Reporting Research

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Common ground? Investigating the importance of managing land


Research shows that people’s capacity to access  and use land is important for economic growth, for poverty reduction,  and for promoting both private investment and transparent, accountable  government. Governments have a responsibility to establish systems which  ensure access to land and housing for everyone in society.

The  pressures of modernisation have brought about new challenges as well as  opportunities in managing land. For many countries in the south, the  nature of these challenges and opportunities has been shaped by  colonisation and post-independence politics.

Much research  produced on land management investigates and confronts the inequities of  the past while proposing solutions for the future. It covers topics  ranging from property rights and local governance to tribal societies,  modern agriculture and urban planning.

Research influences  current government land policy – but how much do journalists know about  it? Conversely, knowledge that goes against current trends in public  policy is often ignored by decision-makers because it is not discussed  in the media – journalists can make sure that it is brought to public  attention.

As a journalist you can use plain language and human  stories to tell people about land management research and investigate  the impact of its findings and recommendations. Often, land management  issues only hit the news when they develop into conflicts. But  researchers are aware of the issues long before conflicts arise.  Academic research can help you get ahead of the story and broaden  debate.

This toolkit is designed to support you in identifying  how you can use research on land management to enrich your journalism,  highlighting processes and changes that are happening in your country  right now.

Land policy in context

Struggling with the colonial legacy

(Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa)
The  Zambian 1995 Land Act reversed Zambia’s post-independence policy of  nationalisation by recognising the market value of land and allowing  greater access to land markets for foreign investors. The act privileges  private title deeds over customary land rights in an attempt to address  artificial land shortages, speculation and high prices by ensuring more  land is available on the market. However, research suggests that this  has made rural people more insecure and that the intricate bundles of  customary rights that have evolved over long periods of time are being  lost.

Land reform in post-independence Kenya successfully enabled  black farmers to take over white farms. Some researchers argue that the  lessons from Kenya’s peaceful land reform experience have not been  learnt in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Others point out that individual  titles have been unfairly distributed to Kenyans according to party  political allegiances.

Taking the lead from customary laws

(Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique)
Research  shows that new land laws in Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique are  allowing groups and communities to hold land titles, recognising  customarily-obtained land as fully legally owned in whatever form it is  currently possessed. The Ugandan 1998 Land Act is a people-friendly law,  which responded to a long history of landlord-tenant conflicts, in  effect liberating tenants. A co-ownership clause to protect women’s land  rights was dropped from the act but partially reappeared in a later  amendment in the form of a provision on family land.

‘Land to the tiller’

(East and South Asia)
‘Land  to the tiller’ reforms after World War II aimed to break up large  feudal estates and provided land for active farmers. Research shows that  reforms in East Asia have alleviated poverty and landlessness,  assisting industrialisation by transferring land to tenant farmers  without breaking up productive holdings. Reforms covering tenancies in  the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal followed a similar pattern.  However, research has found that those not tilling their own land, such  as landless people, were not helped by these reforms. This issue is  still relevant today. In reaction to the huge number of tenant-landlord  disputes in Sri Lanka, the New Agrarian Development Act of 2000  effectively abolished tenant farming, believing it to be a cause of poor  rural economic growth.

Issues in land management

The impact of modernisation

Fragmentation of farms into smaller holdings
Research  conducted by Ephraim Chirwa in 2004 reveals that, after four decades of  agriculture-led development strategies in post-independence Malawi,  economic growth has been erratic and a large proportion of the  population lives below the poverty line. Agricultural policies have  favoured large-scale cash crops, particularly tobacco, resulting in a  more unequal distribution of land in rural areas. The promotion of  smallholder agriculture on customary land, on which rights to cultivate  and transfer land are granted by traditional chiefs, has meant that  approximately 70 per cent of Malawian smallholder farmers cultivate less  than one hectare of land.

