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Land reforms that ignore political dimensions are bound to fail


Malmö University researcher Ulrika Waaranperä argues that land reforms aimed at promoting development rarely lead to more secure ownership, instead often exacerbating existing conflicts surrounding land.

Land reforms are often carried out with the goal of accelerating development and alleviating poverty. The privatisation of land ownership has been used as a way to increase economic development, particularly in the Global South. Nonetheless, land reforms have been a controversial topic. According to Waaranperä, a PhD candidate in political science, one important reason for this is a disproportionate focus on ownership. Land reforms in general, and privatisation reforms especially, have largely focused on the relationship between owners and property.

"By studying land ownership over time in Kenya, I’ve observed that although land reforms have led to widespread private ownership, ensuring access to land still needs to be motivated by historical rights to land and narratives of belonging,” she says.

Politicised land reforms in Kenya 

In her thesis, Waaranperä uses Molo in Kenya as a case study to describe how land is linked to political and social relations in a historical perspective. She explores the impact of this at a local level.

Combining ethnographic fieldwork and archival studies, Waaranperä’s research includes interviews with 129 people. She explains that Kenya serves as a good example of how land can affect political engagement and power structures. Privatisation reforms have been in place in the country since the 1950s and land ownership has been linked with political influence, not least in the context of electoral violence during the nation’s 1992, 1997 and 2007 elections.

"There is a local reality that determines how privatisation reforms play out," she says.

"This vantage point adds to our understanding of why these reforms rarely lead to simpler, more secure and more transparent ownership, but instead often exacerbate existing conflicts related to land. Although my study is based in Kenya, we can draw parallels to ongoing land conflicts, such as the North Dakota pipeline protests in the US.”

Relations are key

As an economic and finite resource, land is necessary for human existence. However, land is also vital when it comes to politics, whether in terms of state sovereignty or in regard to issues of identity and belonging at a local level. 

According to Waaranperä, the issue of land is always entwined in economic, political and social relations, and often has a historical dimension.

"Without losing sight of the importance of economic factors, I want to explore how land is connected to politics in the broadest sense, and how group identities are created to increase the influence of individuals. It is this relational aspect that makes land ownership a potentially political issue, " she says.

Text: Daniel Harju

Last updated by Maya Acharya