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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.

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

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.