Are creative adaptations to customary land arrangements in Africa sufficient to insure adequate stewardship of land and provide a framework for sustainable productive use of land, especially farmland? Many international experts say no (most famously Hernando de Soto) arguing that Africans need the same sort of formal land rights that contribute to the relatively smooth functioning of property markets in the developed world. I might have agreed some years ago, but after witnessing the havoc created by lax lending in the residential real estate market — and the vast number of resulting foreclosures — I’ve begun to think that ordinary Africans, and especially rural African farmers, might consider themselves lucky to be spared the vagaries of fully free markets in land that depend on explicit land rights.
Outside of African cities (and excepting South Africa), formal land titles — registered with government 0r courts — are unusual. Few experiments in land titling are occuring in Africa either. While more power for peasants would be welcome, the best tool of empowerment may not be land reform from a strictly legalistic framework. I fear that national land titling opens the way for two kinds of predatory actions against small holders: taxes by government and foreclosures by lenders (if farmers default on loans that are supposed to liberate them). Better for rural Africans to continue to creatively adapt to the absence of formal land titles. They are doing so, though as I explain in a new article based on field research in eastern Uganda, there are costs as well as benefits. In the windup, I question the land titling orthodoxy (what one wag has aptly called “de Soto’s delusion,” even as I concede that the “tragedy of the commons” — or in my example, the tragedy of the “mud people” — is a very large cost indeed.