Henry Bernstein, David Hulme and Philip Woodhouse, African Enclosures? the Social Dynamics of Wetlands in Drylands

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HENRY BERNSTEIN, DAVID HULME and PHILIP WOODHOUSE, African Enclosures? The social dynamics of wetlands in drylands. Oxford: James Currey, 2000, 256 pp., 14.95 [pounds sterling], ISBN 0 85255 761 2.

Customary tenure provides the best protection for the land claims of poorer people. True or false? In all four areas covered by this research programme on land fights and governance, 'customary authority' to control land remains very important, despite the state's attempts to impose other forms of governance. And it demonstrates that, as land becomes scarcer and more valuable, such customary systems provide no guarantee of equitable access for poor, vulnerable groups.

Research was focused on the Kimani swamps, in Kajiado District of Kenya; the dams in Mmutiane village, Shoshong Hills, Central District of Botswana; the Sourou valley, Bankass cercle, in Mopti region, Mali; and the Mutale fiver valley, Northern Province, South Africa. It examined changes in land and water management, systems of local governance, and social and economic differentiation. It also looked for evidence of environmental change.

All four sites showed a considerable increase in output and yields over the last two decades, especially of irrigated fruit, vegetables, rice and other crops, oriented towards market sale. Local initiatives had in all cases been paramount in achieving such improvements in productivity, with little or no role played by formal 'development' agencies, government or projects. Improved access to markets and better roads have generated a strong interest in gaining access to the land, water, labour and technology required to grow irrigated crops. This is leading to an intensification of agriculture, and diversion of water from lower to higher-value uses.

Land is becoming a commodity, with fights of access and use bought and sold for cash, or in exchange for a share of the harvest. This privatisation of land can be seen in the tighter controls exercised by those with claims over land, reduced access for other users, the fencing of plots and the growth in registration of land claims. The latter often takes the form of a piece of paper attesting to the sale or rental of land between two parties, with some form of stamp conferred by the local government administrator. While such papers have no formal legal weight, they are recognised within the community.

It is often thought that 'customary' systems of land management preclude the emergence of market relations and that they provide better security for poorer, more marginal groups. This research disproves both assumptions. Land is being marketed despite the continued importance of customary leaders in local governance systems. …