Lessons from land reform in Senegal

A diverse group of stakeholders participated in developing community-level land allocation criteria during a series of workshops.

We knew we were on to something in Senegal—that what we learned about the role customary land rights can play in alleviating poverty was worth sharing with the wider land practice community.

In recent years, many African governments have developed legislation to recognize the legitimacy of informal (mostly unwritten) customary rights to land. Governments have introduced a variety of legislative tools to formalize, protect and secure those rights. Each country brings a different approach to this, but in many instances the process helps lay the foundation for increased economic development.

Customary land rights are the starting point of any formalization initiative, which isn’t easy. We need to help contribute to economic objectives while preserving or enhancing the rights and interests of the powerless. We do this in two main ways.

The first task is to identify the holders of customary rights, which requires recognizing categories like individual and collective rights. Analyses of community resources, such as pastures and forests, need to include detailed socio-economic information. Where community land-use plans do not yet exist, we identify various interests and base our approach on the active participation of all parties in working toward a consensus on how existing rights are to be presented and preserved during the formalization process.

The Land Tenure Security Activity, funded by Senegal’s $540 million MCC compact, is working in the Senegal River Valley to determine the boundaries between agriculture and livestock while also accounting for the areas where the two overlap. MCA-Senegal will act upon some of the decisions negotiated during the first phase of the activity—such as the boundaries of cattle trails through agricultural land leading to water points—by planting trees.

The second major element of a successful formalization program is ensuring that fairness remains a dominant principle in ongoing and future land allocation. Formalization is not just identifying rights and issuing corresponding pieces of paper. Mechanisms must be developed and activated to provide for the exchange and reallocation of land rights so resources can be put to their most productive use while ensuring that rights are protected. Governance of land allocation works best when it is transparent, democratic and participatory.

The Land Tenure Security Activity in Senegal is demonstrating that existing customary land rights can be comprehensively identified and documented—if one incorporates careful design and planning, inclusive methodologies, copious work, and adequate time. It is also demonstrating that local land allocation principles and processes can be developed and recognized as legitimate if all stakeholders are given a voice in their development.

Yes, customary land rights are messy—but protecting customary land rights while moving toward a more formal land management system is both fair and economically productive. An even more fundamental goal must be to ensure that all stakeholders have a voice in the more permanent institutions of land governance. In the Senegal River Valley, land is governed at the community level, and there are positive signs that previously unheard voices are now finding a stage.

“These workshops have changed us as well as our community decision-makers,” the president of a women’s producer group said after a community workshop. “We no longer hesitate to speak our minds and address the Rural Council. This is a new situation for us.”

MCC, the Government of Senegal and MCA-Senegal are excited about the good work that has been accomplished and are committed to continuing to learn and share our learning with land practitioners facing similar challenges around the world.