By Anne Hennings, peer-reviewed by Lamin O. Touray, Lecturer at the University of Gambia & Fabakary Daffeh, Lecturer at the University of Gambia
Often called the “two strips of land on either side of the river Gambia”, the country’s borders with its only neighbor Senegal were demarcated between 1891 and 1905 following the Anglo-French Convention of 1889. There is a strong recognition of rights to land and forests both in rural and urban areas in the Gambia. Land is governed by a complex and interlinked system of statutory and customary law and practices. Over the last three decades land reforms largely aimed at formalizing and converting customary tenure into leasehold tenure, centralizing land administration, and establishing a Land Commission.
The Gambia from Space, 2014, photo by NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)
However, the West African country has no national land policy and lacks behind an adequate implementation of its legal framework. Women face many challenges in accessing and controlling land in a patrilineal property system. Land use planning has been a long-standing issue especially in quickly expanding urban areas as is the regularization of deemed leaseholds. A new wave of increasing peri-urban land disputes have started to exacerbate inter-community tensions, as well as conflicts between indigenous communities and the state, first settlers and late settlers, and customary landowners and real estate agencies conflicts in the Gambia. Moreover, the rapid peri-urbanization in the frontiers of Kombo drives the loss of forests, green belts, and farming land which has adverse effects on climate change mitigation. The impact of climate change on the Gambia’s agricultural sector, food security, and biodiversity calls for an integrated approach to build resilience.
Land legislation and regulations
The plural legal system draws on English common law, Islamic law, and customary law. The Constitution of 1997 – the adoption of the new constitution failed in 2020 – does not make specific provisions for land matters but only calls for the establishment of a land commission. Land governance distinguishes between the regions (former protectorate) and Banjul (former British colony). The Land Act of 1945, which became the State Lands Act of 1991 and has never been fully implemented, regulates land management and recognizes leaseholds as land titles. It also allows the Ministry of Lands to designate any area in the regions as state land and in turn grant all occupiers a 99-year lease. Kombo North, Kombo South, and Kombo Central were designated as state lands in pursuance to this legislation in 1994.
According to the Local Government Act of 2003, district authorities, called Seyfo, administer land in accordance with customary law. The Land (Provinces) Act of 1946 has remained in place but was renamed to Land (Regions) Act.
The key land administration and management institutions include the Ministry of Lands and Regional Government (MoLRG) responsible for land policy development, the Ministry of Agriculture which reviews agricultural leases, and the Ministry of Forestry and Environment. Under the MRLG are the Department of Land and Surveys (DLS) and the Department of Physical Planning and Housing (DPPH). With regard to land administration and planning, main issues arise from a lack of an effective system, harmonizing traditional, local, and central government land transfers, and the inadequacy of trained personnel or equipment for surveying, mapping, or planning as well as the registration of customary land.
In 2018, the long awaited Land Commission was sworn in following the Lands Commission Act of 2007. The commission has an advisory function on policy matters regarding land administration and shall ensure transparency in land allocation. This commission, which is also supposed to investigate land disputes and their root causes, has remained largely dysfunctional and muted over lingering and new land disputes, notably in peri-urban areas of concern.
Land tenure classifications
Similar to other West African countries, the dichotomous approach to land administration is rooted in the Gambia’s historic trajectories and colonial past. Legally, all land in the Gambia is public land including customary land that is not yet registered and vested in the District Authority to be held for the benefit of the respective communities. The country has three tenure types: freehold and leasehold which were introduced by the British and are statute-based as well as customary.
Customary tenure applies to most of the country’s land and is administered by district authorities (Seyfor) and village heads (Alkalo) drawing on indigenous traditions. Customary tenure is largely determined through membership by kinship or lineage. The village chief, called Alkalo, administers land and together with descendants from other founding families holds the highest status and tenure security. Customary tenure distinguishes between clan (Kabilo) household holdings (managed by the clan head) and communal land ownership (managed by the village chief and the council of elders).
Freehold land covers about 10% and includes residential urban areas, acquired public land, designated state land (alienated customary land), forest parks and nature reserves, and Tourism Development Areas. Leaseholds cover subleases and tenancies, licenses, 99-year leases of state land, and deemed leaseholds. The provisions of the Lands (Provinces) Act in 1946 led to the alienation and registration of customary land under British rule while customary tenure prevailed. Today, conflicts still arise from overlapping customary land and state leasehold grants allocated to third parties. Both in rural and urban areas, one quarter of the adult population feels tenure insecure.
