The impact of declining soil fertility on the poverty situation and food security of smallholder farmers is often underestimated. One third of the world's arable land is already degraded, affecting around 180 million people in the sub-Saharan Africa region alone. The West African country of Benin, with heavily depleted soils in many places, is no exception.
Dr. rer. pol. Karin Gaesing, geographer and spatial planner, is a researcher at INEF, University of Duisburg-Essen. She has many years of experience in development cooperation, including for GTZ in Ethiopia and Côte d'Ivoire, and as a freelance consultant in Africa and India. She is an expert in regional planning, gender, participation and land use planning.
Dr. phil. Frank Bliss is Professor for development anthropology at the University of Hamburg and senior research fellow and lecturer at the University of Duisburg-Essen (INEF). He did research in Egypt, Maghrib, Sudan, in Central Asia and several other countries. As a consultant, he mainly worked in the water sector and in projects related to the implementation of social safeguards of infrastructure as well as in policy advice.
Especially in densely populated areas, land pressure leads to overexploitation of available land, as the necessity of meeting subsistence needs makes it difficult to implement conservation measures. This lack of soil conservation measures and low inputs of nutrients in the form of organic or chemical fertilisers exacerbate the problem. Broad-based support and advisory services, especially in smallholder agriculture, are necessary to restore severely degraded soils. Through public and donor-supported measures, farmers can be enabled to make a decisive contribution to the preservation of the local ecosystem, but above all to increasing their own production. Secure land rights, and particularly rights of use within households, play a role crucial in this context. Women cultivate their fields primarily for subsistence production, but are too rarely included in advisory measures. This creates a developmental imbalance with far-reaching effects on the poverty and food situation of families.
Formalising Land Rights
In Benin, according to traditional understanding, farmland belongs to the family of the first settler-, who cleared it generations ago. The eldest of the (male) descendants of this family, or today of the entire clan that emerged from it, is responsible as chef de terre (also known locally in French as roi or king) for the allocation to other users. Until two to three generations ago, the preservation of the rights of use was dependent on the actual cultivation of the land. If this did not happen, the land reverted to the chef de terre, who could pass it on to third parties.
Anyone who needed land came to the chef de terre and requested - usually in the context of a small ceremony involving an offering of kola nuts to the chef and a consultation of the ancestors by the chef - a piece of arable land or bush land appropriate to his needs for cultivation. As long as free land was at hand, this land was made available, more or less compulsorily to clan members, but also voluntarily to third petitioners. Initially, the allocation of land was only understood as the granting of a temporary right of use to an individual, but in the 20th century this right of use became heritable and finally a holder of the right could even pass it on (as don, French in the sense of gift). However, he could not sell the land, as it still did not legally belong to the holder of the right of use. Formally, all land in a village still "belonged" to the chef de terre, who administered it on behalf of the ancestors as the ultimate owners.
The traditional land law in Benin is currently being replaced by 'modern' legislation that aims to transform the partially inherited rights to land use into registered property titles. On the one hand, the reason given for the change is to create more legal certainty and thus minimise disputes over land use rights. On the other hand, it is obvious that previously non-tradable land use rights should then become tradable as land ownership rights. The reason given for this, especially by development cooperation (DC) organisations, is the opportunity to mobilise significantly more loans for agricultural production in view of the fact that banks can lend on land titles.
As a hidden agenda, it can of course be assumed that the "reform" in Benin is intended to promote and legalise land grabbing by members of the political elite, as can be observed elsewhere. Examples from the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso show that when land becomes tradable, small owners (can) take out fewer loans for investments and are instead deprived of their property by speculators in a very short time. Here, many families in the outskirts of the capital Ouagadougou sold their land titles immediately after receiving them. After a very short time, the seemingly "huge" income was completely spent, causing the families to irretrievably lose their economic livelihood. Similar negative consequences of formalised land titles can be observed in India and Cambodia.
However, the new legislation in Benin is not, at least in theory, a complete conversion of communal or traditional land rights into individual titles, with millions of hectares of "tribal trust lands" being taken away from collectives and redistributed to investors, as in Zambia. Rather, it is the formalisation of a permanent (i.e. also inheritable) land claim that has been customary for at least two generations in favour of the farmers using the land. At least in the villages of northern Benin, which were investigated during a project study by the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) of the University of Duisburg-Essen, land grabbing comparable to the situation in Zambia has not been reported. Here, traditional titles are currently being transferred one-to-one into property titles without any loss of land.
Land Rights and Gender in Benin
Traditionally, only very few ethnic groups in Benin allow women to have any land use rights at all, which are separated from the rights of their husbands, brothers or fathers as an independent right of use. Claims of this kind are found, for example, in the region around Bohicon-Abomey, where exactly three of 20 women interviewed in the INEF study had such a right. They had inherited their land mostly from their fathers or from their mother, but also had, additionally, bought their land, which, strictly speaking, can hardly be considered legal before the current title registration.
Unlike the situation in Ethiopia or Cambodia, for example, the current land title registration process does not take gender into account. Since almost exclusively inherited (héritage) or, to a lesser extent, donated (don) land is recorded on the basis of the current owners and registered in their names, the registration leads to a cementing of patriarchal land ownership structures.
