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