District tribunals are responsible for dispute resolution regarding customary land with the regional governors holding the power to review the tribunals decisions. The continuing issue of land disputes has led to a lack of public trust in the country’s administration system and intensified conflicts between indigenous communities and the government as well as private land conflicts. However, the resolution of land-related conflicts was not one of the top priorities of the recent National Development Plan (2018-2021).
Land use trends
In 2020, 37% of Gambia’s population lived in rural areas while 27% were employed in agriculture. Agriculture, forestry, and the fishing sector contribute 20% to the GDP, largely through fishing and groundnut production. The tourism sector is as important to the country’s economy. Poverty is very high in rural areas and surveys show that the livelihoods of the rural poor highly depend on land, forest, and water resources. The average farm size of smallholders is 1.5ha. The most important rainfed subsistence crops include coarse grains, rice, and cassava.
Fishing on the Gambia River, 2016, photo by Mariusz Kluzniak (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The river Gambia plays a key role dividing the country into a northern and southern part. The vegetation includes savannahs as well as riverine forest that has mostly remained unchanged by humans. 40% of the land area is under forests and open and closed woodlands which provide firewood, building materials, medical products, food, and prevent soil erosion. More than 10% of the Gambia’s land cover are protected areas and national gazette forest parks. Between 2001 and 2021, the country lost 44% of its tree cover due to pressure from agricultural and settlement expansion, drought, fires, and a significant loss of mangrove cover. The annual fire season peaks around January to May. Gambia’s biodiversity is under threat although several national, community-based, and international organizations are involved in forest restoration and rehabilitation. Moreover, climate change has had various impacts on the coastal areas including land loss, changes in ocean acidity, or temperature.
The country has only a limited number of mineral resources, notably quartz or silica sand which has become economically more important with increasing demand in urban areas. Other mineral deposits –notably along the coast - may allow for small-to-medium-scale extraction, including rutile, zircon, illuminate, and clay.
As a result of the dual land tenure system there are different processes for acquiring statutory urban and rural customary lands. For customary land, land acquisition and registrations processes are classified threefold: Traditional transfers, local government/official transfers, and central government transfers. Acquiring ownership of customary land from the founding families/clans (Kabilo) and Alkalo requires a change of ownership. In a next step, the official transfer, customary land is registered at the Area Council. Finally, at the level of central government the occupancy permit and lease certificate are allocated. These land titles are processed at the MoLRG, DPPH and DLS. The above procedures are applicable to individuals and entities.
For public purposes, the compulsory acquisition of land by the state is possible in the interest of defense, safety, order, morality, health, town and country planning or the development or utilization of any property for the public benefit, such as tourism development areas (TDA). In addition, the Physical Planning and Development Control Act provides that compulsory acquisitions for the public interest allow for land use changes, i.e. from agricultural to residential, commercial, or industrial uses. If occupants with usufruct rights under customary law are affected they are compensated on the basis of the “loss of user rights”. Occupants may be resettled to suitable alternative land in consideration of the inhabitants’ economic well-being and social and cultural values. Alternatively, a compensation may be paid following the provisions of the Land Acquisition and Compensation Act (1991). However, the compensation amount is not clearly defined for occupants under customary law, and its implementation has been inconsistent and arbitrary. Moreover, District Authorities tend to forego compensation payments when they offer farmland for public purposes in exchange for prospects of development. Information on land allocations is not publicly accessible.
In contrast to other West African countries, the Gambia is less affected by large-scale land investments. According to the Land Matrix, there was one large biofuel investment contract concluded in 2012 over 30,000ha which was abandoned in 2020. That said, the government invites investments into the tourism sector. Since 1970, the state leased several Tourism Development Areas (TDA) throughout the country under the Land (Province) Act for tourism development purposes. Altogether, two thirds of the country’s beaches have been declared as TDAs affecting the livelihoods of local inhabitants.
Greater Banjul Area, 2008, photo by J. Poelen (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
With rising interest in (peri-) urban land, the Vice President of the Gambia, Alieu Badara Joof, expressed his concerns in 2022 over land acquisitions by real estate companies and stressed the need to protect the land rights of minorities. In Kombo, grassroot movements fight the expropriation of their traditionally owned lands by the state.
Women’s Land Rights
Historically, women in the Gambia have always created economic and artisanal livelihoods despite limitations in their authority. In 2021, less than one fifth of women owned land whereas 75% of the agricultural labor force are female. Although the constitution provides for equal rights of women and men this does not apply to personal law. In practice, women borrow land for cultivation purposes from their husbands, their husbands’ families, or other male community members. Disadvantaged by regulations and the State Lands Act, secondary land users have been excluded from land formalization processes due to their temporary user status and are exposed to higher levels of tenure insecurity.
