Land, Water & Resource Rights


PLAAS research addresses the politics of land in Africa, with attention to land access and land uses, but also tenure regimes and the forms of governance and administration of land rights, and the ways in which these are changing. PLAAS research has tracked the growing competition and contestation over property rights, and the reshaping of land relations that result. A key question we address in our research is the status of informal and customary property rights, the institutions which govern these, and the wider political economy in which decisions about their transaction are taken. A key issue is the commodification of land and the conversion of common property regimes and customary land rights into private property. Our research emphasises the central role of access to land and related natural resources, particularly water, within the multiple livelihoods of the poor. We explore socially differentiated patterns of resource access and use, and our research focuses on the key issue of institutional arrangements for resource governance. Here, we seek to understand the links between property regimes, production systems and power relations, and to draw out the lessons for policy and implementation.
Priority themes in our land research are statutory versus customary tenure, the governance of land rights, women’s access to land, young people and the inter-generational transfer of land rights, customary tenure and the roles of traditional authorities land administration, and ‘land grabs’ across Africa.
A prime focus of our work is on land policy in South Africa specifically, and its land reform programme which has aimed at land redistribution, land restitution and land tenure reform. Research has centred on policy processes, policy framings, law reforms, institutional arrangements and implementation modalities, and field research at key sites has shown who benefits from land reform, how land and beneficiaries are selected, and the outcomes for the people and the land concerned – and therefore for social differentiation and for agrarian change.

PLAAS Land Research

PLAAS has played a leading role in conducting research on ‘land grabbing’ in Africa, documenting specific cases and analysing the drivers, actors and outcomes of large-scale land deals, with a focus on land displacement and implications for agrarian change and rural livelihoods.  As well as our own research initiatives, we have also convened several small grants programmes and international conferences to consolidate knowledge in this area. On the basis of this body of work, PLAAS researchers have been active in contributing to debates about land governance in Africa and beyond, including in the formulation of land rights frameworks like the African Union’s Guiding Principles on Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa and the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Through scholar-activist partnerships, we have also used these land rights frameworks in action research and documented their implementation and effects, and the voices of people whose land rights have been affected by land deals.
Our research on land rights, land relations and land politics has extended to the implications of changes in landholding patterns and land uses for agro-food systems, and to changing food value chains, influencing markets and diets in affected communities. We therefore connect the trend of land and agricultural commercialisation to changes in food access and availability, investigating the implications for the realisation of the right to food. Competition over land is linked to dramatic changes in land uses, not limited to transitions from smallholder farming to large-scale farming, but also including mining ventures, and infrastructure projects for oil, gas and hydroelectric power. PLAAS research has therefore expanded to look at land rights and land use changes in a spatial context, with attention to growth corridors as a form of spatial reconfiguration in many parts of Africa, particularly the eastern seaboard, where donor finance, state planning and private investments combine to transform landscapes, with profound implications for the land rights and land uses of local communities.
Insights and findings from our research also inform our teaching programme and our contributions to the Network of Excellence on Land Governance in Africa .

Featured Publications

December 3, 2019 in Featured Publication, Land Publication

Mtero, Gumede & Ramantsima (2019) Elite Capture in Land Redistribution in South Africa. PLAAS Research Report 55.

This report seeks to deepen the understanding of elite capture in land reform and to provide a more comprehensive picture of its causes and consequences. The key overarching questions include: who has benefited from South Africa’s land redistribution? Who have been the winners and losers in land redistribution and why? What are the criteria for beneficiary targeting and selection? The…
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November 19, 2019 in Featured Publication, Land Publication

Phillan Zamchiya (2019). Differentiation and development: The case of the Xolobeni community in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Most agrarian scholars argue that long historic processes of colonialism, capitalist development and implementation of neo-liberal structural policies in Sub-Saharan Africa have resulted in deagrarianisation and its sub-genre of depeasantisation particularly in South Africa. I argue that this long historic process epitomised, in some cases, by abandonment of cropping fields and deactivation of agriculture was uneven between and within communities…
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November 13, 2019 in Featured Publication, Land Publication

