Seeing Like the State? Customary Land Pressures and Fracturing Tenure Systems in Rural Zambia

September 2023
Simon Manda and Lizzy Banda (Land Use Policy)

This research-based article in the academic journal, ‘Land Use Policy’, looks at the role of state actors in exerting pressures on customary land in Zambia, including by direct involvement in land grabbing and by facilitating conditions for doing so. The authors’ collected qualitative data from the rural district of Mafinga in eastern Zambia, including from semi-structured interviews and group discussions with local actors. A key finding is that land conversion through the acquisition of customary land has been heightened by the creation of new districts across the country. This has led to some chiefs being co-opted into new councils as agents of development, with land then converted from customary to statutory land in the name of this same development. This is done using both formal and informal policy and legal tools and processes. The authors argue that these processes are shifting the risks and burdens of mainstream development paradigms to rural customary spheres, as customary lands in effect get co-opted into the modern state, leaving customary tenure systems fractured as per the article’s title. The authors remind us that ‘the state’ is never a neutral actor, and posit that stronger local capacities are needed to challenge these processes of change.