Integrating Customary Land Tenure Into Statutory Land Law


A Review of Experience from Seven Sub-Saharan African Countries and the Kyrgyz Republic

Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa have revised their land laws to grant legal recognition to customary forms of land tenure. Most of these reforms have taken place only within the past 15 years and have been part of a growing recognition that the imposition of Westernized systems of titling and registration has not succeeded in driving customary tenure systems underground and that indeed these systems continue to play an important role in administering and enforcing the land rights of most people residing in rural communities. Moreover, it is increasingly thought that reforms that grant statutory recognition of customary land rights will enable these rights to be more secure and less vulnerable to effacement by others seeking to establish legal rights on the same land.

This brief paper describes the varied means by which countries have granted legal recognition to customary property rights and institutions. Specifically, it describes the governing legislation and experiences implementing relevant provisions of those laws for seven sub-Saharan African countries: Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, and Mauritania. The paper further illustrates the adoption of customary dispute resolution systems in the Kyrgyz Republic. Rather than conducting a review of the theoretical debates on the interface between customary and statutory tenure, this briefing note builds on new empirical evidence from recent experience.