Blogs: Tenure security for smallholder migrant cocoa farmers: An unanswered question: Faustina Obeng Adomaa

After being baptised into thinking critically about the character of the agrarian question in contemporary Africa, the question of land kept lingering on my mind. While immersed in the waters of critical thinking, I asked myself, how can the tenure security of smallholder cocoa farmers in Ghana many of who are migrants be guaranteed in contemporary times. In the past years, I have had the privilege to learn from the experiences of smallholder migrant cocoa farmers in Ghana with regards to land. My reflection on the above question is thus rooted in the insights I have gained from their lived experiences. I present three ongoing processes that have influenced and continue to influence how smallholder migrant cocoa farmers experience the land question in contemporary Ghana.

Case 1: Migrants and the practice of sharecropping

For many decades migrant cocoa farmers have acquired land through sharecropping. In this arrangement “landowners” (usually a clan/family) give land to migrants to cultivate cocoa. When the farms are matured and start bearing, the farm is divided into two equal parts, one for the “land owner” and one for the farmer. They manage their farms separately. In the past, the main requirement for the migrant was to pay a token of money or bottle of schnapps as appreciation when the land is being given initially and when the farm is ready to be shared. In this arrangement, the customary norm of detaching land from what is planted on it meant that the migrant farmer’s right to this land was/is limited to the life of the cocoa trees. Thus, in the event of cutting down cocoa trees the land reverts back to the “owner” but is available for renegotiation. The application of this customary norm was however flexible and many migrants could keep land and replant old farms in the past. In recent years however, land has become scarce in many cocoa producing areas and thus, attaching tenure security to tree life has seen its full implementation. Migrants who have had to replant their farms and new migrants who are seeking to get lands are currently negotiating lands with terms that are less favourable. The monies paid at the beginning of the arrangement and during the time that the farm is being shared are akin to monies paid to acquire land on a leasehold. As a way of holding on to lands, migrants who cannot meet the new terms therefore decide to keep their old trees even if they are no longer bearing.

Case 2: Migrants and marriage in matrilineal societies

Like in many societies, land in the matrilineal societies are held in custody by the present generation for future generations. Thus, land is not meant to be sold. In these societies women are seen as important members of families/clans because their children procreate the family/clan. Men on the other are seen as members whose children only procreate the clans of their wives. Thus, in order to make sure that family/clan lands are secured, landholding is in the hands of women and are passed on from grandmothers to mothers and to daughters who are expected to pass it on to their daughters. While both men and women in such landholding clans have access to land to cultivate annual crops, access to clan land to cultivate long term perineal crops like cocoa is limited to women. This is because cocoa is a “place-holder” and cocoa farms are passed down as assets to children. For many male migrants in such communities, the norm has been to marry women in such land owning clans in order to have access to land. In the past, migrant men had the opportunity to keep a portion of such farms in the event of divorce or demise of their spouses. In recent times however, migrant men do not get a share in such farms in the event of divorce. In the event of demise of spouses, clan/family heads demand that such farms/lands be returned to clans to hold in custody for the children of the deceased if they are young.

Case 3: Migrant farmers and the commodification of land by small scale artisanal mining.

A cross cutting process in many of the cocoa growing regions in recent years is the exponential increase in small scale artisanal mining. Land in these areas which have always been in high demand due its suitability for cocoa has now witness an even greater demand due to the presence of gold in these lands. Family/clan heads in these areas have become noted for giving family/clan lands out as mining concessions. Some of these deals have resulted in legal battles between clan heads and members. Other families and clan members who have taken a cue from this have started registering portions of clan lands under family and individual titles. In the event of such titling, the benefits of giving out these lands as concessions goes to the families/persons/individuals with titles. Land in such rural areas has become a full commodity that parties bargain and trade in. For many migrant cocoa farmers, they have lost farms/lands as clan/family heads and members have negotiated and given out their farms as concession without their prior notice. In instances where such migrant farmers were given prior notice and wanted to negotiate for lands, miners outcompeted them in offering better deals for such lands.

My reflection

Case one indicates that migrant cocoa farmers had a fairly secured tenure under sharecropping arrangement than is happening presently although both times are governed by customary tenure arrangements. Case two also indicates that while marriage into land owning matrilineal clans could help migrant men secure lands in the past, in present time, migrant husbands are at best only a source of labour in the cocoa farms of their wives. In both case 1 and 2, the driving force behind these changes is the increasing scarcity of land in such cocoa growing regions which has demanded that clans and families employ measures to secure clan lands. In case 3, the demand for land for small scale artisanal mining is resulting in increased precariousness for migrant cocoa farmers as clan heads and members try to cash-in on the gains of mining. While these processes are affecting the tenure security of many smallholder cocoa farmers, migrants are perhaps bearing the bigger brunt of these processes.

In contemporary Ghana, land seems to be in the process of being commodified and commercialised if not commodified already. This process of commodification is happening at a time when land for cocoa farming is also getting scarce. Thus, the social and cultural relations around which tenure regimes are fashioned are undergoing changes and the terns are becoming exclusive and less favourable for the migrant as in cases 1 and 2. In instances where migrants want to negotiate and acquire land as a commodity as in case 3, their social position as peasants with lower bargaining power excludes them from securing their tenures.

The process of commodification does not seem like one that will halt. In the event of full commodification, will customary norms survive and evolve in securing the tenure for smallholder migrant cocoa farmers? Or will farmers have to register their farms (and by extension the lands) under individual titles in order to secure their tenures. If individual titling is an option, what rights will these migrants have to register their lands under individual titles when such lands were acquired under customary arrangements? Will “landowning” clans/families even give out lands to migrants cocoa farmers when they know such lands are going to be registered under individual titles or when other actors can offer better deals?

In thinking through these questions, one is confronted with the conundrum of whether in the long run, the smallholder migrant cocoa farmer will have any secured access to land whether under customary norms or under individual titling. This is just a minute piece of the land tenure puzzle in perineal crop production and yet one that is as complex as the social and cultural norms that define tenure security in peasant societies and the pressure it is facing from land commodification in contemporary times. Maybe a way forward does not lie in an either-or kind of solution, but one that looks for synergies in multiple approaches tailored to specific contexts and specific crops.