ROME, 23 April 2002 -- The signing of a ceasefire agreement between the Angolan Government and UNITA rebels on 4 April could herald the end of Africa's longest running civil war. But March 22 marked the first anniversary of another important event in Angola -- the first-ever legal recognition of community land tenure.

On that date, the people of tiny Tchicala municipality, in the southern province of Huila, asserted their claim to 4 500 hectares of land. The size of the claim or the community involved is not important, says Paolo Groppo, an FAO land tenure expert. It is the principle that counts. "When a single community stands up for the right to its land, it lays the foundation of a democratic state."

Secure land tenure is also fundamental to food security and sustainable development. Without it, farmers cannot get access to credit, and there is no incentive to improve the land. "Secured rights to land don't guarantee a farmer's future," says Mr Groppo. "But they make the farmer better prepared to face it."

The prospect of peace may focus more attention on the land issue. Land in a war zone is worth little in commercial terms, and military victory and survival take priority over land tenure. Once security issues are no longer paramount, however, a huge land grab often results.

Ploughing a troubled past

Tchicala was one of several communities involved in a pilot project to improve food security in rural communities, begun in 1999 by FAO in collaboration with the Government. Development experts noted, however, that communities were not prepared to invest time and energy in land improvements because the land wasn't theirs, and they shifted their focus from land preparation to delimitation.

Land tenure has been problematic in Angola, a former Portuguese colony, partly because after independence in 1975 so much land seemed to be available that tenure was not seen as an issue. As a result, no specific land laws were drafted.

In 1992, following the shift from a planned to a market economy, legislation was passed that privatized state-owned property but did not touch on fundamental issues of customary rights. This led to a period of chaos, during which a few wealthy individuals gained control over vast natural resources.

Moreover, hard-won independence has been followed by over a quarter century of civil war. Fighting has caused massive population displacement -- mainly to urban areas -- leaving much agricultural land untended or rendered useless by landmines. Just 3 percent of arable land is under cultivation, and almost 2 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. At the same time, the economy has been distorted by huge petroleum and diamond wealth -- and rampant inflation has caused food prices in urban areas to spiral out of control.

Good fences make good neighbours

These factors have inhibited the development of the participatory culture essential to the recognition and delimitation of land rights. "It's not just a question of a community stating that this is their land," says Mr Groppo. "They have to get their neighbours to agree to the boundaries too."

Age-old ethnic and gender tensions all come into play at the local level -- and add controversy to community claims. War and HIV/AIDS have left millions of households headed by widows while at the same time breaking down the tradition of community support for them. As a result, some people argue that women's rights to land should be asserted now along with customary rights, which leave land in control of men.

According to many observers, however, the priority should be to open up the debate on land tenure, assert communities' claims to their land and then address women's rights to tenure. "Land tenure is another battle for Angola," Mr Groppo explains. "And the country has to take this peace process forward one victory, one land claim, at a time."

Grounding democracy

Land tenureis a very sensitive issue for the Government. And at the moment, Government officials are working to elaborate a new land law. An FAO project is providing legal expertise. Mr Groppo says that the Tchicala experience provides a powerful argument for recognizing customary as well as formal law.

"Land tenure rights are acknowledged at the highest levels of power in Angola," he says. "FAO efforts with grassroots communities and our advocacy work with Government officials have contributed to this. The next step is to build up the democratic institutions -- the land registry office, courts and tribunals -- to apply those rights. But the cornerstone has been laid -- communities' growing confidence."