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Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field

In this blog series, students from International Development Studies (IDS) and related fields, share their field work experiences. Blog posts include topics such as land deals in peri-urban Mexico City, and pressing problems and new solutions for land management in Ghana.

Let People Protect Nature

A botto­m-up perspective on environmental conservation and local development in Costa Rica.
Date: October 2018

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.

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









Golden Ghana: Pressing problems and new solutions for land management

Author: Vincent Oberdorf
Year: 2017

Vincent Oberdorf is a 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.

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