What is land, and to whom? - The need for development practitioners to widen their views of land | Land Portal

Blogpost about the book “Power, Knowledge, Land – Contested Ontologies of Land and Its Governance in Africa” 2022 by Laura A. German. University of Michigan Press.

By Linda Engström, Researcher, Division of Rural Development, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden.      


What is the book about?

The take off point of Laura German’s book is the renewed global interest in African farmland in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, sparked by the quadruple crises of finance, energy, food, and climate.

The resulting rush for land, not least in rural Africa, ignited a global outcry in the late 2000’s over (the risk of) a global “land grab” – a massive transfer of land from local communities to governments or private actors mainly for agriculture, but also for mineral or other resource extraction or financial speculation. Multi- and bilateral development agencies and banks (hereafter ‘the development establishment’) nevertheless strived to make these agricultural investments an important part of the  global development agenda for rural Africa.

The focus of German’s analysis is the three dominant agendas for rural Africa launched by key global development actors over the past decades, largely as a response to this outcry. These agendas all have a dominating focus[1] on ‘improved land governance’ in different ways[2]; i) the need for formalizing[3] customary land rights through registration and titling of land, both at individual and collective levels, ii) the importance of the participation of affected local communities through community consultations and iii) inclusive business. German analyses the extent to which the promised benefits of these agendas actually materialize in practice. She also analyses what other effects these agendas can have on rural communities.

The main aim of the book is comparing what things like land, land tenure or security “are” in the dominant agendas on land governance vis a vis what they “are” for the purported beneficiaries – populations in rural areas where most of these agendas are implemented. German also explores the theories of change guiding land governance policies within the development establishment, and identifies important assumptions in them. She compares these assumptions with existing evidence from her own and other scholars’ research on the ground, on program impacts. This twin focus on “what things are” and on program impacts allows for a thorough interrogation of the extent to which the dominant theories of change guiding land governance match the local contexts in which they are implemented, and the effects the policies actually have in relation to their promised objectives.

Indeed, German’s cornerstone message is that the assumptions underpinning such theories of change is often ignorant of, and even antagonistic to, the interests, needs, and visions of the proposed beneficiaries of this agenda: the rural communities themselves.

In the details, German provides limited new empirical data. To do that is not the point of the book. The point of the book is instead to highlight alternative ways of relating to land and its values, and of achieving tenure security, and the risks that development interventions pose to those alternative ways of life. The book thus contributes with an important meta-level analysis fundamental to anyone interested in doing ‘good’ when it comes to the land issue in Africa.

In the next section, I will outline German’s analysis of the theories of change[4] guiding the three dominant agendas outlined above. This will be followed by a summary of what she argues land is for the purported beneficiaries of these policies. Building on this, I present what German outlines as the gap between these. Finally, I single out potential take-away messages for development practitioners.


The theories of change

Registration and titling of individual and collective landholdings

German describes the two dominant global agendas related to formalization of land tenure/rights. The first is the registration of individual land plots and associated land titles which has been pushed by for example the World Bank since several decades, most recently for the sake of women’s empowerment. The second is the more recent support for the registration and mapping of collectively held land.

The idea behind individual titling is to register and title individual land plots to improve livelihoods through tenure security and to protect vulnerable groups within communities, for instance women, from having their land rights undermined. In German’s detailed analysis of this agenda, her focus is on publications from influential global development actors[5] and their theories of change behind titling as a way to protect women’s access to and control over land. The mechanisms through which this is assumed to materialize vary between development actors. They do, however, share several core elements. A land title has long been viewed as a means to provide tenure security, which is, for example, expected to lead to investments that improve productivity, greater participation in land rental markets and higher income, food security and improved nutrition. Another important aim with individual titling is to make land into a commodity that can be sold or rented through economic transactions. This is thought to improve the current conditions, where it is assumed that women can only access land, not rent or sell it. It is thought that once the land becomes transferable, women will be able to engage in land markets and make decent incomes. A final expected benefit is that titling for women will also elevate their power to participate in decisions over land use within the household but also at community level which is thought to lead to increased land security. Similar effects are assumed also for so called ‘co-titling’ where both the husband’s and the wife’s name is written on the title. Thus, according to the theory of change, in order to achieve security of tenure for all, private, exclusive and alienable rights are needed.

