Living in the Community – Why land tenure evidence is so important

I’ve dealt with land titling in various countries – the listing of what ownership or tenancy people have on documents like house deeds.  It was complicated even in countries that had very formal systems.  Not only might there be one owner, but maybe joint owners or a company owning the land.  There were leasings and tenancies, and sub letting, and then various extra issues such as rights of way and easements that gave permission to some people to use the land that someone else owns – for example giving an electricity company access to overhead wires on a farmer’s field.

In a country that had very a very limited land registry (the Freetown peninsula alone had a crumbling formal system), the documentation of land use was tortuous.  It was difficult enough even to understand what types of rights existed.  The traditional ideas of ownership and tenancy went out the window.  In theory the land was held by the whole community but in Tambakha the de facto ownership was in the hands of a few families.  Within that people had rights to a form of tenancy to farm the land – some of which was done by payment, others by agreement within families.  This works quite well where the population is fairly static; but for people who move into villages, or have a marriage that changes family circumstances, it becomes very difficult to get hold of any plots.  Some people are allowed to rent land from one of the families, but the tenancy period can be as short as a year in some cases.  This may allow you to produce one or two crops, but you do not invest in anything which may produce higher or more long term returns.  You won’t plant a fruit tree that will not yield for ten years if it is possible you will be evicted after one.

We tried to work out the ownership issues with our trainees, but I was concerned we could not get the whole picture from them and it would have been better to established the terms we were going to use before we started the training.  Kofi did follow up on this later but then we had to retrofit the software to make it work for us.


Showing our data to the families

Living in the Community – Property Rights

All in all it was a big mix of land uses, and over the top of this, imaginary (or in some cases) real lines were drawn to delimit the property rights.  The kitchen garden areas we tackled next; the big problem here was that many had mango and banana trees in them and it was difficult to determine where the property line might be as you walked it.  Rather than confuse the trainees by recording GPS lines straight away which might need correcting, we taught them how to work with the farmer who managed the plots to walk with them before switching the GPS to determine where the boundary went.  We found most of them determined features which sorted this out quite easily – a tree here, a ditch there, the corner of a building.  Where the problem came is when we got to the far end of the plot away from the buildings and the farmer would wave vaguely off into an impenetrable tangle of vines.  We showed our trainees how to stop the recording at one point, walk all the way round the obstruction to a second point where you could stand at a plot corner, start the tracing once more and the GPS would record a straight line between the two points.

Of course not all neighbouring farmers would agree on the lines you were drawing but we told our trainees not to worry – there was no problem about plotting two neighbouring parcels of land and having overlap.  All it was doing was highlighting that there was some disagreement over where the land was that the villagers or the elders could sort out later.  One of the purposes of the exercise was to show where possible disputes existed.  What we had more difficulty understanding was what was the actual rights to property that people have.


Mapping the boundaries

Living in the Community – The Shape of Fintonia

Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot.  After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty.  I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model.  In the centre of the village were most of the buildings.  The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces.  In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown.  I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used.  I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown.  The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing.  Two types of this agriculture existed.  Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two.  While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields.  Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown.  On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier.  Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown.  The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping.  In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest.  Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.


Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth

Living in the Community – Claydiggers

The clay here in Fintonia was bright golden and great stacks of bricks had been extracted.  In another location under some trees we found more excavation going on.  A whole family were eagerly digging away in a pit over 10m square and already several metres deep.  They seemed pleased to see us and willing to show what they were up to, pose for photos which we then showed them through the viewfinder to hoots of laughter.  The base of the pit was completely churned up and they were putting the clay into buckets of plastic bags and hauling it up to a dry area in the sun to form the bricks.  They had several ways of forming the bricks with different results.  Some of the bricks looked misshapen and were hand crafted, others they put weights on or formed them from a simple wooden or metal mould.  The clay in the bags appeared to be being taken off to be used to make pottery.  It was all surprisingly industrial for this small rural village.  But here and elsewhere the clay was transforming the landscape.  The traditional “mud huts” or rondavels that were so typical  in Zimbabwe in the 1990s were being replaced by square, quite substantial buildings with galvanised roofing and proper doors and window frames.

