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Getting a century of land: it takes (more than) a village

Ninety-nine years of secure access to good-quality land. To a rural women's group in Banizoumbou, Niger, this isn't just a fairy-tale. It represents the kind of happy ending you can have when everyone in and around a rural community – from the village chief and the landowning men to the landless women, from government ministries and local NGOs to international organizations and research institutes – communicate effectively, share information and work together.

© Christiane Monsieur

More importantly, it represents the beginning of a whole new story, in which these women will be able to grow nutritious crops and vegetables to feed their families and to sell in the markets of Niamey, season after season, for ninety-nine years. A story in which they – and their daughters and granddaughters – are the protagonists. A story of empowerment.

It was July of 2011. Zara Issa stood before the 40 members of the Gomni Mate women’s group of Banizoumbou, a rural village in the municipality of Dantiandou, Niger, some 70 km from Niamey. Zara, the president of the group, held two sheets of paper in her proud hands. On them were the official seal of the canton, the signatures of the canton authorities, the signatures of the representatives of the women’s group, and the fingerprints (as signatures) of eight village landowners. The seal and signatures attested to the leasing of 2.75 hectares of dune land at the edge of Banizoumbou to the women’s group for 99 years! The women – and eventually their daughters and granddaughters – would be able to plant fruit trees and vegetables on their own plot of land, for consumption or for sale in the market of Niamey.

This was the first time that the women of Banizoumbou had obtained secure, legal, long-term access to land. What's more, this was good, quality land, close to an artesian well and other amenities. The long-lease contract entitles the group to plant trees as well as winter and off-season crops, and sets real guarantees for sustainable, environmentally-friendly use of the land.

How it all began

The Gomni Mate women's group (“May good deeds be done”) is an offshoot of the Dimitra community listeners' club of Banizoumbou, one of many such clubs set up in the area by FAO Dimitra and its local partner, NGO-VIE Kande Ni Bayra.

What are FAO Dimitra community listeners clubs?

FAO Dimitra community listeners’ clubs are made up of men, women and youth who come together in groups – mixed or otherwise – to organize and work towards change in their communities. Since 2008, the clubs have been set up in several sub-Saharan African countries, and meet regularly to discuss development issues and challenges, and to find solutions together.

The listeners' clubs are equipped with wind-up, solar-powered radios and, in some cases, fleets of solar-charged cell phones. As members discuss topics and share concerns, priorities and needs, their conversations are aired live on partnering radio stations or recorded for later broadcast. This stimulates discussions in other clubs – which are broadcast in turn – focusing on concrete actions that can be taken in the community and keeping the conversation going among all the Dimitra clubs in the area.

By creating a consistent, sustainable and gender-sensitive forum for information sharing and participatory communication, the Dimitra approach empowers rural people – especially women and youth. It enables them not only to have a voice, but a voice that counts.

Formed in 2010, the Dimitra club in Banizoumbou has been a success from the very start, and continues to attract the participation of many village inhabitants. Club members meet several times a week to discuss and act on issues such as food security, health and sanitation, as well as improving nutrition, market gardening and access to water and land. The club also engages in larger debates and discussions organized by Radio Famay, a community radio station broadcasting from Dantiandou. 

One such debate in 2011 focused on women's access to land, and called for suggestions and strategies to improve it.

Members of the different Dimitra community listeners’ clubs in the region shared their views with each other and with other radio listeners, and a range of suggestions were exchanged and discussed at length. 

Both women and men engaged in the debate, and many of the region's men called in to express their thoughts on the different strategies for giving women access to their land. In particular the chief of Banizoumbou, whom the women from the Dimitra clubs had lobbied in the past, took a keen interest, and brought together the village landowners to discuss matters and move towards a final decision: a 99-year lease for the women.One idea was simply to donate land to women (along with supporting legal documents), but this was rejected in view of the difficulties that would arise later, if the group to which the land was given ceased to exist. Other options included buying land for women; having local authorities confiscate plots of land for community purposes and allocating it to women; and finally, of lending land to individuals or women's groups on a long-term basis. This last idea was viewed as the easiest to implement and the least restrictive.

Gains for the whole community

We may well wonder what made these eight landowners agree to lease away part of their land to a group of women – for an entire century! In the end, it was a case of everyone – both within the village and beyond, from the community level to the state and from local NGOs to international organizations – communicating effectively and constructively towards potential gains for the whole community: In addition to supporting the initial setup of the listeners' clubs and the women's group itself, the NGO-VIE Kande Ni Bayra had promised to help the women improve their land if they became landowners. They had also helped the women write a letter requesting government permission to use the nearby artesian well for their crops, and the government (through the Ministry of Hydraulics) had agreed. These were all good signs that the land would be well-used and productive and that the whole community would benefit. Finally, the village chief and various other prominent villagers (including one of the religious leaders) supported the women’s cause and helped them to consult with the landowners.

How the club helped

The community listeners’ club played a crucial role in securing the lease contract: the idea itself came from club discussions, as well as the feasibility of the arrangement. And in a more general sense, the club was key to building confidence among its members – especially the women – to voice their opinions, present arguments and engage in dialogue and debate towards shared collective problem-solving and progress.

The negotiation process lasted more than eight months: given that each parcel of land belonged to an entire family, each of the landowners had to convince all of the heirs to support the initiative. This was a major challenge for the heads of some families! In certain cases, they had to make a decision without the consent of all the heirs, for the sake of the family’s honour. After all, sharing one’s wealth with the community is a traditional value.

Zara Issa was right to cherish those two pieces of paper: unless the Gomni Mate women's group breaks up or their business fails (and they decide themselves to formally terminate the lease), the land is theirs. For a century.