Cashew farmer, 2018, photo by Ollivier Girard/EIF (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Despite the progressive provisions of the Women’s Act of 2010, the four types of marriages in the Gambia continue determining access to land tenure and inheritance rights: Christian, civil, and customary marriages as well as marriages under Shari’a law. The latter applies to 95% of the Gambian population. Under Shari’a law, girls may only inherit half the share of a male child. Christian women and daughters are entitled to the same shares as male family members, however, husbands can will away all of his property. According to customary law, women are only entitled to their deceased husbands’ property if they agree to be inherited herself along with his other assets. In a few ethnic groups though, women may inherit land from their mothers and are considered owners instead of borrowers.
Women do not only face discriminatory cultural, religious and social norms but also lack of awareness, financial capacities, and opportunities to purchase land. Likewise, illiteracy is high among girls and women and only very few women are engaged in the institutional structures that manage land and natural resources or are in political positions, such as village heads.
Urban tenure issues
The Gambia has one of the highest urbanization rates in Sub-Sahara Africa and more than 63% of the population living in the Greater Banjul Area. According to the Gambia’s SDG monitoring survey, in Banjul 96.5% of the population live in slums or have no or limited access to basic services. Tenure security in these settlements is low and evictions are common. In Kombo, the epicenter of peri-urbanization in the country, land disputes, evictions, and demolitions are common. In addition, many urban landowners refrain from registering their plots due to high costs leaving them tenure insecure. Urban land administration and responsibilities partly overlap, i.e. land maps and records are kept by separate authorities.
Incoming fishermen, 2016, photo by Frans Peeters (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Greater Banjul 2040 project aims to address these issues by promoting urban development and improving services in consideration of climate resilience, social inclusion, and economic growth. Despite well-intended decentralization and city development programs, the capital faces both rampant land encroachment and speculation in the land sector. With rising land values disputes over land and transactions have become a major issue in urban Gambia. Closely related with wealth, land ownership has become highly desirable, and the Greater Banjul Area and peri-urban Kombo have experienced a sharp rise of purposedly land investments. This trend has had a negative effect on the social fabric.
Land Governance Innovations
In addition to endorsing the VGGT in 2012, the government of the Gambia has implemented a number of land- and resource-related programs. In cooperation with FAO, the Country Programming Framework (2018-2022) sets out four priority government areas, including enhancing sustainable and diversified agriculture and fisheries, sustainable natural resource management for climate change adaption and mitigation, strengthening food value chains, as well as strengthening resilience and capacities for disaster risk reduction.
The 5-year GEF-6 Landscape/Seascape Planning and Restoration Project (2020-2025) is implemented by UNEP and the National Environment Agency aiming to provide an enabling environment for land reform and marine spatial planning policies. In addition, the project shall contribute to improving ecosystem conservation services, removing barriers to sustainable land management, and increasing ecological connectivity between different biodiversity habitats by creating Indigenous Community Conservation Areas.
The objective of the Peace Building Fund Project focuses on promoting peaceful coexistence among communities by addressing the adverse impacts of climate change, such as land disputes.
Timeline – Milestones in Land Governance
1946 – Adoption of the Land (Provinces) Act
The Act has remained in place since today but was renames to Land (Regions) Act.
1965 – Independence of the Gambia and rising rural-urban migration
Since the Gambia gained independence in 1965, the capital Banjul had experienced high levels of migration and unplanned urban growth for more than 20 years that resulted in haphazard land allocations, encroachment of fertile agricultural land, deforestation, and overcrowding.
1970 – Establishment of the Tourism Development Areas (TDA)
The TDAs shall promote development but at the same time negatively affect the livelihoods of local inhabitants.
1997 – Adoption of the constitution
The adoption of the newly drafted constitution failed in 2020. The current constitution provides little on land-related matters.
2018 – Swearing in of the Land Commission
Following the Lands Commission Act of 2007, the commission has an advisory function with regard to land administration, shall ensure transparency in land allocation, and investigate land disputes and their root causes.
2022 – Presentation of the 2020-2040 draft plan for Greater Banjul Area
The Greater Banjul 2040 aims to drive urban development and improve services while promoting climate resilience, economic growth, and social inclusion.
Where to go next?
The author’s suggestion for further reading
The Inclusive Greater Banjul report provides a detailed view on women’s experiences in urban Banjul, ranging from questions of diversifying leadership to safe transport and the co-creation of making cities from below.
Amuzu et al.’s analysis offers insights into the impact of rising sea levels on the Coastal Zones of the Gambia. They authors demonstrate changes in annual rainfall and temperature, land loss due to flooding, as well as the lost monetary value of land and population at risk between 1986 and 2016.