This family were interested in what we were doing so we laid out the satellite image on the ground on a dry spot up the slope from their pit.  Covered in a grey slime, they heaved themselves up out of the clay, wiped their wellington boots on the ground and stood around us as we explained the project.  I’m not sure they got the whole story of the property rights issues, but they were fascinated by the satellite imagery.  I know from past experience that people often can interpret satellite imagery easily; once you have orientated them a little they are away.  We showed them the village centre and the roads heading out in  different areas and soon they were pointing out where we were currently standing and where they lived, as well as the school and the community forest.  It was all very encouraging.

Living in the Community – Demba tries the unit

I was given a few moments to talk about the project; I had to do a little work to clarify some of the simplifications Momoh had made on our behalf.  And we unrolled the maps and showed them the preliminary work we had done.  I had simply taken a satellite image and drawn many of the key buildings, roads and other features on top.  We presented a copy of this to the Paramount Chief and I posed rather awkwardly for a photograph for the website.  A few words of thanks from the Paramount Chief himself, where he told us that he trusted the good work of the project so far, and that any friend of Momoh’s was a friend of his.  We were so grateful for this – I must admit in all the years I have worked in Africa I have been uneasy over my imposition on the communities in which I work.  When I have a fixer or a local who introduces us to those communities, I am so much more relieved and confident we shall get cooperation.


Handing the chief a copy of our satellite map

I was a little overoptimistic here, but for reasons that did not reveal themselves for several days.  We commenced our training with the three guys straight after the meeting with the chief.  We started by heading back to our own guest house and spreading the materials over the table on the veranda.  I explained to them the basic theory of what we were doing and got them to orientate themselves from the printed out satellite image.  Then Kofi took over and gave them a detailed lesson in how to use a GPS.  He had quite a sophisticated GPS, which used a pen and a touch screen and for people who rarely used a small mobile phone, let alone any other digital device, it took a bit of getting used to.  We wandered across the road in front of our house to an area of cleared land right on the edge of the village.  Kofi walked around the edge of the plot with the GPS and came back, saved the result with his magic pen and showed the trainees the results on the little grey screen on the unit.  The GPS had recorded his movements every few seconds and he had created a neat little square on the screen.  He handed the unit to Demba who eagerly took it in his hands.  Kofi was a good trainer – very serious and strict but incredibly patient.   With this GPS there were several things to do to set up the unit ready for walking the boundaries.  Then you let it go and it made beeping noises when it was recording data.   We stood next to the road as we watched Demba walk half way round the field.  Then he said “It has stopped beeping”.  Kofi walked over to fix it.  He completed the walk.  Kofi helped him press all the right buttons to ensure that he saved the track in the unit and we took a look at the results on the screen.  There were one or two short lines in different places in the screen and that was all.  Kofi reset it and off he went again.  This time he was more successful at having a track that went all the way round the plot but it was a very peculiar shape.  I’d spotted what was going wrong.  With a GPS you have to have the unit exactly where you want it to record – there is no point in walking a boundary if you wiggle around any obstacle, or hold the machine away from where the actual boundary was.  And some of the lines went haywire, points all over the place.  The problem stemmed from Demba being in too much of a hurry to get round.  GPS is like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail.  It does not record every step you take, but records a point every few seconds.  If you walk too fast you end up with very few points and in some places, where there is tree cover, for example, the precision of the location accuracy can drop.  With this unit, it can average out and help make a smoother picture of the route you took, but only if you walk slowly.  This guy kept on cutting corners which made the shape of the plot very dubious.  If he had stood in each corner he would have got a much cleaner shape on the GPS.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island -How to improve aquaculture

And this is where I came in.  The emergency charity of which I am a member, MapAction, had done several weeks of support to the relief coordination operations and several of the team had gone on for several months to work with individual sectors – the health, food, water operations that were a vital life support to the country following the quake.  I had been diverted on some other work at the time.  But a couple of years later, I was asked by a consulting firm to work with them on a project looking at the potential for aquaculture in Haiti.  It may sound like a minor factor when people remain unhoused, but it was part of a much larger programme to look at building up economic activity in Haiti, improving the private sector and encourage the large Haitian diaspora to invest in their own country.

