Documenting Customary Land Rights in Zambia: A Low-Cost Open Source Approach


Paper prepared for presentation at the “2016 WORLD BANK CONFERENCE ON LAND AND POVERTY,” The World Bank—Washington DC, March 14-18, 2016.

Authors: Matt Sommerville (TetraTech), M. Mercedes Stickler (USAID), Simon Norfolk (Terra Firma Ltd.), Terence Mothers (Terra Firma Ltd.) & Stephen Brooks (USAID)

The potential scale of land documentation in Zambia is enormous. Estimates of the number of landholdings in the country vary from 12 million to 30 million individual parcels. The government has launched a land policy development process with a central focus on harmonizing customary and state land under a unified system. The government has also launched a multi-year program to undertake a Land Audit of all state and customary land and an associated National Land Titling Program to systematically register land rights across the country, though the methodologies for these processes are still under development.

Zambia’s dual tenure system provides some unique opportunities and challenges to systematic registration. On the one hand, the current structure of legally recognized and socially legitimate traditional authorities presents an opportunity to build on existing structures both for the process of registration and, crucially, the longer-term administration of land. On the other hand, the lack of historical communication and sharing of information between the state system and traditional authorities poses a significant challenge to overcome, as state engagement on land issues is typically restricted to the provincial capitals or even the national capital where MLNREP’s records are stored. It is this underlying long-term relationship between the traditional authorities and government that will define the success of efforts to systematically document land rights in Zambia.

As noted above, this paper presents and qualitatively assesses a pilot to develop a replicable, systematic land registration process that can feed into a sustainable land administration system. The approach seeks to be consistent with existing capacities and legislation but flexible enough to evolve with and inform current discussions in Zambia on potential future legal and institutional frameworks. This process focuses on rural, largely agricultural, land but is adaptable to game management areas as well as peri-urban and urban chiefdoms. The paper is structured in the following sections: 2) the development of the pilot registration, focusing on principles, tools, and process in relation to the current customs and legal framework; 3) lessons from the initial field experiences; and, 4) conclusions for sustainability and replicability.