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Land Rights

The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts… Gerald O’Hara, Gone With The Wind.

Land is vital for the survival of man. We live on it, live from it and maybe even live for it. This explains the confusion that many have over the meaning of land, what it means to own the land, the laws governing the use of land and how to resolve the disputes arising out of the land.

Land being a vital resource in Uganda, like in any other country, there are so many laws and mechanisms put in place to protect the land and people’s land rights. However even with the many mechanisms in place, many people still find it hard to enforce their land rights. In the end we witness mass displacements of people (mostly of the poor by the rich).

This module therefore aims at enabling the reader to be able to not only enforce his personal land rights but also the rights of others. The module uses simple illustrations to enable the reader better understand the content. The module thus equips the reader with information regarding what land rights are, how to enforce such land rights, what disputes are likely to arise from the land, how to resolve the disputes, and a lot more.


Ownership of land

Disputes often arise over who owns land in a formal legal sense. Does the person who claims to own land really own it, and can they prove ownership?

Many conflicts over land ownership arise in a family context, where inheritance rights may be disputed.

Another particularly common problem is the so called “land grab”, typically where those who have owned or lived on the land are dispossessed without their free, prior and informed consent and in violation of basic human rights. Such land grabs may be perpetrated by someone from outside the area who claims to have bought the land or to have been granted a concession to use it.

This problem has been exacerbated by the scarcity of land globally and the potential financial rewards for those able to exploit land for industrial scale agriculture or extractive industries rather than for traditional subsistence farming or pasture. This trend is well summarised in the 2011 Tirana Declaration, issued during a conference: “Securing land access for the poor in times of intensified natural resource competition”.


Formal land rights: ownership, leases

In Uganda there are different types of land rights, and various ways in which land rights are acquired or extinguished.

The starting point are the four systems under Ugandan law for tenure (holding) of land:

  1. Customary tenure, according to the traditions of a particular community
  2. Leasehold tenure, comprising a time-limited right to use land owned by another
  3. Freehold tenure, conferring absolute ownership rights on the title-holder
  4. Mailo tenure, a right to use and build on another’s land in perpetuity

These can overlap.  In other words, any given piece of land may be subject to rights deriving from more than one of these tenure systems.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while Ugandan land law is the main source of rights over land, in some circumstances you may find that inheritance laws, as well as the human or constitutional rights of citizens or groups, may also be relevant.

Rights to land are generally acquired through

  • purchase
  • inheritance, gift, or marriage
  • occupation or usage over a period
  • grant from the government



Protecting your use of land

If you have rights under one of the four forms of Ugandan land tenure, you may be entitled to make use of your land in a number of different ways. For example:

  • living on the land
  • farming and growing food
  • grazing and pasture
  • growing wood or fuel crops
  • providing water
  • fishing

Remember that land use concerns not only what you do on the surface of land, but may also include rights to what is under the ground (minerals, oil, etc.) and to the air space above.

Your rights of land use may also include rights over water on the land (such as a river that through it).  Rights to collect water are often vital for communities, yet, their right to water may be affected by preventing or limiting their access to the land or by land use which pollutes the water source.

Some land is not formally “used” for anything but either remains in its natural state or is specifically designated as a park, reserve, forest, or other protected area.  This may look like “empty” or “unoccupied” land, but using it might become a source of confusion and dispute.

The rights of traditional communities in respect of such land are often very important.  For example, the land may be regarded as “belonging” to a community under customary or international law but as available for granting concessions to other parties under national law.


Preventing adverse use of land by others

You may find that you have become involved in a dispute about excluding others from using your land, or even from coming onto the land.  Alternatively, it may be that you want to stop someone from using the land in an inappropriate way. Common causes of disputes include activities such as:

  • deforestation and logging
  • ranching
  • mining and other extractive industries
  • dam construction
  • growing fuel crops, palm oil, soya, or other crops on an industrial scale
  • building settlements for others or constructing roads to facilitate any of the above activities
  • Transformation of mixed local land use system to monoculture

Right of access to land for specific purposes

Sometimes, the dispute does not concern ownership or occupation of land but the right of access to it at particular times for specific purposes.

This may include use as temporary pasture, use for gathering fuel or food or for obtaining water, and use for spiritual or cultural purposes such as visiting graves of family or ancestors.


Environmental degradation of land

Finally, the problem may not be any of the above problems, but instead pollution and environmental degradation of land.

This is dealt with in the Environmental rights section of this website.

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