With regard to the fields given to women for use upon marriage, the different ethnic groups in Benin proceed differently. For example, the INEF research team in northern Benin learned that among the Peulh (Fulbé), women are allowed to keep these fields for life, even in the event of the husband's death or divorce. However, among the Bariba living in the same area, the woman is deprived of the field in both these cases. The husband can also claim the field for himself at any time for other reasons.
This state of affairs has considerable consequences for all agricultural DC measures that are geared towards water and soil conservation measures and / or promote productivity by advising on cultivation techniques or promoting the provision of inputs such as improved seeds and fertilisers. These DC contributions can easily double yields and also improve the quality of the soil, thus securing the additional yield in the long term. This developmental success is verifiable. However, a cynical testimony of the effects, i.e. the visible successes of the investment in the land, is the repeatedly observed fact that men have taken the fields back from their wives, who had worked the land, thus raising its value and repeatedly switched these for marginal yield sites. Over time, this problem was countered by raising it as a topic at group meetings and discussing it intensively. The result is that in many villages today, there is hardly a man who ever dares to take land away from his wife again for fear of opening himself to ridicule as the village egoist.
Gender Aspects in International Cooperation Measures
These examples of land use rights within households in Benin makes clear that the inclusion of women in agricultural extension services is fundamental for sustaining the success of the measures, but would also have to be linked to land titling. The fact that women bring profits and returns from their activities almost entirely into the household is by now well known. For Benin, as for other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this effect is amplified by the fact that the proportion of women in agricultural work is estimated at 70% (FAO).
The improvement of soil fertility can be decisively advanced through targeted and adapted extension measures. While in extensive agriculture e.g. field rotation and thus sufficient fallow can achieve desired effects, crop technology knowledge is necessary if the land is used intensively. The INEF study of a GIZ project on soil improvement in northern Benin was able to document considerable increases in production through the application of soil improvement measures. The measures applied included conservation agriculture techniques, e.g. mulching, and erosion control measures through the construction of stone walls, agroforestry techniques and improved pasture management among livestock farmers. The targeted inclusion of women in the advisory services was of central importance in the monitored project, an approach that is by no means the norm internationally.
The strengthening of women's rights is said to have enormous economic potential. The expanded inclusion of women in the national economy, and especially in market-oriented agriculture, has great potential to increase the economic balance. The positive relationship between gender equality, growth and poverty reduction must therefore be incorporated more effectively into development policy measures. In addition, the effects on other household members, especially the nutritional, health and educational situation of children, improves through better education and improved access to resources for women, thereby contributing to a large number of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.
As early as the 1970s, Ester Boserup described the gender problem in agriculture, which Diane Elson later described as ‚male bias‘. The role of women as independent producers, for Benin especially in the cultivation of staple foods, has been underestimated. The reasons for this lie in extension services often dominated by male staff, the primary targeting of men in these services in their role as "the farmers" and as heads of households, and in dynamics within the households themselves. For example, women are often unable to attend extension meetings because of their extremely heavy workloads. This leads to a super-majority of public and private extension services allocated to men, thereby preventing women from accessing targeted measures aimed specifically at them. Coupled with patriarchal land titling, the economic potentials described above can as a result, only be tapped to a very limited extent.
AfDB. African Development Bank (2018): West Africa Economic Outlook 2018. AfDB. & World Economic Forum (2020): Global Gender Gap Report 2020. WEF.
Bliss, Frank: Zum Beispiel Soja. Eine erfolgreiche Wertschöpfungskette im westafrikanischen Benin. AVE-Studie 14/2019. INEF.
Boserup, E (1970): Woman's role in economic development. St. Martin's Press.
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Gaesing, Karin und Bliss, Frank (2019): Entwicklung, Landrecht, Gender und Bodenfruchtbarkeit in Benin. AVE-Studie 17/2019. INEF.
Glatzel, K., Conway, G., Alpert, E., & Brittain, S. (2016). No ordinary matter: Conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils. A Montpellier panel report. Montpellier Panel.
IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) 2005: Women: Still the Key to Food and Nutrition Security. Report 33. IFPRI.
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The Federal Government is fine-tuning a law that would require companies to ensure human rights – a supply chain law. What are the consequences for the agricultural sector? Dr Bettina Rudloff from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) discusses linking policy fields with added value.
‘Fair’ and ‘sustainable’ are key words in Germany’s EU Council Presidency. At the same time, Germany pursues ‘modernization’ of the WTO and ‘rapid progress’ on free trade agreements. Are these goals really compatible? Can we be concerned about fairness and sustainability while continuing with ‘business as usual’?
Interview with Bernadette Arakwiye und Salima Mahamoudou (World Resources Institute)
Deforestation is leading to a shortage of ressources. What are the options for counteracting? A conversation with Bernadette Arakwiye and Salima Mahamoudou about renaturation and the possibilities of artificial intelligence.
At the climate conference in Glasgow, activists from various groups protested again – Leonie Bremer from ‘Fridays for Future’ was there too. How can climate protection and development cooperation work hand in hand?
A Contribution by Adrian Muller, Catherine Pfeifer and Jürn Sanders (FiBL)
Taking Biodiversity Focus Areas under production or abandoning lower yielding, more extensive production systems is the wrong approach to mastering the looming global food crisis, say the authors of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).