Context in land matters: The effects of history on land formalizations

Context in land matters: The effects of history on land formalizations


Land formalization is the process by which governments grant legal rights to land, along with responsibilities and conditions of access through land titles and other official documents. This process typically establishes or re-establishes the authority of the state over the governance of land. This paper draws on examples from Africa and Asia to illustrate how land formalization has differing impacts on a diverse set of claimants, and largely increases inequity.

Research goals & methods

The authors conduct a review of literature on land formalization with a focus on the effects of historical sociopolitical contexts on present-day land and property relations, including historical periods such as territorial colonialism and post-WWII nation-state building.

Conclusions & takeaways

The authors argue that while proponents of land formalization assume that it will contribute to poverty alleviation, in fact, it benefits internationally and domestically more powerful entities, perpetuating existing forms of marginalization and creating new ones. People with livelihoods which require them to be mobile such as pastoralists and swidden cultivators, as well as women and ethnic minorities are especially at risk of further marginalization. For example, in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, pastoralists are losing land which is now being used for purposes such as the construction of tourist lodges or plantations. While studies have shown that land formalization has fostered tenure security in certain contexts, the authors point out that on the whole outside investors, government managers, local elite men, and sedentary occupied people have benefited. They suggest that disregarding the social meanings that people attach to land and their historically varied interaction with it is one of the reasons that land formalization has perpetuated existing inequalities.


Peluso, N.L., A.B. Kelly, and K. Woods. (2012). Context in land matters: The effects of history on land formalizations. Center for International Forestry Research. Bogor, Indonesia


  • Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley