve’s regulation. «I cannot use my land the way I need it – he sighs – I left some area back to the forest, because it is not worth to work it anymore, but they [the Ministry of the Environment] pay me peanuts as compensation for forested land».

In the RFGD only a restricted range of extractive activities is allowed, limiting to a great extent economic possibilities; «If I leave any fallow land, I am not allowed to farm it anymore because they consider it as reforesting land. This way I have to keep it clear all the time and the soil loses nutrients and harvest is poor».

Many stories resemble Eulalio’s one. Traditional livelihoods in the Osa are based on natural resources exploitation, but they have been limited by environmental conservation. Those who possess land can play the card of (low)Payment for Environmental Services; those who do not have land or a land title often just bypass the law and base their livelihood on illegality.

Conservation VS development
Since the ‘70s, when protected areas was created in the Osa, local people have been displaced and/or limited in their economic activities. All this is happening in an area that has been traditionally affected by one of the lowest development levels in the country, namely for lack of economic opportunities, employment and public services. In its latest report, the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy classifies the Peninsula’s development index among the last quintile and shows a clear relation among protected areas and low development index. Is it then really impossible to reconcile environmental conservation and local development? Many attempts have been made in this direction, but the results have been alternate and the population often has not been actively involved.

Still, human activities are considered the main threat to the Peninsula’s biodiversity richness: urbanistic and touristic expansion go on runaway, forested areas are cut and cleared with fire to make space for monocultures namely oil palm. Animals are hunted illegally and gold mining activity is perpetrated within protected areas.

If it is certain that economic development entails trade-offs to environmental conservation, it is also true that lack of any economic alternative leads to illegal and unsustainable extractive activities.

Also, while environmental conservation in the Osa seems to be rooted both in governmental institutions and NGOs, this doesn’t seem to be the case of local development.

“Of course protecting Nature is important! But they get their pay check at the end of the month, while we are left with nothing”

Cut and burnt forest
Yield from oil plantation








About the author
After graduating in the Master in Sustainable Development, International Development track (Utrecht University) Alice swung between her IDS studies and the belief that we should not only focus on developing countries but also on marginal areas of so-called developed ones. She just came back from one year in Northern Tanzania where she worked as project officer on a project focused on enhancing resilience of Maasai communities.

Golden Ghana: Pressing problems and new solutions for land management

Vincent Oberdorf
Graduate Student International Development Studies
Utrecht University

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.

Chinese establishment in Wasa Akropong
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. Under the increasing pressure on their land, both from the gold mining and pressing land- and border disputes, the documentation that Landmapp provides can bring great relief. 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.

The Mensa family








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