When legality is not enough: moving beyond legal land tenure for urban farmers in Soweto, South Africa

Urban agriculture is widely supported across developing countries as it has proven to be a vital livelihood strategy among the urban poor, resulting in various benefits, including enhanced food security and socioeconomic empowerment. Many researchers and policymakers stress that legal land tenure is one of the key assets that help to enhance the potential of urban agriculture, underpinning the overall production of urban farmers. However, as results of our previous study from Soweto (South Africa) show, farmers who do not have any form of agreement with the land owner have higher perceived tenure security than those farmers who have a legal or an extra-legal agreement over the land they cultivate.

Inspired be these findings and the global land rights discussion that has recently moved away from a strict emphasis on legality towards a wider acknowledgement of the multidimensionality of land rights and land tenure, we deepen our understanding of why having consent for land utilization does not create sufficient tenure security for urban farmers in Soweto in our new paper published in Land Use Policy journal. Building on Ribot and Peluso’s Theory of Access (2003) that favours access (i.e. the ability to benefit from the land) over legal-based land rights, we explore four key structural and relational mechanisms of access: access to authority, access to knowledge, access through social identity, and access via the negotiation of other social relations. Such analysis is essential as it draws attention to skewed power relations hindering access to land among urban farmers (Narh et al., 2016) by voicing their perspectives, perceptions and realities across the scales, i.e. from the ground to the decision-making authorities (Pedersen, 2016).

Mechanism of accessOperationalization
Access to authorityInstitutions or individuals, who are in possession of authority, strongly influence the ability of others to benefit from particular resources. They become nodes of direct or indirect control over and maintenance of access to land. Hence, access to authority enhances an individual’s ability to benefit from land.
Access to knowledgeAccess to knowledge and information is essential in shaping who is able to benefit from land. It also allows to extend the ability to benefit from land that stretches beyond simple land possession.
Access through social identitySocial identity, which often stems from collective historical experience and membership and status in a community, profoundly affects the distribution of benefits. It is also mediated by numerous attributes at the personal level, such as age, gender, education level, ethnicity, etc.
Access via the negotiation of other social relationsSocial relations of patronage, trust, reciprocity, friendship, dependence, and obligation embody the complexity of access that forms and is formed by other mechanisms of access over the land.
Operationalization of the mechanisms of access as defined by Ribot and Peluso (2003)

By bridging the stories of Soweto farmers with the access mechanisms identified in the Theory of Access, we argue that the farmers’ identity and ability to create and navigate through the complex web of social relations represents a vital formative force for land tenure that is often more important to the farmers than legally recognized land tenure itself. Therefore, we invite policy makers to enhance the agenda on land allocation for urban agriculture by preserving and fortifying the existing social networks and relationships. Such an approach allows for expanding the spectrum of benefits provided by the farmers to their community and vice versa, as well as for strengthening the farmers’ self-esteem and internal motivation for engagement in urban agriculture. Therefore, our paper supports moving beyond the narrow notion of legal tenure for urban agriculture and embracing its more inclusive understanding by acknowledging social relations and their importance for the farmers’ own perception of their land tenure. Simply said – we call for prioritisation of the complexity of social relations over the simplicity of legal dichotomy.

This blog post summarizes the following research paper: Suchá, L. and Dušková, L. 2022. Land access mechanisms of Soweto farmers: moving beyond legal land tenure for urban agriculture. Land Use Policy 119, Article No. 106169. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2022.106169

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