Land tenure security and investment in African agriculture: Thoughts on Fenske

I assigned James Fenske’s excellent survey, meta-analysis, and re-analysis for my African Economic Development class.  In some ways, the lesson to draw is how little can be generalized.  There are many reasons for why few studies find a strong positive relationship between “more complete” land rights (by which is usually meant all rights bundled together and held by a single person or household) and measures of farming practices (especially those that have long term term implications for land productivity, such as fallowing, tree-planting, soil management, terracing, etc).   Fenske does a great job of going through why that might be the case.

One possibility that he does not consider (unless I missed it, which is always possible) is that maybe there are some advantages to “less complete” tenure rights (by which typically is meant secondary and joint rights, and prohibitions against sale).  Off the top of my head, five come to mind:

  • Joint ownership can work in theory just like joint equity ownership anywhere, as a way to pool capital and spread risk, and so carry out more investment.  Separation of ownership and management is what should be studied, then… how has joint tenure led to institutions (customs, norms) for effective management?
  • Joint ownership can lead to better decisions.  If land is constantly being subdivided and placed under the control of young people when they become adults, maybe a lot of relatively inexperienced farm managers take bad decisions that ultimately lower productivity.  If young adults are more impatient than older adults, they will increase farm profitability in the short term and threaten the longer term.
  • Secondary rights means, usually, specialized rights.  Why shouldn’t tree product processors have the rights to tree products?  They will then manage the trees (pruning, gathering, nurturing) better than a generalist.  So the research agenda to be studied then is: Just how much effort is put by women, say, into nurturing trees that will be economically useful?  The avenues may not be obvious: women gather firewood and cut down trees.  If they do not have rights to tree products, then maybe they would just cut down useful trees.  Note that the investment may then be very mismeasured: the farmer who “owns” the main rights to the field is not the one doing the investment, the woman with tree rights is.
  • The large kin group is a very complex organization, but in most places in Africa women are second-order stakeholders.  Also, many village, agrarian social systems have strong social norms against women freely selling their labor in a competitive labor market.  In an individualized system, every wife is basically a single seller of labor to her husband (the monopsonist).  When the agrarian production unit is larger, however, then two collective entities (the husbands on one side and the wives and daughters on the other) are negotiating.  It might be that women do much better for themselves in that situation, and so objectively prefer the communal tenure and resist individualized tenure.
  • Same point as above, but now thinking of the implications of land as an asset.  If the husband controls land freehold, his threats regarding the asset are credible (“I will see the farm, dammit, and then where will you go?”) whereas in a communal system with no land sales he has no credible threat regarding disposition of the asset.

Cognitive overload sets in after five points (hey, the Ramans do everything in threes, and I got to five, so give me some credit).

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
This entry was posted in Development thinking. Bookmark the permalink.