The commodification of access to rural land in West Africa

Ties to the earth
By Jean-Philippe Colin

This essay offers an interpretation of the emergence and development of rural land sales in French-speaking West Africa. These transactions do not emerge endogenously within local societies, but are structured by the relationship between autochthonous sellers and migrant (Ivorian or foreign) buyers. They often remain socially embedded: the payment thus does not end the relationship, but instead establishes or perpetuates it. In such a situation, it does not allow a firm, definitive, indisputable sale to be concluded, especially because – apart from very few exceptions – rural land transactions remain informal and outside the legal framework. These land transfers raise the issue of how the parties understand the purpose of the transaction (i.e., is the land being purchased, or merely the right to use it?), and whether or not it is an outright sale. The answer must be empirically assessed in a given place and time. The commodification of access to land in West Africa illustrates situations of normative and institutional pluralism.

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