The Land Tenure Problem
The Colorado I grew up in is a place of stunning landscapes marked by centuries of conflict and compromise over who owned the land (which was taken from Indigenous peoples like the Arapaho and the Ute), the trees that grow on it, and the water that flows through it. Before becoming a Leland Fellow, I crisscrossed those landscapes as an associate mediator specializing in natural resource management, helping people work through their differences on topics ranging from the construction of a controversial water pipeline to wildfire prevention and even a particularly heated dispute over the damage being caused to farms by a particularly rambunctious group of prairie dogs. As a kid from a chaotic Irish family of 36 first cousins and 16 aunts and uncles, I’ve always inexplicably gravitated towards the gritty work of pushing past conflict and inflexible positions to the imperfect arrangements that help a group of people live the lives they want to lead. As a mediator, the work of resolving deeply held differences was slow and frustrating, and there were plenty of disagreements that were too bitter to be resolved at all. But to me it was worth it, because I got to help people who might have initially refused to be in the same room find a way to share the land that meant so much to them.
I accepted the Leland International Hunger Fellowship and my placement with the World Cocoa Foundation knowing that a long line of Western actors had tried and failed to help members of different communities in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa belt to secure the rights to determine the future of their land. I took it despite how daunting it seemed, because the connection between the Ivoirian people and their land was too important for me to ignore an opportunity to help preserve that connection.
Land tenure describes how people use, own, and access land and the resources associated with it, like trees and minerals. The complex land tenure problem in Côte d’Ivoire boils down to this: there is a transition underway from the customary systems that once determined how land was managed (e.g., control of land by a family or traditional leader, or access to farmland in exchange for gifts and a portion of the produce) dating back to legal reforms from French colonial rule, which created a land tenure system that was poorly adapted to the current needs of individual farmers. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle: customary land tenure has been transformed by the presence of formal, private ownership, but private ownership is still far from the norm in most of the country – although there is increasing adoption of documents allowing land-users to enter into rental agreements.
In rural areas, both customary landowners (usually indigenous people) and migrant farmers often lack documentation of their rights, creating a recipe for conflict and misunderstanding. Large-scale migration from other regions of Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso to cocoa-growing zones (spurred by the money to be made from growing cocoa and other cash crops since the beginning of the Ivoirian “Economic Miracle” in the 1970s) has created tensions between migrants and indigenous groups. These conflicts and underlying uncertainty are a huge impediment to cocoa production and the industry’s sustainability agenda. In recent years, WCF member companies have been increasingly vocal about the issues created by uncertainty around long-term control of the land, which makes farmers reluctant to invest in soil conservation, agroforestry (the combination of crop and shade trees), and other practices that could raise the amount of cocoa they can grow each season and help to conserve and restore Côte d’Ivoire’s depleted forests.
Relationships Unique as Fingerprints
My day-to-day work in Abidjan included a lot of rides in the city’s iconic multicolored taxis, meeting with everyone with an interest in protecting land rights – WCF member companies, the German International Cooperation Agency (GIZ), the World Bank, civil society leaders, land documentation specialists, and Ivoirian government agencies. We have been working to help WCF member companies take advantage of three land documentation projects with one shared a goal: to make historically expensive land ownership and access documents affordable and widely available to customary landowners and migrant farmers. So why hadn’t it happened yet? While companies had identified land tenure as a problem, they needed more evidence that addressing it would pay dividends for other sustainability priorities like helping farmers invest in their farms without fear of losing their land, easing pressure to expand cocoa cultivation into protected forests, and ensuring that women could access the land they needed to grow their own cocoa or cassava to feed their families. This has meant doing a lot of advocacy work within the industry, to explain the core importance of addressing land among all of the other urgent priorities confronting companies.
Meanwhile, the government of Côte d’Ivoire, donors, and civil society wanted to make sure the industry’s technical understanding of the issue and favored approaches for addressing it would coalesce with existing best practices and social safeguards for preventing land conflict. For WCF, that has meant working on two fronts. Within the industry, we’ve supported our member companies in identifying which of the communities from where they source their cocoa are interested and well-placed to benefit from land documentation, who the best implementing partners could be, how to manage costs, and how to ensure that marginalized groups like women and youth see the benefits. With our government and donor partners, we’ve served as a go-between for companies in finding new ways to pay for documentation, leverage existing sustainability programs like tree planting, and complying with existing laws and donor funding requirements.
