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
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
Ploughing a troubled
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
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
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
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
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."