The registration and titling of collective land is supported by actors using slightly different theories of change. Indigenous rights advocates emphasize that recognizing Indigenous people’s collective territorial rights to land will retain their identities, cultures and their self-determination. [6] A second theory of change comes from multi- and bi-lateral development agencies who focus on land titling as a way to achieve responsible land governance in a context of increasing pressure on land, where collective land titles are seen as a way to secure communities’ rights to land when farmland expansion takes place, while also enabling those rights to be transferred through mutual agreements. This way, land titling is thought to provide increased tenure security for rural communities and outside actors alike. Lastly, the global environmental movement sees the formalization of collective rights as a means to make forest and biodiversity conservation more people-centered, through making local and Indigenous communities part of the solution to deforestation rather than seeing them as the cause, with benefits for both communities and wildlife.

What all three theories of change for collective titling have in common is their assumption that collective land titling will protect local communities from unauthorized use of their land. This will be possible through the expected increased clarity in relation to land borders and in relation to what land use is permitted where, that formalization is expected to provide.

The development agencies’ theory of change differs from Indigenous rights and environmental advocates in two important ways – it seeks not only tenure security for local communities but also security for investors. Second, it has as an explicit aim to make land alienable, that is, possible to transfer between actors, since it is thought to make possible fair land transfers between communities and outside actors and create land markets. Such land transfers and markets are believed to ensure that land ends up with the most efficient users – an argument strongly driven by the World Bank. This way, it is assumed, productivity will be increased and food insecurity and poverty reduced. This particular theory of change for collective land formalization can be summarized as: formalization -> security -> investment-> marketability -> transfer to the most efficient users[7] -> increased productivity -> reduced food insecurity and poverty. On the contrary, actors within the Indigenous rights movement and environmental organizations are more inclined to support collective land rights that are not alienable.

The above shows that the theories of change on formalization of collective and individual land rights are partly overlapping. Not least, development actors emphasize the importance of making land alienable and transferable in order to deliver expected positive effects on rural landholders, through both these agendas.


Participation of local communities

Apart from the above, the theories of change on formalization of both collective and individual land rights also emphasize the participation of local communities in key decisions, in negotiations with state officials and private actors. For instance, within international law on human and indigenous rights it is widely recognized that consultation with or consent from local communities should be a precondition for decisions concerning land rights and resource interests, with the global ‘gold standard’ being Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). German provides a detailed analysis of the extent to which this gold standard is actually adhered to in implementing land governance programs (Chapter 4).


Inclusive business

The third agenda under scrutiny in German’s book is the idea of ‘Inclusive business’, presenting private investment in agriculture as a major opportunity for rural communities. It is also promoted to provide an important alternative development pathway in the context of reduced public development finance and official development assistance. In brief, the theory of change is that by ensuring the inclusion of smallholder farmers in global value chains, private investment will benefit those marginalized and ensure shared benefits for the investor and local residents.

I conclude this section by listing three key assumptions underpinning all the theories of change described above. These assumptions are important in order to understand German’s argument about how current land governance policies can be antagonistic to the interests of local communities. First, they build on the assumption that land is universally seen as something that is owned, preferably at an individual level, and mainly has an economic value. Second, it builds on the assumption that security to land is weak in customary tenure systems and that tenure security is created the same way across the globe. Third, the belief that smallholder farmers, herders, and other rural inhabitants can have adequate influence on decisions on whether and how to formalize customary claims, and will be benefit equally from inclusive businesses, builds on the assumption of equal power relations between state officials, private actors and local communities.

Apart from the assumptions listed by German, I would like to add two assumptions. They are perhaps implicit in her analysis, but I think they are important to highlight because they help to describe the logic behind these theories of change even better. They are the assumptions that i) having a document to protect your land will make sense among rural landholders and that ii) a document is going to be respected by outside interests as a means for you to keep your land. Both these assumptions must be true in order for the rural landholders to actually find the title useful. As we will see below, this is far from always the way it works in practice.

