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Land rights in Angola: poverty and plenty

Working papers

Working papers

This report forms part of a broader HPG research project that assesses the role of land tenure in conflict and post-conflict situations, and how humanitarian organisations tackle these issues in their programming. It aims to provide a basis for discussing how human rights and humanitarian organisations have responded to the principal land-related challenges in Angola, and sets these in the context of the broader problems facing the country as it makes the transition from emergency relief to a process of longer-term development.

Angola has a very low population density, and so there is no acute shortage of arable land of reasonable quality. While there are a few recorded cases of disputes over land between returnees in rural areas, these appear to be isolated exceptions. Nevertheless, Angola’s experiences highlight the importance of ensuring that issues in the emergency relief phase are more closely integrated into longer-term planning.

Land rights in Angola tend to be treated primarily as a development issue, requiring reforms which can only be implemented in the longer term. Much of the focus of land rights programmes is therefore on legislative change and a strengthening of administrative and adjudicative capacities. The issue of land-grabbing in rural areas often also receives considerable attention, and some argue that it could become a potentially serious concern. However, most disputes over land rights are currently taking place in urban areas. The situation relating to land rights in Angola poses more complex problems than in other, comparable post-conflict societies, and needs to be seen in a wider political, social and economic context.

Land access, tenure and rights are cross-cutting issues that impact across a number of different sectors. In the humanitarian phase, land encompasses issues related to displacement and return, human settlements, agriculture and livelihood, economic development, environmental protection, urban and rural planning, security, land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) and justice and the rule of law. It also encompasses issues relating to women and children’s rights, cultural and customary law institutions and the reintegration of former combatants into society.

In the development phase, land and property rights assume a critical importance as investment and economic activity resume. Like many other countries emerging from conflict, Angola has adopted a new economic model in recent years, based on encouraging private investment and a reduced emphasis on central planning. The market, rather than the state, is now regarded as the main engine of economic growth, and the concept of a ‘right to private property’, which was previously regarded with considerable suspicion, has been officially embraced by the authorities.

However, most land in Angola is held under customary title and people do not have documents proving their rights to it. In a context where large numbers of people have been displaced from their homes, in some cases for several years, and where official mechanisms lack the capacity to deal with adjudication claims in a fair and transparent manner, this poses a potentially significant challenge. Customary land tenure is currently not recognised by Angolan law, and this risks creating a gap between the formal legal situation and the reality facing most people living without formal tenure rights. Interviewees for this report believe that a failure to deal with this issue could jeopardise Angola’s peaceful long-term development.

Forced evictions have become one of the most controversial political issues in Angola. According to a report by Human Rights Watch in May 2007, the government has ‘forcibly and violently evicted thousands of people living in informal housing areas with little or no notice. In violation of Angola’s own laws and its international human rights obligations, the government has destroyed houses, crops and residents’ personal possessions without due process and has rarely provided compensation’.

Many Angolans have squatted on land without official permission, often for many years. In some cases they may have bought this land in good faith from others who were illegally occupying it. Many people have lived all their lives on land which they do not have any official right to occupy, and they may have invested considerable sums of money in what they regard as their only economic asset.

Even when the authorities are prepared to tolerate unofficial occupations this can result in other conflicts. There may be inheritance disputes because people have died or families have grown while displaced from their original lands. In other cases, the authorities may have acquired land for public buildings or the construction of roads without informing affected communities. The lack of a comprehensive system of public records means that people may, therefore, start to rebuild houses, or plant crops, on land that has been designated for other purposes.

Like its counterparts in many other countries making the transition from humanitarian relief to development, the Angolan government sees the establishment of a national cadastral record as a priority task. However, lessons from elsewhere show that, if the state does not have the administrative capacity to create a comprehensive, fair and transparent registration process, this could make things worse. Many humanitarian organisations have recognised this and are focusing their efforts on raising people’s awareness about their rights in relation to security of tenure.

Most disputes and confrontations over land rights have taken place in the context of forced evictions in urban and peri-urban areas. This is mainly because the value of urban land has risen rapidly in Angola in recent years. There has been a large influx of people into urban areas, particularly to the capital, Luanda, and this has brought with it a new set of social and economic problems. Human rights organisations are devoting considerable effort to advising people facing evictions in urban areas about their rights and the issue of forced evictions. Problems are less acute in rural areas and, for this reason, some organisations are piloting projects there, which they hope to subsequently introduce in urban zones.

Conor Foley