The work has been slow and grinding, just like my past work as a mediator, because of the enormity of the challenges to provide the documents at scale. We have explored ways to reduce the high fees that land surveyors charged for their services, while the Ivoirian Rural Land Tenure Agency further lowered costs by, for example, experimental use of shade trees to mark land parcel boundaries instead of expensive concrete boundary markers. We also spent months supporting the leaders of all three projects as they worked through feasibility studies, selected projects locations, and tried to coordinate their efforts with one another.
As I sifted through land regulations and compared maps of cocoa cooperatives to the project zones, I sometimes felt far from the people I was trying to serve – the farmers themselves. Whatever illusions I had held about working in “the field”, I came to realize that my work was a sort of paradox: for community members to protect the rights they already held in the village against current and future threats, there needed to be an enormous mobilization of resources from government, donors, and the private sector.
Shortly before COVID-19 began, I accompanied some WCF colleagues on a trip to three cocoa-growing communities in southeastern Côte d’Ivoire. As we interviewed people about their land, its history, and how they, their families, and the neighbors used it, I was repeatedly struck by the same thought: each of the three communities had a relationship to their land as unique as a fingerprint. The national-level challenges and trends that I had learned about in Abidjan were reflected in the experiences of these places, but never in the same way.
In one community, I spoke with several members of the Village Land Tenure Committee, which had committed to diversity in membership by preserving a place for a representative of each national and ethnic group to have a voice in decisions on how land was governed. A short drive away, we sat in a tense meeting with an indigenous landowner and a large group of farmers from Burkina Faso, who were understandably reluctant to discuss the specifics of the newcomers’ land-use agreements, which seemed troublingly vague and were a clear source of tension. In one place, men laughed at the idea of women owning land, but in another, women could keep land when they were widowed (provided they had sons or brothers who would protect their claim against other male family members). This has important implications for food security, not least because women spend more of their crop income on food and healthcare for their families than men. From one community to the next, young people and migrants had very different prospects of gaining access or ownership of land on which to grow cocoa, other cash crops like rubber, or food crops like cassava and maize. The ways land was managed in a community were, in short, as unique as the people that lived there – and I had a feeling that the tools for securing their land rights would be, too.
Rural Communities are the Ultimate Authorities
Côte d’Ivoire is known internationally for its agricultural prowess, but it should be better known for its incredible diversity (you can hear 60 Ivoirian languages and those of every country in West Africa mixed in with Abidjan’s nouchi dialect of French) and the down-to-earth wisdom of Ivoirians. When I think of the struggle to secure land rights, I’m reminded of a joking threat that some Ivoirian parents will make to their kids – “You better straighten up, or I will break the yam with you!” A yam is tough to break with your bare hands, and it represents the strong ties among family members. My job is to find a way to keep the yam intact between rural community members and the land that sustains them.
Like the cocoa farmers I serve, our momentum on all three projects was temporarily halted by COVID-19 and Côte d’Ivoire’s contentious 2020 presidential election. Thousands of miles from where I expected to complete my “field year” as a Leland Fellow, I worried about the people in the communities who welcomed us before this difficult year truly began, who told me their story and the story of their land. I worried about my Ivoirian friends and colleagues. But I learned from their resilience, and that of this 10th Leland cohort, which has found common purpose in pursuing transformative change in this most bizarre of years. WCF is back on the path to helping the cocoa industry and its partners to act as a dramatic force for good in securing the land rights of farmers.
Change in land administration is slow, but the changes in land use and ownership in rural communities is speeding up. Even from behind my laptop in the U.S., I am keeping my sense of urgency, and drawing on the tenacity I developed as a mediator, in applying the lessons I have learned from my colleagues and other Leland fellows: Meaningful policy change happens through relationships between people, not formal processes. Rural communities are the ultimate authorities on their own development, and international development organizations should work to fill resource gaps in providing whatever tools are necessary for every member of a community to have input on what happens to the land, water, minerals, and trees that make up their livelihoods. Ending global hunger will only be possible when farmers and customary landowners have long-term land tenure security. And most importantly, it is indeed difficult to “break a yam” between people working towards land justice, even across an ocean, eight months, and a global pandemic.