Other perspectives on land and security - from the intended beneficiaries of land governance interventions

Based on her own and others’ research over decades, German uses evidence from across Sub Saharan Africa to describe other, locally rooted, perspectives on what land and security are under customary land tenure systems. One might easily think that, today, customary systems must be eroded after decades of capitalist rule and market-based interventions. German refers, however, to a wealth of contemporary studies showing that although communities are in various degrees influenced by market-based economies and subsequent cultural changes, customary systems are still highly influential in shaping how land is used and defended, and still dominate the values and norms related to land in large parts of Africa.

While recognizing the diversity of views of what land is and how it is being governed, she teases out what she deems are general traits among rural communities across the African continent.

In her analysis, land is generally linked to who people are, to their social identities, and to social relations. Land is one of the important assets used for creating and sustaining relations to both family members and others in wider kin-based landholding groups who share land, so called ‘landholding lineages’. For example, land is often part of everyday exchanges of favors and goods, a process through which land contributes to strengthening social relationships. Moreover, she argues, relations to land are often seen and talked about as responsibilities and belonging, rather than rights and property. Responsibilities regarding land extend to family or clan members, ancestors and the coming generations, with continuous, flexible transfers of land to those who need it the most at the time. This includes the duty to keep land within landholding lineages to safeguard the rights of future generations. Land and people are, in essence, inseparable.

Local views of tenure and livelihood security are linked to such relations with family or lineage members, but also to spirits or places. The focus on belonging and “entrustment” between generations often entails restrictions on transferring land to strangers or members of other lineages. This does not mean, however, that who uses which land parcel is fixed over time. On the contrary, exchanges of land are prevalent, although within the landholding lineages which, thus, themselves provide security. Indeed, German outlines solid evidence that customary or informal property relations often provide security, because land is part of deeper social, cultural, and political relations that themselves provide support and insurance in everyday life, and during crises.

It is important to mention that German does not argue that there are no inequalities within contemporary customary systems. She does, however, emphasize the importance of understanding how they evolved over colonial and post-colonial times, and the securities they continue to provide at present. She refers to several studies[8] showing that customary systems have long provided high land security for women. This security provided through customary tenure has partially eroded over time, due to factors such as population growth, restructuring programs, the commercialization of agriculture and the subsequent development of market-based land ownership (NB that three of these trends are strongly donor-driven). Yet they continue to provide securities for men and women, youth and elders, that can be undermined through individual titling. Thus, a solution meant to solve gender imbalances in existing customary systems not only exacerbates these by eroding existing forms of security, but also formalizes these imbalances.

German states that these local views of what land is, and how it is used and valued in rural Africa, are largely invisible within the theories of change of the development establishment. In these theories, land and the security around it are portrayed as something individualized, owned, and preferably transferable through time-bound economic transactions between strangers. Thus, the theories of change are skewed because they do not reflect a reality in which land mainly has a social value and is viewed as a collective resource in a much wider sense. Consequently, she concludes, the theories of change themselves are misguided from the very beginning.

Another “gap” between the theories of change and the evidence presented by German is that local land access and governance institutions do not exist or are severely flawed, although such local systems have developed over decades or centuries, regulating land transfers, land use, relations and responsibilities linked to land. German however shows how it is assumed in the theories of change that local systems. Importantly, she points out, it becomes evident how these theories of change are basically devoid of an understanding of how security in relation to land can be provided through customary systems.


Actual impacts of land governance interventions

German’s overall analysis is difficult to contradict, and that is one strength of her book. It builds on vast empirical materials produced by herself and other scholars over time and space and makes visible a systematic problem with the past decades’ development agenda on land governance, showing how it is frequently detrimental to the supposed beneficiaries. In this section, I will describe the actual, lived effects on rural landholders and poverty brought by these policies.

If boiled down to a minimum, the two key objectives with the three development agendas outlined above are to make sure that local communities have secure access to land, including marginalized groups such as women, and that these groups are included and benefitting from outside investments in land. Both objectives include ensuring that local communities’ needs and interests are respected in important processes and decisions related to land.

