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  • Introduction:interpreting land markets in Africa
  • Jean-Philippe Colin (bio) and Philip Woodhouse (bio)

Questions about land markets are central to development policy, as underlined recently in the 2008 World Development Report (World Bank 2007: 9). In particular, markets in which land rights are transferred on a temporary or permanent basis are seen as playing a key role in the redistribution of land to more efficient users, thus increasing productivity and employment. In this view, any negative effects attributed to land markets, notably in terms of inequity and landlessness, result from failures in other markets, especially credit and insurance markets (Deininger and Feder 2001; de Janvry et al. 2001; World Bank 2003). In Africa, until late in the twentieth century it was these negative effects, and a perception of land as being relatively abundant due to low population densities in many parts of the continent, that influenced policy makers' views. Consequently, land markets received relatively little attention in development policy, except, as exemplified in an earlier issue of this journal (Shipton and Goheen 1992), as a means of securing credit flows for agricultural development. Over the past two decades, however, a wave of proposals for land tenure reform in many African countries (Toulmin and Quan 2000; Berry 2002; World Bank 2003) has raised questions about land markets as a means of allocating land that have profound political and economic implications, rarely addressed by previous research. This collection of articles provides an opportunity to explore the nature of land markets in Africa.1

Emergence and Dynamics of Land Markets in Africa

In African contexts, the question of land markets is commonly framed by an analysis of how customary systems of land tenure have [End Page 1] moved, or are supposed to be moving, towards private property. This transformation is typically attributed to the combined effects of demographic growth, development of cash crops and changes in cropping systems (development of tree crop plantations, shorter fallow periods, and the disappearance of 'shifting cultivation'). As a consequence, it is anticipated that land values increase and land rights become increasingly identified with individuals, so that the 'bundle' of different rights relative to land, including the right to transfer, becomes concentrated in the hands of a single right holder. This then translates into increasingly monetized access to land through sales and rental (including sharecropping) (Boserup 1965; Johnson 1972; Ault and Rutman 1979; Feder and Noronha 1987; Migot-Adholla et al. 1991; Bassett and Crummey 1993; Platteau 1996; Deininger and Feder 2001). This 'evolutionary' perspective on land markets is underpinned by the 'theory of induced innovation' (Hayami and Ruttan 1985), which draws upon economic models that understand institutional change as arising when existing institutions are incompatible with shifts in relative prices and profitability driven by changes in relative factor (labour, land, capital) scarcity, or technological innovation (Demsetz 1967; Johnson 1972; Ault and Rutman 1979; Feder and Noronha 1987).

In recent decades, a growing number of authors have drawn on empirical studies to argue that market transfers of land have indeed become more common in Africa (Biebuyck 1963a, 1963b; Feder and Noronha 1987; Barrows and Roth 1989; Bassett and Crummey 1993; Bruce and Migot-Adholla 1994; Ensminger 1997; Sjaastad 2003; Chauveau et al. 2006; Chimhowu and Woodhouse 2006; Colin and Ayouz 2006; Holden et al. 2009). However – undermining somewhat the 'evolutionary' view of land markets outlined above – historical accounts make clear that land sales were occurring in the nineteenth century in Ghana (Hill 1963), and in South Africa (Bundy 1979; Lambert 1999). Similarly, Berry (1993) refers to pre-colonial land sales in Kikuyuland, Kenya, and other references to pre-colonial land sales in both West and East Africa are found in Feder and Noronha (1987), Bassett (1993), Ensminger (1997), and Kuba and Lentz (2006).

Empirical studies of land use also reveal widespread incidence of a variety of rental and sharecropping arrangements whereby mobile labour negotiated access to land, often in order to exploit opportunities for cash crop production. Examples are found in Robertson (1987), for Senegal, Ghana, Sudan and Lesotho, in Lawry (1993) for Lesotho, in Migot-Adholla, Benneh et al. (1994) and Migot-Adholla, Place et al. (1994) for Ghana and Kenya, in Amanor and Diderutuah (2001...


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