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.

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Showing our data to the families

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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.

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Mapping the boundaries

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.

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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.