From possession to property: how the commodification of land affects youth participation in farming in Ghana

With the gradual transition from the customary possession of land to property ownership based on a capitalistic logic, customary lands in the Techiman[1] area in Ghana have been commercialised and are failing to fulfil their traditional role as essential stepping stone for the youth to initial economic independence. Gertrude Aputiik argues that, contrary to mainstream assertions of the youth being disinterested in farming, difficulty accessing agrarian resources (land) could be seen as the major cause of poor participation of the youth in farming.

Clearing of agricultural land for construction in Techiman, Ghana. Photo taken by the author in August 2020

‘Possession’ and ‘property’ are two categories of institutional systems linked to land ownership. While rules on land possession are often inaccurately equated with property rules, there is a clear distinction between these two types of ownership rights. Possession rules refer to those regulating the material use and yield of resources, production technologies, products, and waste (Gerber and Steppacher 2017). In contrast, property rules are linked to property ownership and titles that enable land markets and credit transactions of land (when used as collateral). Property can be seen as the core institution of capitalism and as its institutional driving force (Hodgson 2015). This point has also been made by Hernando de Soto (2000), one of the most influential defenders of formal property rights, who said that for a modern property system to be fully operational, it must form a unified institutional system at the national level.

Thus, while both can be actualised in parallel – a plot of land for example can be inhabited (possessed) and at the same time used as collateral (owned as property) – the potential of property as financial asset to safeguard financial security strongly affects (non-)adherence to customary logics. More and more land is commercialised and traded, and customary land is declining. However, contrary to the belief that property ownership will automatically have beneficial effects, this transition to land ownership linked to market transactions seems to work only for a few powerful groups and individuals who are able to pay for land at market prices. Others are struggling to navigate this unequal system, including youths in Ghana.

In Techiman in Ghana, the reinterpretation of customary norms has led to a transition to property of Stool[2] lands that were hitherto managed following logic of possession based on the material use of the land. Rapid urbanisation in Ghana has led to increased demand for land; as a result, a widespread conversion of agricultural land into land for commercial use can be observed.

As part of my research on the commodification of land in peri-urban Techiman and its implications for youth participation in farming, I interviewed youths in Techiman in 2020. I observed that youths are struggling to get access to land despite their readiness to pursue farming on a full-time basis. In an interview, one of the youths described their plight:

“Since lands have become more and more costly, we have had no other choice than to move out of the town to work and pay for the small farm lands we can afford. It is also difficult to cultivate food crops these days, since landowners now demand that we cultivate cash crops on their farms.” (young male farm tenant, Techiman, 13 August 2020)

Beyond the high costs of land, the extract above also highlights the extent to which young farmers have limited agency in pursuing farming activities. Farming to them has now become just another opportunity to sell their labour power for survival and it is almost impossible to even decide the “when”, “how” and “what” of farming. Based on this finding, I argue that, contrary to mainstream assertions of the youth being disinterested in farming, difficulty accessing agrarian resources (land) could be seen as the major cause of poor participation of the youth in farming. This is the basic reason explaining why many of the young agriculturalists in the Techiman area are tenants with only limited farming rights.

The scholarly debates on customary land tenure in Sub-Saharan Africa in many ways have revealed the intensification of land commodification in peri-urban areas (Akaateba 2019). However, an elaborate analysis of the different transitory phases of this process is missing. One of my research objectives was to fill this gap by identifying some of the key phases in the transition from customary norms – possession – to market procedures in Techiman – property. In my findings, I identified four stages in the commodification process (Figure 1). The first stage corresponds to a fully customary system (no link to land markets). Gradually, chiefs started renting out lands in exchange for money (second stage). In the third stage, there is a shift from renting out lands to the outright sale of lands, albeit with no property titles, so informally. The final stage refers to the full commodification of land.

Operations under a property-based logic suggest that buyers would not only assume full ownership of lands, but also that they are entitled to use these lands as collateral for obtaining credit. A commodified system is strikingly unfavourable to smallholders. Unable to compete with wealthy farmers and entrepreneurs, smallholders are often prevented from accessing communal lands. My observations thus echo Frans Benda-Beckman’s critique of de Soto, who said:

That formal property rights and free market for it to circulate under conditions of great economic and political inequality should work to the benefit of the poor is wishful thinking to me. I think that it is scandalous that the political aspects of property and the issue of redistribution are so downplayed [by de Soto].” (Von Brenda-Beckmann, 2003: 190)

In Techiman, the transition has not (yet) reached the final stage of a full commodification; yet, it is clear that the commodification process is already threatening the livelihoods of young farmers. Some authors have argued that even under a fully customary system, youth access to land has been impeded by the customary structure of land ownership, basing their argument on the fact that access modes such as inheritance only favour indigenous youths (Kiddido et al., 2017). While this indeed presents a challenge to the youth that has no access rights in any landholding family, customary landholding arrangements in which there is equal access rights could represent an egalitarian possession-based land system that provides more just and secured farming livelihoods for the youth.

The author wishes to thank Julien-Francois Gerber for his comments on an earlier version of the post.


Footnotes

[1] The case of Techiman is unique in many ways. Predominantly occupied by youth farmers and a small rural population, the region still remains the largest producer of Ghana’s food and cash crops. It is also widely known for the presence of what is believed to be the biggest market in West Africa. Customary lands, called Stool lands in the Techiman area, served as essential building blocks for the youth to start an independent economic life.

[2] They are called “Stool lands” because chiefs who are custodians over communal  lands,  sit on specially carved stools as a symbol of chiefly authority.


References

Akaateba, M.A., 2019. The politics of customary land rights transformation in peri-urban Ghana: Powers of exclusion in the era of land commodification. Land Use Policy88, p.104197.

De Soto, H., 2000. The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. Civitas Books.

Gerber, J.F. and Veuthey, S., 2011. Possession versus property in a tree plantation socioenvironmental conflict in Southern Cameroon. Society & Natural Resources24(8), pp.831-848.

Kidido, J.K., Bugri, J.T. and Kasanga, R.K., 2017. Youth agricultural land access dimensions and emerging challenges under the customary tenure system in Ghana: evidence from Techiman area. Journal of Land and Rural Studies5(2), pp.140-163.

GSS (2013) Ghana in figures. Accra, Ghana. Available at : https://eros.usgs.gov/westafrica/land-cover/land-use-and-land-cover-trends-west-africa (Assessed : 6 April, 2021)

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Gertrude Aputiik is a graduate from the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies major at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her research interest lies in areas of Political Ecology, Post-development studies, and Degrowth.

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1 Comment
  • APUTIIK SCHOLASTICA
    April 19, 2021

    Nice piece I’ve always known that you were born to do greatness. Dad would be so proud of you kid sis.