Dakar — Land laws which fail to give citizens rights over natural resources give corporations the upper hand and fuel poverty and environmental damage in sub-Saharan Africa, according to new research by the World Resources Institute.
The study found that African governments overwhelmingly put more weight on laws that govern rights to resources than rights to land, enriching mining and extractive companies and leaving the vast majority of African landowners powerless to economically benefit from their land.
"The rights to surface resources are the most important, as these are the ones that are readily available to the population without the need to engage expensive exploration and mining technology," said Peter Veit of the Washington-based World Resource Institute.
"Most natural resource laws only allow communities to use certain trees or certain amounts of water, for domestic and subsistence purposes only, but they don't allow them to take advantage of the resources that are on or below their land to actually generate a meaningful livelihood," Veit said.
Africa is a major oil and gas producer and has some of the earth's largest subterranean stocks of gold, diamonds, metal ores as well as other high-value resources above ground. However, the continent is home to 25 of the top 30 poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank.
Mahogany sells for around $2,000 per cubic metre in current market conditions, ivory sells for $1,000 per pound in the illegal market whilst trophy hunting can bring in as much as $350,000 for some species such as the recent auction of a permit to hunt a black rhino.
In northern Liberia, the government gave one company in 2011 the rights to search for and exploit iron ore minerals in an area that has an authorised community forest, owned by local communities under the Community Forest Management Agreement with the government.
"If the mining company finds mineral resources, they will have the right to access the mineral resources even if it destroys the forest resources in the process," a development expert working in Liberia, who wished to remain anonymous, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Monrovia.
Similarly, in Ghana, the farming communities of Prestea, Himan, and Bondaye have been in conflict with a Canadian mining company for more than a decade. They say the company has taken large amounts of their agricultural land and provided little compensation for their losses.
Veit said that petroleum and minerals are crucial to national development, so there is justification for having that under the control of the state. But leaving citizens with no rights to the resources above or beneath their land can create a lose-lose situation.
"In parts of Ghana, farmers have no rights to naturally occurring trees on their farm. They're afraid the government will grant harvesting rights to mining companies or timber operators without benefitting them, so they cut down, burn or uproot the trees and grow crops on the land, rather than preserving them," said Veit.
He said there were ongoing efforts by environmental NGOs to help communities through the arduous process of securing more rights to resources on the land, but in the long term land rights should automatically include rights to natural resources.
"Granting communities more rights to natural resources when they have land rights means they can negotiate directly with the companies and the state can benefit through a taxing of those operations, whether they are high value timber species, trophy hunting or mining operations," Veit said.