When officials asked everybody in the commune (sub-district) of Talata in Madagascar's central Amoron'i Mania region to register their land in 2007, it was to be the beginning of a national programme of far-reaching and much needed land reforms aimed at recognizing local land rights and decentralizing land management. But local authorities had made little progress before the 2009 political crisis, branded a coup by the international community, stalled the process.
"There are still many fights over land in this area," said schoolteacher Jean Philibert Rakotoarison, who last year bought a plot of land to build a new house. "I paid one million ariary [US$500] for the land, and it cost 1.5 million ariary to have it registered with all the authorities. I spent a year doing this."
Madagascar was the first country to receive a US$110 million "compact" (aid grant) from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the bilateral foreign aid agency established by US President George W Bush in 2005.
Key to the grant's aim of helping rural Malagasy move from subsistence agriculture to a market economy was the Land Tenure Project, but the government's commitment to this project, which complemented its own National Land Reform Programme, did not prevent it from allocating 1.3 million hectares of land to South Korean company Daewoo Logistics to produce palm oil and corn for export to Korea.
When the deal came to light in 2008, it was used to stir up public anger and contributed to the downfall of then president Marc Ravalomanana, and the coup d'état by Andry Rajoelina.
After Rajoelina's military takeover, MCC terminated its compact with Madagascar with its land tenure project far from complete. "We set up 235 local land offices in six regions, handed out 60,000 certificates, and trained the staff there. For the second phase of the programme, we were planning to cover half of Madagascar, but because of the crisis, it never got that far," the MCC's former land director, Yolande Razafindrakoto, told IRIN.
To salvage some of the work already done, Razafindrakoto set up the NGO EFA (Ezaka ho Fampandrosoana any Ambanivohitra, meaning Together for Rural Development). "I knew these farmers needed me," she said. "Land rights are really the basis of development. You can teach a farmer to grow crops, but it is no use. A farmer won't invest in land if it can be taken away from him."
EFA is now one of three NGOs working on land reform in the country. With funding from the National Land Programme, which continues to function at a slow pace and with minimal resources, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), it gives technical assistance to 39 local land offices in the Northern Atsinanana region.
Before the political crisis, government changed legislation which made all land not titled automatically the property of the state, and made it easier for citizens to claim unoccupied land for agriculture or development, a reform that Rakotoarison described as "a revolution". However, the procedure for claiming land still involves a nightmare of red tape and the decentralization of decisions about land ownership to the communes is incomplete.
|You can teach a farmer to grow crops, but it is no use. A farmer won't invest in land if it can be taken away from him|
In areas like Talata, which is still waiting for a local land office to be established, all decisions are still taken in the capital, Antananarivo. "This means many trips into the city to different offices," Rakotoarison told IRIN. "Sometimes, these bureaucrats only work from 8-9am. You are at the mercy of these people, you never know what their decisions are based on. If you're lucky, you can get the procedures done in a year."
Ernest Rakotoarivony, a 45-year-old farmer, managed to claim 40 hectares (ha) of land to grow rice, but it took him 20 years to go through the registration process. "It was worth it, though," he said. "If it's not your land, you won't work hard on it, thinking that one day it might be gone. Now, no one can take it away from me. "
Even land sales involving two parties are not straight forward. "When you go to Antananarivo to register your contract, the court will still ask you for all kinds of documents. This is tricky, because if it takes a long time for the land to be transferred to your name, the other party can collect your money and then ask for the land back," said Rakotoarison.
In those places that do have a land office, cadastral operations (decisions about land ownership made by the government many years ago) are often out-dated and unfinished. Sometimes the procedures go as far back as the 1930s with land titles remaining in the name of great-grandfathers. In other cases, several owners may be listed for the same plot of land.
Land that used to belong to former French colonizers is another point of dispute. "These French people don't live there any more. Their families might be somewhere in France, and in the meantime farmers have worked on this land for generations," explained Razafindrakoto. "According to Malagasy law, this gives them the right to ownership after 20 years. The courts decide on this after the request of the farmers, but the procedures are so complicated, that even literate people have trouble with them, so illiterate farmers have no chance."
Foreign agribusiness projects
Although the downfall of President Ravalomanana brought the Daewoo project to a halt, it did not end foreign investors' attempts to acquire land in Madagascar.
According to a paper presented at the 2011 International Conference on Global Land Grabbing, about 50 agribusiness projects were announced between 2005 and 2010, about 30 of which are still active, covering a total land area of about 150,000 ha. Projects include plantations to produce sugar cane, cassava and jatropha-based biofuel.
With foreign investors still looking for land, the importance of certificates and titles to prove land ownership is paramount. "If someone wants to take these farmers' land, they at least will have something. This paper will give them the right to be compensated... but if they don't have a land title or certificate, they lose everything," EFA’s Razafindrakoto told IRIN.
To prevent the negative impacts of land grabbing, EFA has set up social models for investors, with funding from the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The goal is to help investors negotiate with the people in the area where they want to implement projects, as a way to prevent future problems. "We try to prevent investors taking over land and coming with big machines, without employing the people who surround the project," Razafindrakoto said.
One such project is already under way around Fort Dauphin in the southern Tsihombe, Ambovombe and Beloha districts, where the French company Phileol has built a factory to produce oil from the castor oil plant, ricinus communis. EFA negotiated with Phileol to ensure the factory buys castor oil plants from local farmers. It soon discovered, however, that the farmers were not able to produce enough to meet demand, as they lacked good seeds, and were not well organized. The NGO is now working with the farmers to build their capacity and organize them into groups that can negotiate for themselves.
"We make sure that the farmers supplying the factory receive training and seeds, and that they will be able to sell their goods at a good price," Razafindrakoto told IRIN. "We put everybody together in a village committee, so that they can manage themselves after we leave."