Like a lot of short consultancies, the proposal happens early on and  you hear nothing about it for months.  I went off and did work in several other places and one day an email plonked in my inbox from the development consultants that the bid had been successful.  I was to be teamed with a French Canadian aquaculturist and our team leader who spoke little English, a Frenchman who lived in Brighton, and me who spoke only grunting French with a smattering of shoulder shrugging.  I’d stressed in the bid that it would be preferable for me to have two trips, one to help me fact find and obtain all the data I needed (always a problem for  a GIS analysis project), and the second to work on the data and produce the results.  These were to be split about two months apart.  My role appeared to be to help the team leader decide where would be suitable  for aquaculture to exist.  This turned out to be an interesting intellectual challenge as there were several sorts of aquaculture out there to choose from and they needed different conditions for them to be successful.   One was fish ponds which needed nice flat areas (at a premium in much of Haiti), could benefit from a source of clay and would be useful if close to arable farming as a low cost access to feed.  The other was through fish cages in natural water bodies.  Herein lay a problem.  Much of Haiti’s rivers were polluted; in urban areas by the sheer quantity of people with a lack of access to suitable sanitation and the other issues of industrial and urban solid and liquid wastes.  And throughout the country the rivers were choked with sediment.  Even in a perfectly stable environment, Haiti had steep sided valleys and run off inevitably brought down soil and gravel that formed large deltaic braided riverbeds.  Add in the deforestation of the uplands and the widespread landslides on unstable slopes, the sediment load went off the scale.  Any cages would fill up with sediment or be dislodged by flooding.  Fortunately there was a solution.  There are a limited number of freshwater lakes in Haiti but one exceptional but foresighted government decision from the past was to dam some steep valleys and produce “lac collinaire” – hill lakes that resourced the local communities with fresh water.  In theory these could all be stocked with fish.


Can fish farming be expanded?

A tale of two swamps – Where to draw the line

It was a shame we could not get to the temporary fishing settlements in the depths of the swamp to see whether the same attitude to fish conservation was so strong.  And we never got to look down the river beyond the swamp into practices there.  I’d become aware that the fisheries department already split the swamp into five management zones.  Partly this was due to practicalities of getting around this remote area of Zambia, but it partly reflected the different geographies and the fishing practices which went on in them.  It was easy to see the main part of the fishery was the lake and the wetland areas to the south and east.  What I was less certain of was how far down the river we should extend the boundary, and at what point around the edge of the lake and swamp did we say the regulations were to cover.  As well as the main swamp there were long fingers of marshland that extended upriver to the north east in several valleys.  There was also the complex of dambos to the north and west, some containing marshy river valleys, others with smaller lakes and wetland patches.  What did the area have to cover?  As well as to identify what types of fishery and habitats needed to be included,  it was also my job to make the boundary something manageable – i.e. it could be enforced on the ground.  There are a number of options; one it to make it completely natural so it contains the ecosystem you are trying to protect.  This means following natural features but in the case of a fishery it is not wise to split a river in half; it has to be done by watersheds – i.e. make the catchment boundary or highest point from where water drains into the swamp the boundary of the fishery too.  But some ridges are not too obvious, especially in the only slightly bumpy landscape that is common in north west Zambia.


How far does the fishery extend?

I was coming to the conclusion I would need a combination of natural and man-made features to delimit the entire boundary, and occasionally would still need some arbitrary lines drawn in the good tradition of African colonists for centuries.  Even the southern boundary was to be a challenge as Bangweulu Swamp seemed to merge with other swampy lands well beyond where I had been given as an area of interest for my study.