Assistant Professor Eduardo Montero

Who owns a piece of land? And how do we keep track of who owns what? These simple questions have repercussions for societies and economies around the globe, and answering them is not always so simple.

Organizations such as the World Bank often use “titles” to land to establish ownership, legally recognizing an owner or owners and their rights over a parcel of property. This is standard practice in many countries around the world. Other societies, however, by tradition, hold land communally, rather than privately, bringing the merits of titling policies into doubt, especially in countries outside of the West.

In a new working paper entitled “Fallow Lengths and the Structure of Property Rights,” Assistant Professor Eduardo Montero from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy researched this variation in land rights practices and how differences in private versus communal rights relate to a region’s ecological differences. He observed that places with longer fallow durations, the time farmland needs to be left unseeded or unharvested in order to revitalize the land’s fertility, were more likely to have communal land ownership. This discovery has counterintuitive implications for Western policymakers and global institutions responsible for economic development. 

This project began when he and his co-authors, Etienne Le Rossignol from the University of Namur and Sara Lowes from the University of California, San Diego, were working in the Congo and explored firsthand the variation in how its land rights are organized.

“Many people there told us they felt more secure in communal land. They know their rights and they know with confidence that the village will protect their rights,” Montero said. “Conversely, those people who had received a land title felt like it was just a piece of paper. It didn’t imply anything substantial.”

Western thought typically concludes that if an individual owns their own land, they benefit from well-defined rights, which should boost economic development. This idea, however, assumes that private rights to land mean greater security than communal rights, which requires a strong state to enforce those individual land rights. This is not always a reality for countries in the region.

The authors, curious why the type of land rights might be different, identified one explanation for whether communal or private poverty rights take root: the length of an area’s fallow periods.

Farmers practice fallowing in order to restore fertility in the soil. The amount of time needed for this fallow period depends on soil type, climate, and the field’s primary crop.

“One hypothesis suggests that places with longer fallow requirements tend to have communal, rather than private land rights,” Montero said. “Because you have to protect this fallow land for much longer, it makes sense to do that as a community rather than as individuals, which may be very costly.”

To dig into this hypothesis further, Montero, Le Rossignol, and Lowes looked at Food and Agriculture Organization models that showed, based on soil and climate inputs, the optimal length of time to allow fields to fallow around the globe. They then took anthropological data surrounding societies’ land rights practices to test the correlation between fallow periods and land ownership. They concluded that the hypothesis has merit: those regions with longer fallow periods had higher rates of communal land ownership.

This has made land titling projects, such as those encouraged by the World Bank, less successful in areas with longer fallow requirements. However, these areas also see less wealth inequality and fewer land-related conflicts, particularly where the state is weaker or more ineffective.

Montero says an important next step for both academics and policymakers would be to find alternative routes of economic development that may be better suited to aiding these regions. In Benin, for example, researchers are testing non-traditional land titling policies that strengthen and codify communal rights. The World Bank has also shifted its approach in the last decade to recognize and strengthen communal rights in some settings, as noted in their recent report on “Land Policies for Resilient and Equitable Growth in Africa”.

“Trying to understand local institutions better is key,” Montero said. “When do local institutions already work well at allocating land? Should they be strengthened? Are people happy with them?”

He said one common mischaracterization about regions of Africa is that chiefs are despotic and therefore the land must be privatized to formally protect property rights. While that may sometimes be the case, in other areas, chiefs do their best to allocate land to ensure community stability and well-being. In these regions, introducing private land-titling policies may not be the most effective way to improve development. Instead, focusing on strengthening existing institutions could make more sense.

Montero warns against importing Western ideas without careful analysis. While Western mentality may say that communal land creates an insecure system, it actually can have the opposite effect for these regions with longer fallow periods, which can increase the sense of security for many people. That sense of security or lack thereof, ultimately, has the greatest effect on decision making.

Montero said, “If people feel secure, they’ll make decisions for the long-term, but if they feel insecure, they’ll make short-term decisions. That’s something I think we need to consider carefully: how secure do people feel?”