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Uganda: Building Tomorrow Amid Issues of Land Rights

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Students play in the school yard of a Building Tomorrow School as they wait to receive their report cards. Image by Brandon Posner. Uganda, 2016.

Students play in the school yard of a Building Tomorrow School as they wait to receive their report cards. Image by Brandon Posner. Uganda, 2016.

No one thought that plans to build a school in a Ugandan village would result in threats of violence.

The packed room was as filled with hope as it was shackled by tension. It was 2009, and the village of Lutisi had been in discussion with international nonprofit Building Tomorrow about building a school for the children in the area.  But as the leader of the meeting opened up discussion, thoughtful dialogue was quickly drowned out by angry shouts.

One community member stood up, turned to another and boldly threatened, “Get out of here or we will beat you!”

It wasn’t the idea of the school that was sparking the outrage. Indeed, community members overwhelmingly supported the idea. However, the issue of land–referred to by many as “the gold of Uganda”–brought the plans to a halt.

Building Tomorrow operates on a community-needs model. The process of a new school begins when a community applies for it. After need for the school is assessed and funding is secured, Building Tomorrow works hand-in-hand with the community to construct a school.

The issue in Lutisi arose because of one crucial detail of Building Tomorrow’s model; the organization also operates on a community-donation model. In other words, when building a new school, the organization does not find land in a community to buy. Instead, a community member donates the land.

A member of Lutisi donated land to Building Tomorrow, said Building Tomorrow’s Country Director Joseph Kaliisa Bagambaki. But after the community was informed and project plans were in motion, a family member of the donor changed their mind about the land donation. The family member insisted that part of the land was given to the donor by mistake, and therefore, the land could not be donated to the school.

Given the land tenure system in Uganda, a community meeting had to be called to resolve the controversy. To the parents who were excited to send their children to receive an education, this claim was infuriating.

The meeting was contentious, and more threatening, it turned out, then the protesting family member expected, recalled Bagambaki.  A few weeks later, the family member withdrew his claims. The Building Tomorrow staff could continue on with their plans.

But the staff couldn’t help but wonder, is there a better way?

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For the over 10,000 children who attend Building Tomorrow schools, the school’s land is a place to play with friends, learn about a variety of subjects from trained instructors, and most importantly, a place to dream.

“Most of their parents are farmers, but the kids dream of being doctors and lawyers. They love coming to school and seeing their friends,” said Gorreth Birungi, a fellow at Building Tomorrow. Fellows are recent university graduates who are assigned to work in individual communities Building Tomorrow partners with.

But to the staff at Building Tomorrow, as well as to many others in Uganda, land ownership is a confusing, costly issue. They believe the current state of land tenure in Uganda is an expensive headache that slows down organizations in accomplishing their missions.

The land controversy over the school in Lutisi is not an uncommon incidence.

“We have to do a lot of groundwork before we can say we are 100 percent sure the land is ours because of that experience,” explained Bagambaki.

Bagambaki outlined a rigorous due diligence process that Building Tomorrow has instituted for each school they build. The process, which includes time-consuming steps like community meetings, is designed to deal with any land conflicts before the school is approved. However, such a process sucks valuable resources from the organization that could be used to help students.

“The government needs to set up a system that will check fraud,” Bagambaki said. “There is so much land fraud. There has to be a water-tight system that assures land ownership.”

The land tenure system in Uganda has not only prevented NGOs from reaching their full potential, but also Uganda’s economy as a whole, Bagambaki noted. Development officials believe widespread fraud and overlapping legal systems make it difficult to attract the foreign investment needed to scale the Ugandan economy.

The government has taken steps to improve Uganda’s land records system. Thomson Reuters, multinational mass media and information firm, was sub-contracted on such a project funded by the World Bank in 2010.

“Often times when you are introducing a computer-based system, there’s a huge amount of cultural change,” said Christopher Barlow, a spokesman for Thomson Reuters. “By and large, that is the biggest obstacle we have faced.”

While an improved record keeping system would surely benefit Uganda’s land tenure system, that is far from the fix-all solution. Advocates for land tenure issues believe Uganda’s land practices are deeply ingrained in their history and culture.

The Ugandan Constitution recognizes four different types of land ownership: freehold, leasehold, customary, and mailo.

Freehold is the most straightforward of all of these. It involves the landowner buying a title to a land. That person owns the land and has the ability to sell it. Mailo essentially allows anyone who has occupied land for 12 years before the constitution to be the bona-fide owners of the land.

The leasehold land tenure system stems from the kingdoms that continue to exist within Uganda. When the British colonized Uganda, the British government allocated land to the kingdoms that governed the land. Individuals and entities cannot own the land that has been given to these kingdoms, but rather, they can sign long-term leases. These leases are often 49 to 99 years.

Freehold, leasehold, and mailo all have their own land registries. However, the most common, as well as heterogeneous in practice, of the land tenure systems, customary, does not. About 70-80 percent of the land in Uganda is held under customary tenure. Given that different clans generally hold this land communally, not all customary land is the same.

“Customary tenure is very tricky,” said Priscilla Aling, a Ugandan lawyer who specializes in customary law. “There is no way you can apply a blanket set of laws. There are so many tribes that have so many different rules. You cannot just say this is the law and that’s how it’s going to be.”

Previously, these clans would resolve land disputes internally. A respected clan leader would call a community meeting to find a solution. However, Aling believes that many reforms created with good intentions have actually made the issue more complex.

“Times have changed. Now, people can go to the district courts, local council courts, or the district commissioners [to resolve disputes],” she said. “You will talk to people who have been to four different places. There is no structure.”

The result is not as simple as issuing titles to the holders of customary land. In effect, living on communally owned land offers protection to those who do not have the knowledge or resources necessary to navigate the legal system. Giving titles to all would make these citizens low-hanging fruit for those looking to take advantage of them. In addition, there are a number of land traditions that would be hard to fit into a freehold system.

“There is a clan where a woman with 10 kids might have three acres, but as her children move out, she may only need one acre. Other people will move to occupy her land, and she will not have an issue with it since she doesn’t need it. It would be very difficult to issue a title for that,” Aling said.

Even if some kind of title system were to work in dealing with customary law, fraud and corruption are still rampant within Uganda.

One woman in Kampala told a story of her cousin who purchased land and was saving up money to develop it. Once she finally had enough money, she went back to her land and found a new owner developing the property. Someone had forged her signature and sold the land to a new owner. Such stories are not uncommon to hear when discussing land ownership in Uganda.

According to USAID Mission Director Mark Meassick, land ownership represents a crossroads for Uganda. With a booming population and economy that is becoming increasingly modern, land tenure is the intersection between a scaling global economy and centuries of cultural tradition.

“Uganda’s development depends on improving land tenure and land management. As Uganda improves land rights and use, it will improve its international competitiveness for agricultural investment and development,” said Meassick.