A Low-Cost Platform for Administering Land Rights


The problem of ownership

Formal land rights vary from country to country in Africa, but in many places, rural areas in particular, those using the land lack formal documentation of their rights. In most of these cases, a person’s rights to farm a given piece of land are generally understood through local practices. However, where land is scarce, this informality can lead to disputes and instability within the community. In other cases, government or investors may take advantage of a lack of local documentation to acquire land for commercial interests. What also must be considered in this current arrangement is the idea that if a farmer or property owner feels no long-term right to their land and feels that they could be removed at any moment, they are less likely to be a good steward of that land, perhaps practicing a form of forestry or farming that is ideal for quick yields but not long-term sustainability.

In Zambia, most of the country’s land is managed by chiefs and village headmen through customary practices that regulate the rights to land for millions of small subsistence farmers. A farmer may own and depend on his parcel of land, and upon death may split that land among children. That parcel may be added to another parcel as families change and move, creating a complex network of property without much in the way of formal documentation. One of the chief’s main responsibilities is the administration of these land rights, but the chiefs have never had any maps or digital registers to use in this endeavor. Dealing with this ever-changing makeup of property changes, subdivisions and disputes is an extremely important factor in ensuring the long-term stability of land rights and use.

Putting low-cost tools in the right hands

It was into this environment that the USAID-funded Tenure and Global Climate Change (TGCC) program was introduced. With partners, Akros, Terra Firma, and the Chipata District Land Alliance. Prime implementer Tetra Tech realized that if the chiefs could be provided with tools to formalize the land tenure in their chiefdoms, it had the potential to get down to some of the root causes of poverty. After a widespread community outreach campaign, the TGCC program and local affiliates have since mapped five chiefdoms using low-cost mapping tools, meaning that they now have vector-drawn coordinates for thousands of plots over large areas of Eastern Province of Zambia. The chiefs in these areas now have tablets they use to report changes to parcel ownership or specific issues with a given parcel. They further have support from a local NGO, Chipata District Land Alliance (CDLA), in using these tools to manage forests, crops, and wildlife, while adjudicating land disputes in their chiefdoms. This is a unique approach to tracking property ownership and equips those in customary leadership roles with the modern, low cost technologies to track land ownership. The hope is that this will lead to greater uptake and ownership of the program, since the communities in these areas hold great respect for their traditional leaders.

To ensure that these newly-mapped property records stay up to date, a system of monthly reporting was put in place within each village to record any births, deaths or new landholders entering the village. These changes are tracked by community volunteers who are incentivized with mobile talk time, and they use their push-button mobile phones to report the land ownership changes and any social disputes arising from these changes.



Integrating with systems already in place

A pivotal aspect in the success of this program is the fact that this kind of reporting, and the tools used for it, have already been in use at the local level and with the ministry of health. DHIS2 has long been the go-to software in Zambia for implementations reporting on everything from malaria data to the availability of sanitation facilities in small communities. Since DHIS2 was a tool with which many community volunteers and ministry of health staff were already familiar, the uptake was faster and more thorough. And since the TGCC program utilized the same reporting software, interoperability is greatly improved, creating greater efficiency for delivery of services at the rural level.

One of the hurdles in rural development is that by the time an issue in a remote village is reported – a shortage of a seed for planting, perhaps – and delivered from the city, the village’s situation has changed. Perhaps the planting season has already ended, and the new supply will just go to waste. With this ability to instantly provide notifications and feedback from the village level, Tetra Tech has created an efficient means of documentation and communication between CDLA and the village to provide services, solve disputes, and manage environmental resources.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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