ILRG Malawi Final Report: Reflections from Customary land Documentation Scaling Project

Approximately 1 billion people around the world are tenure insecure and fear losing access to their. land and property. A lack of documentation contributes to tenure insecurity, leaves people vulnerable to land grabs by neighbors or relatives and contributes to underinvestment for fear of losing access to land in the future. Many governments, especially those with colonial legacies of state-owned land and absence of registered rights for smallholder farmers, have attempted to carry out large-scale, systematic documentation of land rights in recent years, through legislation that facilitates first time registration of rights and subsequent rollout.

Developing a comprehensive land cadaster is a massive undertaking, particularly where there is a legacy of registered rights to consider, for example colonial land allocations or sporadic leaseholds issued within a broader community managed landscape. Reviewing and updating historical or latent rights alongside efforts to carry out first time registration for rural smallholders within the same landscape and integrating these in a land information system presents a series of challenges. This task is complicated by varying laws governing different types of land, such as public, private, customary, etc., and the conflicts and ambiguities that emerge from registering boundaries and rights. Despite these challenges in reconciling historical rights, in recent years, systematic customary land documentation has well-established processes that include community consultation, parcel boundary mapping, dispute resolution, and a public period for viewing maps and making corrections, which is designed to ensure communities collectively agree on current land rights. Donor funding often supports pilots to demonstrate proof of concept of documentation methodologies, while government leadership and ownership of the process is required to achieve broad coverage.

The ultimate goal of most systematic documentation processes is full jurisdictional coverage (and in many cases national coverage) in order to achieve appropriate economies of scale, gain anticipated economic benefits that come with secure land and property rights, and reduce the potential for conflict and grievances between those who were eligible and not eligible for the documentation scheme. Such efforts require coordination with national land information systems, early planning, and a cost-effective, digitized, replicable and coordinated process. The advancement of digital mapping and data collection tools has created opportunities for cost-effective, large-scale land documentation efforts. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported mapping approaches for securing tenure (MAST), an inclusive fit-for-purpose approach that has been used in five countries to document land rights for nearly one million people. While low-cost, digital tools create efficiencies in data collection, they also risk reinforcing existing power dynamics if not undertaken with an intentional gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) lens. These steps take time and can raise costs, yet if not undertaken, risk producing a land information system that does not reflect on-the-ground realities and exacerbates inter- and intra-community disputes.

Following the passage of the Customary Land Act of 2016, the Government of Malawi (GoM) piloted customary land documentation procedures across different areas of the country, including through the EU-supported pilot on: “Technical cooperation to strengthen national capacity in implementing land policies and laws efficiently and effectively” as well as through the World Bank-funded Shire Valley Transformation Project, and the Agricultural Commercialization Project. These pilots were facilitated through the Land Reform Implementation Unit (LRIU), which has been instrumental in advocating for a structured approach to scaling customary land documentation. In 2020, USAID partnered with the GoM on a gender-responsive customary land documentation project under the Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) program. This activity aimed to achieve scale by documenting customary land across an entire Traditional Land Management Area (TLMA) – TLMA Mwansambo in Nkhotakota District. Seventy percent of the population in Malawi lives on customary land, held by communities and administered by community leaders, most of whom are smallholder farmers, and less than 10 percent of whom have some form of land documentation. ILRG aimed to document 10,000 parcels in a year as a proof of concept to help inform the government’s national roll out of a customary land documentation process across other jurisdictions.

Malawi’s land laws provided a strong foundation for the work. In 2016, the government enacted a series of new land laws, including the Customary Land Act of 2016, which allowed customary land holders to formalize their ownership rights by registering their parcels (Kamoto et al., 2021). The law laid out a clear process for systematic documentation (see Figure 1), including the establishment of locally led, gender-balanced customary land committees to help facilitate the work. The government invested in a mobile technology platform developed through a contract with the Regional Center for Mapping Resources for Development (RCMRD) in Kenya to digitize parcel demarcation. It also began work to establish an updated land information management system (LIMS) to house land administration data. Building on the momentum from earlier pilots, the ILRG project had strong government buy-in from the beginning and a commitment to utilize lessons learned to inform scaling efforts.

This report reflects on experiences from the scaling project. It focuses on overall process lessons and recommendations. Section two highlights key project results. Section three outlines key elements needed to achieve scale (low-cost, digital tools, clarity of steps, efficient oversight structures), including successes and challenges implementing each element under the ILRG project. Section four lays out conclusions and recommendations for the full government rollout of the land documentation process.