This report analyses the dynamics of land acquisition and registration in peri-urban Kombo by real estate companies. It also highlights issues surrounding fraud, land disputes, real estate proliferation and regulation of the real estate industry in the Gambia.
 BTI. 2022. BTI Transformation index. Gambia country report 2022. URL: https://bti-project.org/en/reports/country-report/GMB
 Government of the Gambia. 2007. Lands Commission Act. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/lands-commission-act
 Freudenberger, Mark S. 2000. Tenure and Natural Resources in the Gambia: Summary of Research Findings and Policy Options. Working Paper No 40. Land Tenure Center. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/agrisus2016222392/tenure-and-natural-resources-gambia-summary-research-findings
 Bensouda, Amie. 2013. Results of the Application of the Land Governance Assessment Framework. Synthesis Report. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/issues-and-options-improved-land-sector-governance-gambia
 Prindex. 2022. By Country: The Gambia. URL: https://www.prindex.net/data/gambia/
 World Bank. 2022. Stats by Country. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?locations=GM
 World Bank. 2022. Stats by Country. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NV.AGR.TOTL.ZS?locations=GM
 GFRAS. 2014. By Country: The Gambia. URL: https://www.g-fras.org/en/world-wide-extension-study/africa/western-africa/gambia
 Government of the Gambia. 1996. Forest Regulations, amended. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/issues-and-options-improved-land-sector-governance-gambia
 Global Forest Watch. 2022. Country Stats. The Gambia. URL: https://gfw.global/3y0TtLs
 Amuzu, Joshua et al. 2018. The Socio-economic Impact of Climate Change on the Coastal Zone of the Gambia. Natural Resources and Conservation 6:1, pp. 13 - 26. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/socio-economic-impact-climate-change-coastal-zone-gambia
 GCCPC. 2020. Study on the state of consumer welfare in real estate industry report. URL: https://gcc.gm/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/REAL-ESTATE-REPORT.pdf Bensouda, Amie. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in The Gambia. World Bank, Washington, DC. URL:https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28522
 Government of the Gambia. 1997. Constitution, Article 22(1).
 Government of the Gambia. 1990. Physical Planning and Development Control Act, Article 22(2). URL: https://landportal.org/fr/library/resources/lex-faoc006277/physical-planning-and-development-control-act-1990-act-no-1-1991
 Land Matrix. 2022. By Country: The Gambia. URL: https://landmatrix.org/list/deals
 Macal, A. 2022. VP, wants embargo on foreign estate development. URL: https://landportal.org/news/2022/10/vp-wants-embargo-foreign-estate-development
 See also: Manneh, D.F. 2020. Demolition of Structures in Sukuta Salagi: The State’s Public Exhibition of Contempt for Kombonkas. The Chronicle, 31 May. URL: https://landportal.org/demolition%20of%20structures%20in%20sukuta%20salagi
Manneh, D.F. 2020. Open Letter to Hon Ousainou Darboe: The Intolerable Kombo Lands Situation. The Chronicle, 16 July. URL: https://landportal.org/the%20intolerable%20kombo%20lands%20situation
 Fourshey, Catherine C. 2019. Women in the Gambia. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. African History. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/women-gambia
 Government of the Gambia. 1997. Constitution: Section 28(2) and article 33(2)
 Monterroso I, Enokenwa O and Paez-Valencia AM 2021. Women’s Land Rights in The Gambia: Socio-legal review. Securing Women’s Resource Rights Through Gender Transformative Approaches Project Brief. Bogor, Indonesia and Nairobi, Kenya: CIFOR-ICRAF and IFAD. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/socio-economic-impact-climate-change-coastal-zone-gambia
 Government of the Gambia. 2010. Women’s Act. Sections 11, 41, 44, 45.
 See also Christian Marriages Act of 1862, Mohammedan Marriages and Divorce Act of 1941, Civil Marriages Act of 1938, Law of England Application Act (10).
 Monterroso and Paez-Valencia 2021. Women’s Land Rights in The Gambia.
 The Gambia Bureau of Statistics. 2021. The 2020-21 Gambia SDGs Monitoring Survey. Banjul. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/2020-21-gambia-sdgs-survey
 UN-HABITAT. 2011. Gambia: Banjul Urban Profile. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/9789211323832/image-gambia-banjul-urban-profile
 BTI. 2022. BTI Transformation index. Gambia country report 2022. URL: https://bti-project.org/en/reports/country-report/GMB
Authored on09 November 2022