However, the ample evidence presented in the book shows with outmost clarity that the effects of these agendas are often the opposite to these objectives. Overall, there is overwhelming evidence that land is rapidly being concentrated in the hands of more powerful groups at the expense of others, thus leading to increasing inequalities. Most importantly - rural landholders are among the biggest losers in this dynamic.

In order to understand how the actual effects are often far from the expected benefits, we need to return to the assumption of equal power relations in the dominating theories of change. Because, in reality, power relations are key in order to determine the effects of a development project, who wins and who loses. For example, there is strong evidence showing that when land is being formalized through collective or individual titling, those with more power make the important decisions on land borders and rights. Thus, the position of rural landholders to take a full, effective, role in processes and decisions related to whether tenure reforms are desirable, and if so, how they should be designed, in negotiation with state officials or private investors is, in reality, heavily undermined. In addition, it is not just about inclusion in decisions but also about what is even on the table to decide about – the ‘options’ available to choose between have often been pre-identified by development bodies.

Another important insight is that power is at stake not just within such every day, concrete decisions about land borders/rights, but that the very assumptions about what land is themselves hold immense power as they shape land laws. These laws are then used to justify exclusion. For instance, through examples in Peru and Mozambique, Germans shows that when local groups are systematically excluded from key decision-making processes, it takes place not only through ‘land brokers’ breaching existing laws, but also through using the very laws and regulations that are marketed to protect people’s land rights – such as alienable rights and consultation mechanisms - to dispossess people from their customary land rights. This is further supported by my own and colleagues’ research, showing that in thirteen large-scale agro-investments in Tanzania, the surrounding communities systematically lost land in various formalization processes with the purpose of creating secure land access for both local communities and investors (Engström et al 2022).

Similar effects are seen for individual titling, where concentrating the ownership of land in the hands of one or two individuals tends to exclude secondary rights holders (often including women in certain social positions) from accessing and making claims to that land. Therefore, most studies show that women are disadvantaged by individual titling due to their inferiority to claim ownership rights. While land titling programs with an explicit focus on gender equality have helped mitigate these problems, some inequalities were found to prevail. For example, apart from existing power imbalances, several studies found co-titling to only apply to women with a registered marriage; those who are informally wed and those living in polygamous relations tend to be excluded. This shows that when aiming to diagnose or improve women’s tenure security, it is crucial to differentiate between women in different social positions. Importantly, studies of women being the sole care-taker of the household shows that independent access to land is very important for women’s tenure security. However, there are few studies looking at whether this security is best provided by customary or statutory systems.

Meanwhile, evidence shows that rural landholders in most cases of large farmland investments are dispossessed of their land. This is further supported by research showing that inclusive business is far less prevalent than its promotion would suggest. Rather, inclusion is limited to already better off groups within local populations, or investments whose social inclusion agenda is supported by public funds. This, combined with the fact that land becomes alienable through formalization, and as such turned into a commodity, leads to a trend where land is being captured by outsiders. This also enables the wealthier groups of the population to buy land, which further strengthens the concentration of land in the hands of the better off.

Indeed, the most apparent and most serious consequence of the dominating theories of change is the concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy, subsequently leading to increasing inequalities. Another important overall effect, then, is that the agenda to formalize land rights through land registration and titling actually undermines security for the expected beneficiaries, rather than strengthens it.


So, what to do?

What is land and to whom? And how does this matter when we develop and implement land governance policies? The above description of the gap between the theories of change of the global development establishment’s policies on land governance, and the views and lived experiences of the proposed beneficiaries, shows that there is a spectrum of answers to these questions. It also shows that assuming that all people in the world relate to land (and to security in relation to it) in the same way paves the way for misguided attempts at how to govern it. It shows how the stories about what land is in rural Africa, have largely been constructed in so called ‘developed countries’ and have become dominating since they hold more power – the ‘expertise’ from developed countries becomes the natural way of seeing land. Thus, land policy interventions take their concepts for granted, but these are not grounded in the social and political realities of African countries.

The seriousness of the impacts caused by the gap between policy and local practice cannot be underestimated and cannot be ignored by anyone who is sincere in their wishes and attempts to improve the lives of people living in poverty.

So, what can development practitioners and decision makers do with this knowledge?

I think that the answer can be given at two different levels:

  1. The first answer is – perform a revolution that includes altering how development is defined, and how needs are identified and described in the first place. This must come from a paradigm shift, where it is a prerequisite to, and where time and resources are devoted to truly listening to, understanding and respecting other perspectives on what the actual problems, needs, living conditions and values are in a particular context. These views, then, would shape development projects, strategies and policies.
  2. The second answer is more pragmatic, focusing on smaller ‘tweaks’ within the existing system, that can be undertaken by individual development officers who wish to embrace the knowledge presented in this book and use it when strategies, policies, programs, or projects are designed and implemented. For example:
  • Dedicate time and budget to enroll people ideally from the communities, who speak the local language(s) and hold detailed knowledge about local land tenure systems and the related values and needs of the rural population in each specific context where a program shall be implemented, rather than only relying on general statements made in global outlook reports or articles claiming general problems.
  • Do not assume that customary systems are inadequate; invest time in understanding the benefits and securities they provide and if the community see a need for them to be maintained/strengthened.
  • Focus on protecting land rights and security through (building on) existing, local institutions and norms rather than designing land formalization programs in a way that enables alienation of land from rural landholders.
  • Do not support land formalization with the dual purpose of identifying land for rural landholders and investors – power imbalances will gravely endanger local communities’ access and rights to land.
  • Invest in farmers and herders themselves and in things that they identify as barriers to achieving their own aspirations, rather than investing in their land.

Finally, German herself forwards a piece of advice, echoing something Tania Murray Li, another respected land governance researcher has previously pointed out - it is ‘political efforts by groups to defend their rights to territory and to self-determination’ that have most hope.


The major take-away message for development practitioners’ point of view is the need to widen their views of what land is – who benefits and who loses from making land into a resource that can be bought and sold, invested in, and thus transferred from one user to another? What does this do to the security to land for rural smallholders and herders? What are the power relations in these transactions and how are people living in poverty impacted? While it is of outmost importance to remember that contexts vary significantly within and between continents, and that “local communities” are far from homogenous, German presents a structural problem within the current global development agenda on land governance that can no longer be ignored. Without this widening and reconsidering of how land is seen, “development” will continue to contribute to separate the proposed beneficiaries of development cooperation from their land. This is now supported by a large number of academic studies. The knowledge is there, but it needs to be integrated into, and change, the mainstream ideas, programs, and projects addressing land governance in rural Africa.



Engström, L., Bélair, J., & Blache, A. (2022). Formalising village land dispossession? An aggregate analysis of the combined effects of the land formalisation and land acquisition agendas in Tanzania. Land Use Policy120, 106255.


Peters, P. E. (2023). Power/Knowledge/Land: Contested Ontologies of Land and its Governance in Africa: by Laura A. German, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2022, pp. 333, 90.00(hardcover)ISBN978-0-472-07533-1, 39.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-472-05533-3.


[1] German has analyzed policy documents for example from the World Bank, USAID, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, but also websites, reports and brochures from these and other key development actors.

[2] One report that German points out as especially important for the transition towards a focus on land governance was the World Bank report in 2011 “The Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?” with the economist Deininger as the main author.

[3] Formalization is defined as ‘the formalization of [customary] property relations through government-issued land title’ p. 71

[4] A theory of change is a set of assumptions about the nature of the problem, what is needed to solve it, and what is expected to be achieved through that intervention.

[5] German analyses theories of change in documents by the World Bank, UN, Landesa, the SDGs and other global development bodies.

[6] For instance, through the ILO Convention 169 of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas in 2018.

[7] The summary up to here is cited from Peters (2023) review of Germans book, p. 2.

[8] This analysis is based on studies from Tanzania, Malawi, Sudan, Uganda, Ghana and Ethiopia



Photo: Typical African villages in Guinea-Conakry by Jurgen.

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