Small-scale land grabs: another face of land grabbing discussed

Ngumfor Abinwi Ngwa
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Reports on land grabbing in recent years have largely followed big foreign investors on large-scale acquisition, leaving unreported small-scale land grabs. Discussions articulated during the ILC Africa regional assembly in Yaoundé-Cameroon shed light on small-scale land grabbing.

Driving in a shared taxi through the busy streets of Yaoundé, two passengers open a discussion on land. One is foreign, from Central Africa and the other is home-based. While the former argues land grabbing happens when big foreign companies take up huge chunks of land from poor citizens, the latter says anyone can land grab, including people.

Both, drive to hotel Mont Febe on the 14 September 2017 to meet a consortium of organisations, members of the ILC Africa platform, where they have exchanged since the 12th of September. Here, discussions touch on land governance in Africa. People debate national and continental land challenges and articulate solutions on a number of current issues, including land grabbing.

Land grabbing occurs, when local communities and individuals lose access to land that they previously used, to the benefits of private or public investors or even neighbours and village leaders.

Christian Jitar of the Community Assistance in Development (COMAID), participating at the ILC Africa regional assembly says land grabbing in the African context is due to the north-south movements of European, and American companies and south-south movement of Asian agro companies to Africa. They look for land to set themselves up and lease large hectares of land, he explains. Jitar, worked on land grab issues in Cameroon for several years.

Little by little, people lose their lands

A report published in February 2017 by the Rights and Resources Institute (RRI) shows that although multinational companies and governments made progress in respecting communities’ rights, land rights still causes a lot of pain to communities. However, even more, pain for Indigenous Peoples who make up to 70 percent of all the land disputes in Sub-Saharan Africa. Progressive land reforms are few and Land Matrix say communities lost at least 10 million hectares of land in Africa by 2017.

“It is a question of power,” says Michael Taylor, talking to the press on September 14 at hotel Mont Febe. “The natural resources that still exist are in the lands of Indigenous Peoples. They have looked after those resources for generations. Many governments do not want to recognise the land rights of Indigenous Peoples because they want to access those resources directly, without allowing the benefits to go the people who have lived on that land and looked after those resources for generations,” he explains.

Bigirimana François, a legal assistant at l'Unissons-nous pour la Promotion des Batwa (UNIPROBA), an Indigenous Peoples group, says land grabbing in Burundi occurs more at the small-scale. Bigirimana spends some of his working days in courts listening to cases related to small-scale land grabs.

Family, elites or neighbour can grab land

Since 2008, the media plays a huge role in informing opinions about large-scale land grabbing and consequences of such activities led by foreign investors. However, land acquisition by local elites at community levels goes largely unreported. “When elites of a community obtain wealth, they choose the best sites caring less about who the land belongs to,” reveals Manjo Basiru Isa, secretary general of RAPALEC, a network of Indigenous Peoples in central Africa.

Not only elites are taking land from people, in-laws and neighbours are doing it too. Recently reports of land disputes emerged in courts in Cameroon where in-laws are taking land from their brother’s widow and children, people extending their land boundaries into their neighbour’s land and children selling their parent’s land without their permission.       

No doubt, Odigie-Bedell Didi Unu, a participant from Nigeria says, “we keep talking about organisations grabbing land but we forget individuals. We see in front of houses “this house is not for sale including Emeka my son”.

The impacts

Whether at small or large scale, the ILC Africa discussions with the press shows clearly that the impacts of land grabbing are negative. Land grabbing dispossesses communities off their land. It can get violent, causing people to abandon ancestral lands and flee to big cities or nearby villages where they risk other conflicts. The government loses economic resources too. Land grabbing can also reduce local agricultural land.

The ILC press conference enabled indigenous voices to make their case to the press on land grabbing and equally articulated some solutions. Jitar suggests that solving land grab issues needs constant reviews and follow-ups because the problems faced may differ over time. 

Ngumfor Abinwi Ngwa


Abinwi volunteered at the 2017 ILC Africa regional assembly in Cameroon.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of ILC Africa.