Can pastoralism survive?
Indigenous  societies, including pastoralist and communal ones in countries like  Kenya and Uganda, are now facing more obstacles to their way of life  than at any previous time. Elliot Fratkin’s work in 2001 examines the  problems faced by three East African pastoral societies (the Maasai,  Boran and Rendille), including population growth, land degradation,  privatisation of rangeland, urban migration and political conflict, and  the ways in which pastoralist societies are dealing with these threats  to their way of life. Some academics argue that given that pastoralism  has survived so far, it will be able to persist further, but this  depends on the political decisions made by national governments and the  ability of customary systems to adapt to change. Other commentators  recommend that traditional practices should be abandoned and instead  integrated into an urbanised, market-based economy in order to promote  economic development.

The urban divide: enclaves and slums
‘Urbanisation’  is often regarded as the essence of modernisation, employment and  growth. Yet recent research in developing countries shows that city  centres are being transformed into ‘elite enclaves’. There has been a  dramatic improvement in some people’s living standards. However, rising  property and rental prices force poor people into informal and illegal  housing markets of slums and squatter settlements, which are often  located along riverbanks, railway lines, on steep slopes and near  rubbish dumps, and are therefore prone to natural and man-made  disasters. Because of their illegal status, these settlements often lack  piped water and electricity and residents are not inclined to invest in  them because of the threat of being evicted from the land.

Experience  from Pakistan, documented by Arif Hasan in 2002, illustrates how  informal settlements can be the solution rather than the problem. In the  absence of services provided by government and formal private  enterprises, poor people rely on informal settlements for housing,  infrastructure, healthcare, education and employment. However, like many  others, researchers at Zambia’s Institute of Economic and Social  Research point to the need for formal land registration in order to  ensure that governments can raise the necessary tax revenue to provide  infrastructure and amenities such as roads, water supply, hospitals and  schools in expanding urban areas.

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Key Issues

Winners and losers in the property rights lottery

Do modern property rights work?

Some  academics, such as Patrick in 2005, believe that customary forms of  land management are better in providing equal rights to vulnerable  groups, such as women and poor people, arguing that modernisation and  individual private ownership are the cause of discrimination against  women and other low-status groups. Others point out that customary  tenure allows boundaries to be continuously altered to fit changing  needs, such as the temporary residence of a relative in distress, and in  the interests of social harmony. This system of tenure has developed in  a context where land is a livelihood rather than a capital asset.

A  case study highlighted by the University of the Western Cape in 2005  shows how modern property rights can fail. In 1990, a group of  households illegally occupied a vacant piece of land in Cape Town, South  Africa. After years of negotiation the Joe Slovo Park Housing Project  was implemented, building 936 houses. In line with national policy, the  form of tenure granted was individual ownership. Ownership was  registered in one name per family, usually the male ‘head of the  family’. Some long-standing community members were not allocated a  house, while community leaders allegedly received more than one. Five  years after the project was completed, about one-third of the new houses  had been sold. Almost all sales were informal, destroying the newly  established formal land registration system. People who legally owned  houses were sometimes unable to occupy them, as street committees had  decided who should be the occupier, and in some cases houses had been  rented out by people who did not own them.

Does land reform fail women?

Research  by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (2005)  shows that land reforms implemented in the 1950s, 60s and 70s often  assumed that allocating land to the male head of the household would  benefit all members of the family equally. More recent reforms have been  designed to stimulate land markets and economic growth through private  property rights. However, research conducted by the Zambia Land Alliance  has shown that women in Zambia only own about 14 per cent of title  deeds, suggesting that when the opportunity to acquire land arises,  women are unable to raise the money required to register their homes.

In  Tanzania, new land legislation based on customary laws excluded women.  Customary law in 80 per cent of Tanzania excluded women from inheriting  or did not allow them to pass land on to their children. Divorcees and  widows, for example, were cut off from the land and their sons could not  inherit it from them. Women have tended to be enthusiastic about modern  titling because it offers the possibility of co-ownership with other  family members. But this and other research also points to the limits of  market-friendly reforms which provide private titles. Modern titling  does little to redress the discrimination women face in the first place.

