Skip to main content

Why rural land registration is not protecting land rights of women and vulnerable social groups


Postdoctoral fellow at the Center for African Studies, Harvard University


Photo in the office of a local official at Adami Tulu Jido Kombolcha,Bureau of Rural Land and Environmental Protection, Ethiopia, Dec. 2014.

My paper, Rural Land Registration in Ethiopia: Myths and Realities, considers the social consequences of rural land registration in Ethiopia, a countrywide program funded by Western development agencies in a recent wave of land registration initiatives spanning across Africa and developing countries elsewhere. In the past, policymakers in many African countries viewed traditional tenures as anachronistic obstacles to economic development and social progress and enacted centralized reforms to standardize local land tenure arrangements. The new registration initiatives are premised on what I call “pluralist formalization”, that is, a commitment to regularize local land tenures by recognizing customary interests, in order to promote land markets and strengthen the security of land rights, especially those of women and vulnerable social groups.

A poster in the office of a local official in Ethiopia showcases what the donors and officials believe to be the consequences of the land registration program. Captioned “The Benefits of My Land Certificate”, the poster shows an elderly woman dressed in traditional costume holding up a certificate. She declares, “My land rights are recognized by the law”; “I am protecting my land and harvesting more”; “I have few land disputes”; “I can donate, bequeath, rent, or transfer my land without prolonged processes and with little cost”; “I am using technology and farm-extension inputs to increase my production and productivity”; and “this certificate has confirmed all the rights I have regarding my land.” 

The fieldwork evidence presented in my paper, however, shows that serious problems face Ethiopia’s land registration initiative. Customary interests in land often go unrecognized, partly because the formal records do not accommodate the flexibilities and nuances inherent in local tenures. Further, the introduction of legal formalities and written records have diminished the bargaining power of smallholders who rent land to commercial farmers. As recording one’s land rights requires access to government offices that are often far away, the new system has become more complex and expensive for rural dwellers, who must rely on others to interpret the written documents and use formal governmental services.

In addition, the registration has shifted power from households and communities to state officials without providing adequate mechanisms to hold local leaders and business managers accountable. Officials use the records to expropriate land, working against the rights and interests of women and vulnerable persons, who are supposed to benefit from the land registration program. Influential individuals have used the registration process to legalize private enclosures of common grazing lands and illegal appropriations of land belonging to other people.

Registration is not a simple formality. It creates winners and losers, usually along the lines of the existing distribution of power and property, entrenching inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity and other social cleavages. Land registration in an imperfect structural environment tends to produce imperfect outcomes. 

Popular posts from this blog

How do text messages complicate contemporary sexual assault adjudication?

By Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla 
Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, Marquette University


“There’s no video, no injury. It’s purely one hundred percent ‘he said, she said.’ They had a terrible relationship. They were nasty to each other and they don’t get along well, probably never will. But there is no evidence to support the state’s case, other than their words.” Our article, “’That’s How She Talks’: Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault Trial,” begins with these familiar words offered by a defense attorney during a sexual assault trial in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The oft-invoked trope of “he said, she said” in cases of sexual violence suggests that without third-party eye witness testimony or material evidence, sexual assault allegations rest on conflicting reports provided by victims, the accused, and other witnesses. But how do trial attorneys reinvent this trope when the words of the witnesses are preserved as text messages?

Text messages are recorded co…

Submit Your Papers to Law & Society Review!

Rebecca L. Sandefur

 The Law and Society Association and the whole field of law and society research owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Jeannine Bell, Susan Sterett, and Margot Young, for their work as Editors of Law & Society Review.As incoming Editor, I am grateful to them for their stewardship of the journal, their generous support of authors and aspiring authors, and their innovations to the Review, including this blog.
The incoming Editorial Board has begun receiving new manuscripts as they are submitted. Jon Gould, Robert Lawless, Elizabeth Mertz, Jennifer Robbennolt and Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve have generously agreed to serve in this role. Together with participation from the Editorial Advisory Board -- a group deeply appreciated and too numerous to list here -- these scholars’ contributions expand the expertise of the journal’s editorial office across disciplines, methods, theoretical traditions, and regions of the world. Danielle McClellan continues to steady the ship …

TASER Technology and Police Officers’ Understanding and Use of Force

Michael Sierra-Arévalo
Rutgers University-Newark

The TASER--a weapon that uses electric current to incapacitate a subject by causing complete neuromuscular incapacitation--is ubiquitous among U.S. police officers. Spurred by pressure to reduce the lethality of police force, this force technology it is now used by more than 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Proponents of TASERs are quick to point out that research shows that most TASER deployments do not result in serious injury or death, and that TASERs provide officers with a useful, less-than-lethal alternative to their firearms. TASER critics, in turn, emphasize that even if TASERs are rarely lethal, 50,000 volts cause excruciating pain, fear, and psychological distress. They further emphasize that the TASER, like any weapon, can still be misused by police officers.

Though a large body of research examines police force, little is known about how officers make their use-of-force decisions in light of this new, less-than-lethal t…