Land grabbing

Commercialisation is destroying community rules

by Djeralar Miankeol

In depth

Chad's agriculture must be modernised.

Chad's agriculture must be modernised.

In southern Chad, bitter conflicts over land are becoming more common. They frequently turn violent. Long-standing community culture is being eroded – and so are the livelihoods of many farmers.

For as long as anyone can remember, a set of (often unwritten) rules have applied to the use of land and other resources. Ownership was defined by tradition. The rules address issues like access, management and transfer both for individuals and groups. The rules are well known and accepted among the communities that apply them. They vary considerably from region to region. They reflect overarching principles that are recognised as a kind of customary law.

In past decades, the community rules worked out well. Enough rain fell to sustain the extensive farming of certain well-chosen crops in southern Chad. The rains were predictable, and droughts were rare. The yields were never very high, but they were sufficient. The economy was not thoroughly monetised, and the sense of solidarity and family ties was strong. Population density was low, so there was enough land for everyone. Farmers kept their fields fertile by allowing them to lay fallow for long periods of time.

Today, this system is hanging in the balance. Its complex control and regulation are increasingly challenged. Land has become scarce, and there is an uptick in conflicts between different kinds of land use. Livestock herders are taking over more and more areas that should actually remain bush or lay fallow. Fast population growth, moreover, means that farmers require ever more land too. On top of all that, climate change has significantly increased the size of the arid Sahel-Sahara zone, which is poorly suited to rain-fed agriculture. The soil quality has also deteriorated, and vegetation has become sparse.

Migratory herders from the north of the country are forced to come south earlier in the year and stay longer. Many choose to settle there, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers and herders to live peacefully together (see also D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2015/07, p. 24).

The commercialisation of land use is destroying traditional rules of communities’ collective ownership in favour of individual ownership. Moreover, village farmland near big cities can be seized from one day to the next simply as urban settlements expand. The farmers normally cannot assert ownership in such cases.  

Oil extraction is relevant too. In some areas, extraction equipment has been set up, drastically reducing the farmland available to nearby villages.

Compounding problems, the cultivation methods are stuck in the past. Farmers still practise extensive agriculture, which requires a lot of space. Soil fertility has declined, and due to lower yields, malnourishment is becoming more common. Many families are forced to sell so much of their harvest that they no longer have enough food.

The system has reached a breaking point. The amount of resources that farmers and herders use far exceeds the natural rate of regeneration. It is therefore imperative that cultivation methods and animal husbandry take up less space and become more productive. Farmers must shift to more intensive agriculture. It is no longer viable to only rely on fallow to maintain soil fertility. And herders have to use cultivated fodder and adjust the size of their herds in response to the scarcity of resources.

Djeralar Miankeol is an agricultural engineer, human-rights activist and director of the organisation Ngaoubourandi (Rainbow), which fights land grabbing and promotes development in Chad. The organisation's efforts are being hampered by government agencies and security forces. It has also been subjected to threats.
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