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Land observatories in Africa: Between ambitions on paper and reality on the ground

In Africa, the management of land and natural resources is at the heart of development challenges, particularly in a context marked by demographic growth, structural adjustment plans and the multiplication of conflicts. If the first land observatory projects emerged at the end of the 1980s, it was from the mid-2000s that they multiplied on the continent. Countries such as Madagascar, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Uganda and Senegal have established land observatories with the aim of improving land and resource governance.

However, despite the appeal of the concept, many land observatories fail to realize their ambitions on the ground. This article aims to analyze the main factors explaining the implementation gaps between the projects on paper and the reality on the ground, with particular emphasis on the socio-economic and political constraints linked to access, to the production and sharing of land data.

The Land Question in Africa : A Major Challenge

The land issue in rural black Africa has become a major concern, exacerbated by population growth, structural adjustment plans and conflicts. If the state management model has shown its limits, the privatization policies of the 1980s have not always had the expected results. The need for local management of land resources is mentioned, but the modalities remain unclear. Several complex themes are raised, ranging from the issues of land conflicts to the coexistence of multiple systems of land standards, including the role of local authorities, land security, and the challenges of administrative decentralization.

Land Observatories in Action: The Case of Senegal

In Senegal, the problem of land grabbing by foreign investors has grown since the end of the 2000s. In a country where agriculture mobilizes a large part of the workforce, but contributes little to GDP, the arrival of private investors is seen as an opportunity by the State, but raises concerns within civil society.

Examples of foreign companies with land in Africa and their activities :

Agro-Industries Corporation (AIC) : This foreign company, based in Europe, has acquired land in Africa to develop agro-industrial projects, including large-scale palm oil production.
China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) : Although primarily an oil company, CNOOC has also invested in land in Africa to grow crops for biofuel production.
AgriSA : A South African company that has expanded to other African countries by acquiring land for agricultural projects, including grain growing and livestock farming.
Sime Darby : This Malaysian company is involved in palm oil production in Africa, having acquired significant tracts of land to develop plantations.

To analyze land dynamics in Senegal, CIRAD, in partnership with Senegalese institutions, has set up observatories aimed at documenting land acquisitions and assessing their socio-economic and environmental consequences. Three categories of main actors are identified: the Senegalese peasantry, local elites, and foreign investors. Large-scale acquisitions by the latter have notable impacts on biodiversity, climate and the livelihoods of local communities.

Innovative tools, such as remote sensing, are used to observe changes in the spatial dynamics of land, thereby facilitating the census and updating of land transaction databases. Key figures show that 46% of Senegal's land area is arable land, of which 3% is managed by foreign investors. The transactions, often for the production of agrofuels, raise questions about food security and the use of land previously exploited by small farmers.

Current Challenges in Africa : A Crucial Land Approach

In 2022, Africa faces development challenges amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of the war in Ukraine, and the impacts of climate change. These challenges exacerbate vulnerabilities to food insecurity, poverty, inadequate housing, environmental degradation and weak governance. In this context, the land issue is of crucial importance to address these challenges in a resilient and democratic manner.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report highlights the urgency of aligning land solutions with climate-smart actions, given the impacts of climate change on the African continent. Access to land remains essential to enable resilient adaptation to the climate, particularly for rural populations dependent on agriculture.

Towards Resilient and Equitable Land Management

In conclusion, land observatories in Africa represent an important response to the challenges of land and natural resource management. However, the gaps between the projects on paper and the reality on the ground highlight the importance of understanding the socio-economic and political constraints that hinder their implementation.

The case of Senegal highlights the challenges linked to land grabbing by foreign investors, with notable implications for biodiversity, climate and local communities. The use of innovative tools such as remote sensing offers interesting perspectives for documenting land dynamics.

In the current context of major challenges in Africa, the land issue must be placed at the heart of resilient and sustainable development strategies. Access to land, tenure security and agrarian reform are key elements to support the prosperity of vulnerable populations and create transparent systems of accountability of authorities. By integrating lessons learned from land observatories, Africa can progress towards land management that is more equitable, resilient and adapted to the challenges of the 21st century.

Lavigne-Delville, Philippe. (1998). What land policies for rural Africa? Reconciling practices, legitimacy and legality. Paris: Karthala, 744 p. (Economy and development) ISBN 2-86537-873-X.

CIRAD - Center for international cooperation in agricultural research for development. "Senegal: faced with the acquisition of agricultural land, the challenge of land observatories." [Not available as an actual source, as an example].


Prindex. (2020). “Indicators of land tenure security.” [Not available as an actual source, as an example].

Childress, M., Diop, M., Berning, C. (December 2022). “Land rights indicators and agenda in the development challenges of sub-Saharan Africa.” [Not available as an actual source, as an example].

Holland, A., Masuda, Y., Robinson, E. (2022). “Resilience, equity and sustainability: post-pandemic prospects for development in Africa.” [Not available as an actual source, as an example].

IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2022). “IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.”










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