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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Regulating rural land markets in Africa and elsewhere: opening the debate. (Ed. # 38)

Historically, many European states have sought to regulate land markets in rural areas, to contain the risks of land concentration, and to align them with their economic policies and societal goals. In Latin America, the agrarian reforms of the twentieth century have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to remedy the dramatic social effects of a liberalized land market. With the neoliberal turn, international institutions promoted land markets as if they spontaneously produced equity and economic efficiency. Now taboo, the question of regulating market transactions on land is a crucial issue in many parts of the world.

In Africa, commercial land transactions (rentals, sharecropping, sales) are developing at very different rates and dynamics. Absent in many regions, including some densely populated areas and / or heavily engaged in marketable production, they can grow very rapidly in others, at the crossroads of multiple factors. Land markets sometimes emerge endogenously, between farmers, or are induced from outside, by the demand for land from urban actors with (comparatively) high financial capacities. The lack of alternatives to urgent needs for money (distress sales, health problems, ceremonies or migration to finance) is a major cause of land sales.

The impacts of these transactions in terms of inequality, land concentration, productivity, vary greatly depending on the context. But inequalities between actors often produce unfair transactions, or negative effects in productive terms. This is particularly the case when an urban buyer buys important surfaces, with a view to anticipating changes in land value, without a productive project or without competence in agriculture. Although they are almost always the subject of a written contract, validated by local authorities, land sales are a major source of land conflicts: the content of these contracts may be ambiguous, but most importantly, the transferor’s right to selling is often problematic for family plots: the sale is not necessarily accepted by other family rightholders.

At present, land markets are developing outside of any public regulation: transactions on non-legalized land are considered non-legal; the mechanisms that local actors and local governments have put in place to formalize transactions are not really recognized. Current land market development modalities pose serious risks of land concentration, marginalization of farmers and family ranchers. Regulating land markets becomes an emergency.

At the request of UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union), a team of researchers and consultants mobilized by IPAR, a Senegalese think tank, opened the topic. AGTER and the Pôle Foncier de Montpellier contributed to it. This study analyzes the dynamics of rural land markets, discusses their impacts in terms of equity and efficiency, and identifies the economic and social risks they induce. It also proposes a conceptual framework on the regulation of the land markets and identifies the priority axes of regulation in West Africa (The reports resulting from this study are available on AGTER’s website. Volume III of the study proposes an analysis of existing regulatory mechanisms, in different continents - see below).

Recognizing commercial transactions on customary lands to secure them, dealing with the question of the right to sell, is a first priority, as it is a condition for more proactive policies aimed at guiding the dynamics of transactions in the direction of general interest. Differentiating the rules according to the spaces and the actors, rebalancing the relations between actors to better combine equity and economic efficiency, discouraging speculative and unproductive purchases, are all avenues to be mobilized according to the contexts and the political priorities.

With IPAR, AGTER will help disseminate the results of this study, make them available to social actors, and in the first place farmers’ organizations. It is up to them and to experts and public policy makers to seize this material to politically bring the issue of such regulation and negotiate the relevant strategic priorities in their own context. To develop and experiment pragmatic devices, simple, rooted in the realities and consistent with the institutional capacities of the country, which ensure effective regulation, serving the public interest.

Philippe Lavigne Delville is a member of AGTER He is Director of Research at the Institute for Research for Development (IRD), Director of the Pôle Foncier ( and President of the APAD (


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