Nevertheless, some researchers assert that, even when women are  excluded from land ownership after land reform, such reforms bring  opportunities for women in the form of paid work in modern farms,  greater access to healthcare and new areas of civic engagement.

Governance: privileging the local over the national

Weak  local government allows elites to benefit from land reform at others’  expense Most research suggests that the key to successful economic  development and poverty reduction is a decentralised system of  governance. Decentralisation brings public services closer to people,  providing them with more opportunities to participate in the  decisionmaking process and scrutinise local governments.

However,  local governments and communities can be at the mercy of local leaders  who appropriate resources or manipulate policies for their own benefits.  Research conducted by Karuti Kanyinga at the Africa Nordic Institute  shows that, in Kenyan coastal regions, land is given as grants to  maintain patronage relations and secure political loyalty; most  beneficiaries of titles do not utilise their land, but turn their grants  over to private developers, a majority of whom are foreign hoteliers.

Insecure property rights can lead to the loss of forest resources for ordinary people
Research  from the Centre for International Forestry Research suggested in 2005  that, when property rights are insecure, forest resources tend to be  taken over by elite groups with more power, assets and political  connections. Two questions stand out from the research. How and to what  extent does the use of forest resources contribute to poverty  alleviation? And how and to what extent can poverty alleviation and  forest conservation be combined? Experience has shown that handing over  forests to local communities, in the form of community-based natural  resource management, does not guarantee fair land distribution or  economic growth because of the hierarchical nature of most rural  communities.

Decentralisation to local government or devolution to the people?

Academics  are polarised between those who advocate ‘democratic decentralisation’ –  that is, the transfer of secure, discretionary powers to elected local  systems of government that are downwardly accountable to their local  constituents – and those who insist on devolving authority directly to  the people. For instance, through comparative case studies in Asia and  Southern Africa, researchers have shown that devolving authority  directly to disadvantaged people will embrace local interests and  priorities more than mechanisms that allocate control to people with  higher social status, greater wealth or better education.

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How can land be managed?

Customary or traditional systems grant overall authority over land use to traditional leaders of the  groups, typically older men. A number of competing claims exist under  customary systems, including usufruct (claim by use), pastoral and  communal, which can result in conflict.

Centralised systems
see land vested in the president or central government, who may or may  not delegate responsibility for land management to municipal governments  and city councils. Here, land titles are registered with a central  state agency. In many African countries, a dual system operates using  both centralised and customary systems.

Decentralised systems vest authority for land management with local governments which are  downwardly accountable to local people, ensuring at least some level of  community participation. However, where governance is weak, it can  result in local governing elites establishing land management policy  that serves their own interests.

Community-based systems
devolve land management authority directly to the people, and as such  can respond better to local needs. However, such systems often reflect  inequalities at the community level and can lead to discriminatory  practice in the distribution of land.

Scrutinising research

What is land management research?

Research  about international development issues is produced by academics  (working at universities and institutes), by policy analysts (working in  governments or independent ‘think tanks’), by international  organisations (like the World Bank), by non-governmental organisations  (NGOs, like Oxfam) or by civil society organisations (like the Uganda  Land Alliance). Some of this research tries to influence policy while  other types simply try to make sense of what is happening in the world.  Research can include survey statistics, case studies to illustrate  theories, comparisons of policies and situations in different places and  even summaries of the findings of interviews or profiles of ordinary  people’s experiences.


Research should be about  more than an individual researcher’s opinion; it should prove or  disprove existing theories and generate new ones, producing evidence  which may challenge the researcher’s beliefs and perhaps the beliefs of  society in general.
Ask: “What did you expect your research to prove?  Did you learn anything new? Did the evidence your research produced  surprise you?”


It is important to understand  the circumstances in which research takes place and the influences upon  it. These influences do not invalidate research; on the contrary,  recognition of them can sharpen the insights to be gained from it.

Ask: “Who funded the research and what intentions did they have in mind? How  was the research conducted and by whom? What were the problems  associated with its design and execution? Why was data collected from  certain groups and not others? How were the results interpreted and  used?”


Ethics in research, as in journalism, is  concerned with what is ‘right’ or ‘just’. Research should be conducted  with respect for people, for knowledge, for democratic values, and for  the quality of the research. Ethical codes refer to the responsibility  of academics to communicate their findings back to research subjects, to  report findings to all relevant parties and to refrain from keeping  secret or from selectively communicating their findings.

Ask: “How did you decide which issue/people to research? How did you work  with them? How did you communicate the findings of your research?”


Researchers  often talk about the need for ‘relevant’ research. They are usually  referring to academic research that serves the ends of particular  interests in society, e.g. research that feeds into planned government  policy change on education or health, or that highlights the issues  faced by specific pastoralist societies.

Ask: “Who is the research relevant to and why?”


Researchers  are under increasing pressure to publish and secure funding from  agencies who have particular agendas. When publishing findings and  recommendations, researchers may be aware of pressure from funding  agencies. They might also interpret what they consider ‘society at  large’ would find acceptable, and publish results in line with the  national consensus.

Ask: “Why did you choose to highlight this particular finding/recommendation?”

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Regional sources

East Africa

Resource Conflict Institute (RECONCILE)
Printing House Road, P.O. Box 7150, 20110 Timbermill Road, Nakuru, Kenya
Tel: +254 51 2211046

International Development Research Centre
Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, Liaison House, State House Avenue, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: +254 20 2713160
Email: and

Southern Africa Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection
P.O. Box 37774, 10101 Lusaka, Zambia
Tel: +260 1 290410

Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies
University of the Western Cape, Private Bag X17, Bellville 7535, Cape Town, South Africa
Tel: +27 21 959 3733

South Asia Institute of Policy Studies
99 St Michael’s Rd, Colombo 03, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 11 243 1368

Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)
No. 3, UN Boulevard, Diplomatic Enclave 1, G-5, Islamabad, Pakistan
Tel: +92 51 2278134

North Eastern Social Research Centre

110 Kharghuli Road, Guwahati 781004 Assam, India
Tel: +91 361 260 2819

Organisations conducting research on land issues

Africa Nordic Institute:
research and information
on Africa including land issues
Tel: +46 185 62200

Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR):
conducts research on forest conservation and livelihoods
Tel: +62 251 622622

Land Research Action Network:
news, analysis and research on land reform and agrarian change around the world

International Institute for Environment and Development:
conducts research on forestry and land use in Asia and Africa
Tel: +44 207 388 2117

Overseas Development Institute, Rural Policy and Governance Group:
conducts research on food, forestry, water, land, governance, tourism and rural livelihoods
Tel: +44 207 922 0300

a Swedish government agency that produces surveys and reports on land management issues in many developing countries
Tel: +46 26 63 33 00

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD):
conducts research on rural development and gender issues around the world
Tel: +41 22 917 3020

World Bank Land Policy and Administration Team:
works on issues related to land rights, access and use

Research on land policy

International Land Coalition:
a  coalition of national land alliances which works with the rural poor to  increase their secure access to natural resources, especially land
Tel: +39 065459 2445

Useful websites

African Journals Online (AJOL): provides access to African published research. Access to online summaries is free at

Development Gateway: join different topic groups and download research papers and other documents at

Eldis: a gateway to information on development issues at

Google Scholar: a search service for accessing academic research across the web at

id21: a free development research reporting service for UK-based research on developing countries at

South Asia Research Network (SARN): promotes the production, exchange and dissemination of research knowledge at

Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN): promotes debate and knowledge sharing on poverty reduction processes and experiences in Southern Africa at

Research cited

Karuti Kanyinga (2000)

Eric Patrick (2005)


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A smallholder shows his deeds of agricultural land that has been claimed and amalgamated into that of a larger landowner, Bangladesh. Peter Barker/Panos Pictures

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