Context Matters: Ghana Land and Tree Tenure in Cocoa Communities

Author Marta Massera

Learning Agenda Research Analyst
World Cocoa Foundation
In 2018, farmers in Ghana obtained for the first ever tree tenure for shade trees on their cocoa farms.

What is the most effective and efficient approach to achieve improved land and tree tenure? Will improved land tenure or tree documentation motivate farmers to invest in their farms? Recent research on land and tree tenure in Ghana aims to address these questions.

Land and tree insecurity in the cocoa sector has been a barrier to the adoption of good agricultural practices and causes deforestation. Over the past several years, different approaches have been used in Ghana to improve land and tree security:

  • Formal land tenure documentation,
  • tree tenure registration and documentation, and
  • customary land tenure[1] documentation/governance.

Challenges and benefits exist for each of these approaches. Formal land tenure documentation can increase tenure security for cocoa farmers, yet it can be challenging for farmers to afford, includes a lengthy and complicated registration process, and can often cause land conflicts. Tree tenure security can also increase land security and encourage the nurturing of trees and adoption of agroforestry. Yet, tree registration and documentation are expensive and current Ghanaian policy complicates the issue further. Customary land tenure documentation/governance is an important component of land and tree security and perhaps provides the greatest solution but is not always considered.

During a recent World Cocoa Foundation webinar on the subject, panelists presented research and evidence that supports continuing some approaches, stopping others, and highlights where questions remain. Youssouf N’djoré, WCF’s Social Development Director, notes that secure tenure rights “have, indeed, the potential to enhance farm investments and foster tree planting to promote agroforestry and forest restoration.” Now is the time to find intervention models that would enhance tenure security in cocoa producing countries.

Robert O’Sullivan, an independent climate change consultant, works on reforming tree tenure in Ghana and has gathered findings through the Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) program in Ghana and a literature review on tree tenure law and policy in West Africa and Asia. Although the Ghanaian government and donors recognize the need to reform tree tenure policy, vested interests hold back crucial changes. O’Sullivan proposes another interpretation of the current legislation on “naturally occurring” trees and suggests a transfer of all tree rights to customary landowners. He advises against the continuation of the tree registration policy in Ghana, saying it is expensive and may not necessarily solve ownership issues. Instead, companies should focus on expanding tree planting programs and support customary land title registration and public outreach on tree tenure.

Festus A. Asaaga, Research Associate at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, conducted a study that includes a complex interpretation of tenure security. This work looks beyond documentation alone and how different approaches to tenure security interact with farmers’ investments for sustainable land practices in Ghana. Asaaga found that farmers tended to invest less in short-term land improvements such as fertilizer on formally documented plots. However, informal documentation tended to increase long-term investment in tree planting. “This tends to suggest that [formal documentation] can act both as an incentive and disincentive to invest in land,” said Asaaga. He pointed out the need to consider other contexts – such as the duration of plot use and the farmers’ possession of special land rights, which provide the option to give land to children or spouses – that greatly impact social legitimacy and de facto land security (customary land tenure). These contexts correlate with long term sustainable land management practices.

In a two-year activity under the ILRG program, led by Meridia, farmers in four communities in the Asankrangwa Stool were offered partially subsidized, formal land tenure certificates to test their willingness to pay for such services. But purchases remained extremely low: only 70 documents were eventually sold. “Clearly, there was a mismatch between the costs and benefits that farmers perceived,” said the author, Caleb Stevens, Land and Resource Governance Advisor at USAID. This outcome was due to farmers’ limited funds and, most importantly, conflicts between sharecropper (abunu[2]) farmers and customary landowners over rehabilitation and re-cultivation rights. Stevens proposes aiming for customary land tenure with alternative dispute resolution as a less costly and potentially more effective strategy to incentivize farmers to increase planting and rehabilitation.

Insights shared in these reports show that while there are still unanswered questions about the most effective and efficient approaches to land tenure that will best motivate farmers to invest in their farms, there are some indications about where the cocoa industry should dedicate their efforts. Formal documentation and registration policies may not increase land and tree tenure security if they are not inclusive of customary land tenure rights, reliable tenure arrangements, clear and accessible benefits for farmers, and affordable costs. Supporting customary land tenure is a promising option but requires a case-by-case assessment to ensure effectiveness. Improving the regulation is also crucial to solving land and tree security for cocoa farmers. N’djoré said, “context matters, and at some point, there is a need to look at how things are [designed] in a given context”.

[1] Customary land tenure: land that is under the control of customary authorities (stools or skins, families, clans, and heads of communities) on the basis of customary norms within communities.

[2] Abunu contracts: when a usufruct (right to use and derive profit from property belonging to someone else) holder or allodial (freehold) titleholder enters into an agreement with a farmer to work on the farm up to its maturity. Once the farm matures, it is divided in two between the landowner and the farmer who acquires exclusive right over the land with the obligation to continue cultivating cocoa. However, once land is cleared, the landowner has the right to reclaim it. This can and does often lead to disagreements on the validity of such a claim.