Chief Ndake received us in the community land rights office of the small compound that constitutes his “palace.” As one of Zambia’s traditional authorities, he reigns over a swath of Nyimba District in the country’s Eastern Province, and he is working with the Zambia Land Alliance to improve land rights and tenure security for his subjects.
The only thing traditional about Chief Ndake was the formal greeting we were expected to offer, on one knee. He greeted us casually and warmly, smiling from beneath his glasses. Perhaps in his forties, the chief wore a polo shirt emblazoned with the slogan-of-the-day: “We use a toilet—do you?” The chief explained that they had just installed a lot of toilets across his kingdom, a major public health advance.
Chief Ndake is one of a number of traditional leaders trying to bring order and tenure security to those who live without land titles on customary land, which covers more than half of Zambia and is home to the vast majority of its small-scale farmers. These leaders are seeking to construct a middle ground in a battle over Zambia’s new land policy, one that rejects efforts to privatize customary land through formal titling but improves tenure security by granting villagers traditional landholding certificates.
Finding common ground
Chief Ndake was as down-to-earth as could be. He apologized profusely for delaying our meeting. He explained that one of the chieftanesses (yes, there are many women chiefs) was delayed on the road when her path was blocked by elephants. Being a traditional leader in rural Zambia is clearly not for the faint of heart.
The chief explained what they were doing. His chiefdom consists of 405 villages, according to a recent census, with 17,868 households and 79,505 people. Until recently, none had title to their lands, which had been given out at chiefs’ discretion over centuries of customary rule. Colonial powers had taken some land for their plantations and other uses, but they had left the traditional structures in place in the villages.
After independence, colonial land became state land, available for the national government to lease to users. In Zambia, a 1995 land law had declared all land to be under the authority of the president, though customary land remained under the control of the chiefs. Over time, pressures have grown on traditional authorities to give up their lands, for conservation areas, game parks and other forms of tourism, urban expansion, and agricultural development.
Without documentation of their landholdings, villagers have been subject to arbitrary displacement, be it from the national government, their own chiefs, or both, as private investors curry favor to gain access to good land. Large-scale foreign investments—widely known as land-grabbing—have grabbed headlines, but most arbitrary land deals are smaller and come from domestic investors.
Either way, villagers had little protection. Chief Ndake told us that he and other chiefs did not want to see the kinds of formal land titles the national government initially proposed as part of its new land policy. Those would effectively privatize the land, taking it out of the customary system and out of the hands of the chiefs.
Such measures have been advocated by international donors under the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and promoted under the controversial World Bank “Enabling the Business of Agriculture” initiative. If one’s land can be freely bought and sold, it is likely that financial pressures, such as unpaid debts after a bad harvest, will cause many to lose their land.
The Zambia Land Alliance’s “Traditional Landholding Certificates” were the perfect answer, Chief Ndake told us. They demarcate boundaries and register the land claim with the traditional authority. The land then cannot be bought, sold, or rented outside the family without the chief’s consent.
Chief Ndake has issued some 1,300 Traditional Landholding Certificates and more villagers are applying all the time, he told us. And why not? They take one month to get, compared with up to five years for formal land titles. They incorporate greater transparency than national government processes, as the local leaders know the lands and visit them before signing off. And they immediately alleviate regular conflicts over land, due to their simple design which requires the consent of all neighboring landholders to the demarcation of any plot.
“If the entire chiefdom had certificates, we would have very little conflict,” the chief told us. “We would have peace.”
Securing land rights for women
In the village of Mulongu Ndiye Chinundi, 20 residents received us in a small community building. Sitting on benches, they sang the praises of the land certificates. One woman said she had gotten better consideration for a loan because of her land certificate, even though the land is not exactly collateral. Conflicts had indeed been reduced.
Perhaps the most important benefit of the certificates is that they designate an approved list of heirs to the land. This is critical to women’s right to land, as widows often struggle to secure an inheritance. As Chief Ndake told us, in his chiefdom the matrilineal family of a deceased husband has rights to the land over his widow and children, who are often shipped back to their home villages, where they have scant opportunities to get decent land. He said women were applying for certificates in droves, realizing the importance of the certificate as a de facto will. Men spoke up in favor as well. If land is one of the only things a man has, one man told us, he wants it to go to the family he leaves behind.
Chief Ndake indicated that the certificate system has traction, particularly as a response to the national government’s disappointing initial land policy proposal, tabled in 2015. Other civil society organizations are working with traditional authorities in different parts of Zambia on even more ambitious efforts to document landholdings, using remote sensing and other mapping systems.
There could well be more than 80,000 certificates issued before long, the kind of “facts on the ground” that could move policymakers to accept the practice. More recent drafts of the land policy seem to accept the integrity of customary lands, withdraw the demand for formal titles, and promote the use of traditional land certificates.
Nsama Nsemiwe, executive director of Zambia Land Alliance, was cautiously optimistic that a compromise could be reached on the new land policy. Their own model land policy, which incorporated input from 20 district-level consultations, calls for decentralized land administration that recognizes the authority of the chiefs. Much of it has been incorporated into the government policy proposal. Zambian President Edgar Lungu this month ordered his land ministry to issue a new and improved policy draft.
“I am hopeful we can get a land policy that protects tenure security,” Nsemiwe said.