Protecting Community Lands and Resources: Evidence from Uganda (Executive Summary)

In northern Uganda, common grazing lands are central to village life. While nominally used for grazing livestock, communities also depend on their grazing lands to collect basic household necessities such as fuel, water, food, building materials for their homes, and traditional medicines. Yet growing population density, increasing land scarcity, weak rule of law, and the 1998 Land Act’s legalization of a land market have created a situation of intense competition for land in northern Uganda. The growing land scarcity has contributed to higher rates of land grabbing, boundary encroachments onto neighbours’ lands, intra- and inter-family land disputes, and rampant appropriation of common lands. As a result of these trends, there is a high rate of tenure insecurity in northern Uganda, a prevalence of intra-community land conflict, and a rapid loss of the common grazing lands that community members rely upon for their subsistence and survival.

To understand how to best address these trends, the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda (LEMU) and the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) set out to investigate how best to support communities to successfully follow legal procedures to formally document and protect their customary land claims. This effort, the Community Land Protection Initiative, was carried out in Oyam District in northern Uganda from 2009 to 2011.

The first study of its kind worldwide, the intervention’s goal was to better understand the type and level of support that communities require to successfully complete community land documentation processes, as well as how to best facilitate intra-community protections for the land rights of women and other vulnerable groups.

The intervention’s primary objectives were to:

  1. Understand how to best and most efficiently support communities to protect their lands by following legally-established land documentation processes;
  2. Facilitate the protection of customarily-held lands by seeking formal documentation of community land claims;
  3. Devise and pilot strategies to guard against intra-community injustice and protect the land rights of vulnerable groups during community land documentation processes;
  4. Craft country-specific recommendations for the improvement of land documentation laws and policies to improve fairness and make titling procedures easier for both communities and land administrators to follow.

To undertake these objectives, LEMU conducted a randomized controlled trial in Oyam District in northern Uganda. As per the study’s design, LEMU randomly selected 20 communities that actively expressed a desire to seek documentation for their community land rights and then randomly assigned these communities to one of four different “legal services” treatment groups: (1) full legal and technical support; (2) paralegal support and monthly legal education; (3) monthly legal education only; and (4) control/minimal information dissemination. As it provided these supports, LEMU observed and recorded each community’s progress through the requisite steps of the Communal Land Association formation and land documentation processes, as set out in Uganda’s Land Act of 1998 (Ch. 227). These steps include:

1. Community land documentation process introduction, including: legal education and awareness raising; and creating an “intermediary group” to coordinate community process.

2. Mapping, boundary harmonization, and demarcation including: mapping the boundaries of the communal lands; negotiating the boundaries of the communal lands; resolving land conflicts; and planting boundary trees along the land’s agreed limits.

3. Drafting a Communal Land Association constitution and land management plan, including: cataloguing all existing community rules, norms, and practices for local land and natural resource management; debating, discussing, and amending these rules to align them with current realities; ensuring that the agreed community rules do not contravene Ugandan law; and adopting a final Communal Land Association constitution and land management plan to govern the lands being documented.

4. Filing an application to become a Communal Land Association and electing officers, including: submitting an application for the formation of a Communal Land Association with the District Registrar; and convening a community meeting attended by the Registrar, at which time the community formally agrees to incorporate as an association and elects three to nine Communal Land Association officers.

5. Formally documenting community lands, including: surveying or taking GPS measurements of the community land; and submitting an application for either a Certificate of Customary Ownership (CCO) or a Freehold Title.

As it supported communities to complete these processes, LEMU noted all obstacles confronted, all intra- and inter-community land conflicts and their resolutions, and all internal community debates and discussions. A pre- and post-service survey of over 600 individuals and more than 100 structured focus group discussions supplemented LEMU’s observations and allowed for quantitative analysis of all short-term impacts. Unfortunately, due to various obstacles, most significantly the lack of a District Registrar for Oyam District, none of the study communities have yet received a freehold title or CCO for their customary lands. Phase II of the Initiative, to be carried out jointly by LEMU and Namati as part of Namati’s Community Land Protection Program, will continue to support the study communities until their lands have been formally documented and protected.

This report details the study communities’ experiences undertaking the land documentation activities and summarizes the initial impacts of these efforts under the following subject headings: conflict resolution and prevention (describing the boundary harmonization and demarcation process); intracommunity governance (describing the Communal Land Association constitution drafting process); and conservation and sustainable natural resource management (describing the land and natural resource management plan drafting process). It then briefly reviews the obstacles confronted and describes conclusions relative to the optimal level of legal intervention necessary to support communities’ successful completion of community land documentation efforts. The report next details findings concerning how best to facilitate intra-community protections for the rights of women and other vulnerable groups during the land documentation process.

The report concludes by setting forth findings and recommendations intended to inform policy dialogue and support the widespread implementation of Uganda’s Land Act 1998. The findings are offered with the understanding that continued research is necessary to determine the long-term social and economic impacts of documenting community land claims, and that continued community engagement is required to understand how to best ensure that documented community lands are fully protected over the long-term.