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‘The Law is to Blame’: The Vulnerable Status of Common Property Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa

By: Liz Alden Wily

The context of this article is the surge in large-scale land acquisitions of African lands by local and foreign investors for commercial food, livestock, oil palm and carbon trading purposes. Involuntary loss of rural lands at scale is not new to Africa’s majority rural poor, nor is it driven by a single factor. Historically inequitable land relations within communities, compounded by a century of capitalist transformation, take their toll. This study argues, however, that the weak legal status of communal rights is the most pernicious enabler in their demise, allowing governments to take undue liberties with their citizens’ lands, and particularly those which are unfarmed and by tradition held in common. While international acquiescence to abusive domestic law helps entrench the diminishment of majority land rights, the domestic laws themselves are principally at fault and necessarily the target for change. This legal vulnerability is explored here through an examination of more than twenty African land laws.

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Uploaded on: Mar 16, 2013
Last Updated: Dec 04, 2015
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