The Endangered Commons of Africa – and How to Save Them

If you want to learn more about the alarming enclosure of land commons in Africa – its history, current developments and the future – you can do no better than Liz Alden Wily's just-released series of briefing papers, “Reviewing the Fate of Customary Tenure in Africa.”   The series of reports are published by the Rights and Resources Initiative, which describes itself as “ a global coalition of organizations working to encourage forest land tenure and policy reforms and the transformation of the forest economy so that business reflects local development agendas and supports local livelihoods.”

The five-part, 80-page document is a brisk, clear introdution to the history of land commons in Afrtica.  Alden Wily, who studies land tenure practices from Nairobi, Kenya, explains the role of law, money and force in dispossessing native Africans of their customary lands. The basic story is that community-governed commons are being converted into private property traded in the market, resulting in all the familiar pathologies:  People's sense of identity and connection to others wanes; they lose access and use of resources critical to their survival; ecosystems are damaged by market-driven enterprises and investors; and the displaced commoners, unable to support themselves, migrate to cities and become wage slaves, or fall to the margins of the new market culture by becoming beggars, pirates or hapless improvisers in the “informal economy."

Amazingly, even though an estimated two billion of the world's people depend upon natural resource commons for their daily life (e.g., fisheries, forests, arable land, irrigation waters, etc.), leading introductory economics textbooks in the U.S. fail to mention the commons beyond the obligatory trashing of it, via the discredited “tragedy” parable. (Garrett Hardin's essay remains one of the most-assigned readings for undergraduates.)

And so the vision of market-driven “development” proceeds apace, oblivious to how the marketization of customary lands is in fact eroding the ability of people to survive physically and culturally.  The trend is intensifying through a global land grab now underway, as investors, speculators and national governments (especially China) snap up large swatchs of land in Africa.  (See this previous blog on an Alden Wily's report on this topic.)

The commons has long been the default system for land tenure and use in Africa. The poor are the primary participants in the “customary sector,” and are most dependent on common resources simply to live.  And yet, despite the palpable value of the commons, western legal principles have been used to elevate individual property rights and extinguish community-based ownership and usage. Enclosures are generally driven through a loose alliance among the state, business and local elites who are more interested in money and control than in ecosystem stability and the local sovereignty of commoners.

Historically the commons has been fairly successful in Africa because it integrates provisioning with a rough social equity and sensitivity to local ecosystems. As Alden Wily notes: “The socially embedded nature of customary land norms means they are accessible, largely cost-free (payments to chiefs for land allocation and other services notwithstanding), and inseparable from the realities of present-day land use. The arbiter of norms is always the living community, obviously acutely responsive to changes in condition that affect its land-based livelihood.”

Over the past century, however, Africa's land commons have been enclosed through land-takings by white settlers, private-sector agricultural developments, state creation of conservation lands, nationalization of lands, and the suppression of customary rights in favor of private property regimes.

However, “despite endless encroachments and suppression of rights,” notes Alden Wily, “the customary sector remains strong and active.” This is because national laws and “conversionary titling programs” (converting commons into legally owned private property) are only so effective in eradicating customary practices on the ground. Commoning is deeply embedded in cultural norms and social practices, and therefore not easily eradicated.

Notwithstanding the durability of the commons, Alden Wily notes how law itself is a powerful weapon of enclosure. She notes: “The importance of law as an instrument of land dispossession is significant; from the outset colonial administrators were determined to make dispossession of Africans legal. This was more likely to satisfy critical politicians and publics at home, than to keep things orderly.” As a result, colonizers have taken care to have the color of law on their side even if their acquisitions were coercive. This trend persists today.

As a corrective, Alden Wily proposes a “pro-poor approach to security customary rights” through law. Her recommendations:

Changing the law is a priority. As long as individuals, families and collective holdings in the customary sector do not have legal force as properties in this highly commoditised world, half a billion Africans will remain tenants of the state, or, in the words of an appeal court judge in Tanzania in 1994, “squatters on their own lands.”

Further democratization of land and resource administration is also crucial. Solidarity within and between communities is handicapped by the absence of enabling institutional mechanisms and powers.....

Tenure security policies need to shift focus from farms to commons. Many governments are loath to remove customary-sector families from their houses and farms but have no compunction in reallocating their commons to other uses and users. This is because compensation, albeit of a token nature, is now normally required when hosues are crops are interfered with, even on untitled customary lands, but is rarely extended to commonly held forests, rangelands and marshalands. Yet such unfarmed commons are the major asset of most rural communitioes. They are often the main or only source of livelihood for the land-por and landless; with assistance, they have the income-generating potential to raise millions out of poverty.

Africa may seem a distant place to those of us who live on other continents or perhaps in industrialized countries. Yet the dynamics of land enclosure there offer a clear case study of why the commons are profoundly important as a system of governance and provisioning -- and how private property/market regimes that displace the commons are often a force for disenfranchisement, structural inequality and grinding poverty.