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Monday, 15 September 2014

Zambia's chaotic land administration

By Bruce Chooma

Zambia is in a bizarre position when it comes to land administration and management. No one knows how much land is available for various purposes. For over 20 years the Zambian government has insisted that only 6% of land in Zambia is state land the remaining 94% is customary. The truth is that a lot of land has since been converted from customary to state land across the country but without any reliable system of records at the Ministry of Lands.

Zambia has a dual system of land tenure of customary and leasehold tenure. The land is vested in the President on behalf of all Zambians. However, the issue of vestment is one that lacks widespread consensus particularly among the traditional leadership.

Some experts have argued that the current land tenure system is a drawback to sustained development. Others have suggested that Zambia needs to consider adopting freehold tenure as this would guarantee owners of land the necessarily security to enable investment and sustainable use of land.

Freehold tenure involves full private ownership of land free of obligations to the State, except for the payment of land taxes and observance of other statutory land use controls. In contrast, leasehold tenure, currently used in Zambia, entails access to land on a lease basis such that one has the right to land for a specific period of time and subject to the continued fulfilment of specified conditions like paying ground rent. The defined period is 99 years.

Government does not have not currently a land policy. The last draft policy was made available 2006. However, it stills remain in draft and nothing has been agreed or implemented. The aim of land policy is to enhance security of tenure; improve access to credit; facilitate land reform; ensure collection of real property taxes; prevention of land speculation, disputes and conflicts; and ensure equitable access to land for the poor, minority groups and women.

Zambia needs to manage land in a manner that realises economic/sustainable development and peace. This cannot happen in the absence of a good land policy to effectively administer this precious resource in such a way that will lead to economic development whilst ensuring environmental sustainability and social development.

Recently the government announced its intentions to conduct a land audit to ascertain how much land was owned by the state; the scale of customary; and, the level of private ownership and the extent to which it is utilised. This is a welcome move and one which needs to be taken forward urgently.

Competition for land, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas, is increasingly intensifying partly as a result of population growth. This has led to disputes between countries (e.g. the current Zambia and Malawi boundary disputes) and also disputes between Chiefdoms over boundaries and ownership of certain pieces of land.

An important issue for Zambia to decide on is whether to promote a conservationist approach or continue with its large scale acquisition policy of land for economic investment mostly by foreign investors. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that conservationist approaches that put the community at the centre of land ownership, use and management do work.

Namibia stands as a prime example. It adopted the groundbreaking Nature Conservation Amendment Act in 1996. The granting of legal rights to communities restored their sense of ownership and responsibility, and thereby created incentives for conservation. With the rights came the obligation of sustainable wildlife management.

The conservation paradigm in Namibia has shifted from a situation where government conservation officers and rural communities were constantly in conflict over alleged poaching incidents, to a situation where community conservation is considered a viable rural development option in Namibia’s National Development Plans and Poverty Reduction Strategy.

By the end of 2011, 65 communal conservancies were established, covering over 14 million hectares or 17% of the country, This involve over 240 000 community members or 12% of the total population. Conservancies are legally recognized, geographically defined areas that have been formed by communities who have united to manage and benefit from wildlife and other natural resources. Conservancies generate bulk of their income from tourism joint venture partnerships with private sector, sustainable wildlife use, campsites, crafts, guiding, info centres, indigenous plant harvesting, etc.

Total income to communities from conservation related activities was over US$6.2 Million in 2010, while private sector generated at least US$23 million in returns from community conservation related enterprises. This approach in Namibia generated over 1250 full-time and 8000 seasonal employees thus contributing to job creation.

Editor's note : This is a guest post from Bruce Chooma, a Lusaka based journalist and human rights activist, on the implications of the Mangango bye-election win by the Patriotic Front. You can read more of his writings on his blog.


  1. Customary area now makes up some 70 percent of Zambia, though I too trotted out the erroneous figure of 94 percent in my article

  2. What a timely article from Bruce Chooma. I agree with a great deal of its content. If Zambia wants to join the global village and start stoking the latent embers of wealth generation then reforming Zambian Lands legislation is a prerequisite.
    Actually Leasehold (99 years) Title rather than full Freehold tenure is all that is required to enable investment by using the land as collateral that will in turn unlock wealth and value for Zambia. I also know that the Ministry of Lands Natural Resources and Environmental Protection has materially blocked several tens of investors from doing just this – denying jobs, value addition and development in some very rural areas. I can’t tell if this blocking is punitive, spiteful, socialist dogma or just incompetence in the Ministry. It might be a bit of each.
    Frequently the excuse that the land is customary and belongs to the people (or Chief) is wheeled out as an excuse to stymy significant investments, some by Zambians, some by foreign investors. Of course the land belongs to the people, but if those very people were asked if they want jobs and a better way of life or else acres of fallow land I suspect I know the answer.
    Notwithstanding this, an additional problem is the inability of the Ministry of Lands Natural Resources and Environmental Protection to administer Land Title applications in any case. There seems to me to be a complete lack of transparency as to what this process involves. This speaks to Bruce Chooma’s point about there being no usable Lands Policy in place.
    On asking others they seem to have stumbled across the same or similar problem: all roads seem to lead to the office of the Commissioner of Lands. I actually think he doesn’t exist – instead the office is actually a repository for Title applications that will never see the light of day.
    If the legislative frameworks were in place then the Commissioner and his PS (they tell me she is lawyer and close to the President) would not be able to sit on the keys that would unlock untold wealth for Zambia. There appears no appetite for this; instead the Ministry seems hidebound to old school socialist doctrines.
    It’s sad isn’t it?


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