Andries du Toit (2019). Whose Land Question? Policy deliberation and populist reason in the South African land debate

On 4 and 5 February 2019, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), along with colleagues from the Universities of Fort Hare and of Rhodes, hosted a national conference entitled Resolving the Land Question: Land redistribution for equitable access to land in South Africa. This paper considers this conference as a case study of ‘policy sense-making’—an attempt to…
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May 13, 2019 in Land Publication

Emmanuel Sulle (2016). Social Differentiation and the Politics of Land: Sugar Cane Outgrowing in Kilombero, Tanzania (JSAS 43:3).

The privatisation of formerly state-owned sugar cane estates and mills in the late 1990s led to the reconfiguration of the ownership structure and production of the Tanzanian sugar industry. This included the decentralisation of sugar cane production operations to outgrowers and their associations. Based on an investigation of sugar cane outgrowers of the Kilombero Sugar Company, this article explores the…
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Current Projects

  • Land and Water Rights in Southern Africa: Entrenching Global and Regional Policy Frameworks: Funded by the Austrian Development Corporation, this project focuses on policies for land and water governance that can create an enabling environment to achieve food security.  Partners include Nkuzi Development Association and Legal Resources Centre (South Africa), Zambia Land Alliance (Zambia) and Acção Académica Para O Desenvolvimento Das Comunidades Rurai, ADECRU (Mozambique). This project is led by Phillan Zamchiya.
  • Elite Capture in Land Redistribution in South Africa. Funded by Millennium Trust and the Claude Leon Foundation, this project explores the nature, character and trajectory of redistributive land reform in South Africa. Partners include the Alliance for Rural Democracy. The project is led by Farai Mtero with Katlego Ramatsima, Nkanyiso Gumede, Donna Hornby and Ruth Hall.
  • Women’s Land Rights for Inclusive Development and Growth in Africa: A project funded by the European Union, and implemented in partnership with Oxfam and PROPAC, this work is to develop checklists and a scorecard to assess national progress towards realising women’s land rights in law and in practice across eight African countries, and to develop training of trainer manuals for civil society organisations to use these materials. This work is led by Emmanuel Sulle with Ruth Hall.
  • Land and Economic Inclusion in South Africa: A project funded by the Open Society Foundation Southern Africa, this initiative is to take forward the High-Level Panel report and its recommendations, and to develop pathways for an open society approach to advance economic inclusion, reduce poverty and inequality with a focus on land, women and youth. The project is led by Ruth Hall and Ben Cousins, in collaboration with Phuhlisani Solutions.
  • Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative: A project funded by Rosa Luxemburg (Southern Africa and Europe) and Open Society Foundation, this initiative is to support early-career scholars to deepen their theorisation and empirical research on the rise of authoritarian populism and emancipatory alternatives emerging in rural areas. It is implemented in partnership with the Transnational Institute. This project is led by Ruth Hall.
  • Smallholder participation, voice and governance in agricultural investment corridors in Africa: A project funded by the Open Society Foundation, this project investigates the framing, implementation and outcomes of growth corridors on different groups such as women and youth and their access to land, water and other natural resources, in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola. It is implemented by Emmanuel Sulle with Ruth Hall.
  • Young African Researchers in Africa: A project funded by the Packard Foundation, this project provides a platform for young African academics, including PhD candidates and early-career scholars, to do primary field research and produce evidence-based policy advice on issues relating to land governance, food security, rural livelihoods and agricultural commercialisation, and provides them with theoretical training on the political economy of the agrarian question in Africa. It is led by Cyriaque Hakizimana with Ruth Hall.  For more information see the YARA website.


Prof Ruth Hall

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Dr Farai Mtero

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phillan zamchiya

Dr Phillan Zamchiya

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Cyriaque Hakizimana

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Katlego Ramantsima

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Nkanyiso Gumede

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Donna Hornby