Land is of fundamental concern in economic and political development. In African contexts discussion of land is commonly framed by questions of how customary land tenure systems are moving towards private property models involving land markets. Empirical studies remain sparse, but the evidence suggests that, while land markets are becoming more common, disputes over the meaning of transactions are also increasing. Most published work tends to concentrate on market development rather than exploring the social relationships embodied in land markets, and their political consequences. This Special Issue, comprising an extensive introduction by the guest editors and a further six papers covering studies on Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe and Zambia, seeks to address these gaps. Themes and questions addressed include the role of the state in the reform of customary land rights. Despite trends towards private property, around ninety percent of land in Africa is still considered to be under customary land tenure. Thus the majority of land market transactions are 'informal', the meaning of transactions is disputed, and there is widespread insecurity over the transferred land rights.
Land markets are also implicated in key questions relating to discourses of fairness or justice of land access, and the linkage of land rights to autochthony, ethnicity and citizenship. The broader significance of the papers is to contribute to a more critical analysis of institutional change. They mark a step forward in African land policy debates that largely remain polarized between those seeking poverty reduction through promoting land markets, and opponents who seek to protect the poor from losing their land to the market. Of perhaps most far-reaching significance, the papers suggest that an understanding of actually-existing land markets is central to the analysis of the roots of conflict and insecurity in Africa today.
Jean Philippe Colin is Director of Research at the Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement. Philip Woodhouse is Senior Lecturer in Environment and Rural Development at the School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester.