Inequality and Social Conflict over Land in Africa


Peters, Pauline E. 2004. “Inequality and Social Conflict over Land in Africa” Journal of Agricultural Change 4 (3): 269-314.

Author: Pauline E. Peters


The paper proposes that reports of pervasive competition and conflict over land in sub-Saharan Africa belie a current image of negotiable and adaptive customary systems of landholding and land use but, instead, reveal processes of exclusion, deepening social divisions and class formation. Cases of ambiguous and indeterminate outcomes among claimants over land do occur, but the instances of intensifying conflict over land, deepening social rifts and expropriation of land beg for closer attention. More emphasis needs to be placed by analysts on who benefits and who loses from instances of 'negotiability' in access to land, an analysis that, in turn, needs to be situated in broader political economic and social changes taking place, particularly during the past thirty or so years. This requires a theoretical move away from privileging contingency, flexibility and negotiability that, willy-nilly, ends by suggesting an open field, to one that is able to identify those situations and processes (including com-modification, structural adjustment, market liberalization and globalization) that limit or end negotiation and flexibility for certain social groups or categories. 


Keywords: land relations, land tenure, social conflict, resource competition, class formation


  • The article outlines the shift of international organizations (primarily the World Bank) from promoting individualization of land through titling to the recent policies of emphasizing customary systems of tenure for its “flexibility and negotiability.” The author argues that this shift overemphasizes the negotiability and indeterminacy of customary  systems and that :
  • Author suggests that theoretical move from “privileging contingency, flexibility and negotiability” [...] (270) to looking at current processes at work and how these limit the flexibility and negotiability for some groups (e.g. women) has been inhibited by “sticky paradigms” in which analytical frameworks that were highly productive in the past are no longer as useful given changing circumstances of growing competition over land and resources.
  • In discussing the World Bank’s policies, Peter’s notes the disjuncture between information emerging from the World Bank’s land tenure researchers and the policies the bank is actually implementing on the ground. The author argues that research needs to go beyond the assertion that relations over land are socially embedded to ask more precise questions about the type of social and political relations in which land is situated, particularly with reference to relations of inequality – of class, ethnicity, gender and age.
  • Also notes that agency of certain groups can sometimes be used as a tool by researches to “eclipse” issues of inequality.
  • Discusses how intensifying competition over land and landed resources across Africa have made new schemes to promote environmental protection along with benefits to locals, new resources over which groups compete.


“This [shift of international organizations (primarily the World Bank) from promoting individualization of land through titling to the recent policies of emphasizing customary systems of tenure], in combination with a parallel shift in social theory influenced by postmodern and postcolonial writing that privileges ambiguity, multiplicity and indeterminacy, has resulted in a proliferation of studies celebrating agency and social manoeuvres at the cost, I claim, of identifying winners and losers.”(271)

“Over-emphasis on the ‘ethnic’ character of current conflicts across Africa, which range from sporadic, localized violence to protracted civil and cross-border wars, has obscured the fact that so-called ‘ethnic conflicts’ are linked simultaneously to ‘preoccupations about land’ and to contests over political power.”(271)

“Emphasis on the socially strategic uses of negotiability and ambiguity in relations over land has served well to undermine simple, economistic premises about the insecurity of all property that is not individually owned. Now, that emphasis has become a barrier to analysing the social relations of inequality surrounding land, and the desire to attend to agency, multiplicity and contingency obscures processes of inequality and social differentiation.”(305)



Topics: Armed Conflict, Ethnic/Communal Wars, Class, Coloniality/Post-Coloniality, Economies, Economic Inequality, Ethnicity, Globalization, International Organizations, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 2004

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