Interview with 2014 Herskovits prize winner, Carola Lentz

The ASA awarded the 2014 Herskovits award to Professor Carola Lentz, for her book entitled Land, Mobility and Be-Longing in West Africa, published by Indiana University Press. The prize was shared with Professors Allen and Barbara Isaacman, for their book entitled Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965-2007, published by Ohio University Press. The ASA heartily congratulates the prize recipients.

The following is a brief interview conducted with Professor Lentz, whom it is worth noting, also holds a chieftaincy title in Ghana.

 1. Can you please give a brief description of what your book Land, Mobility and Be-longing in West Africa is about?

My book focuses on a small area of the West African savannah, in the borderlands of Northwestern Ghana and Southern Burkina Faso, but the story it tells is a much bigger one. It contributes to our understanding of how rural populations in Africa have secured, contested and negotiated access to land, and how they have organised and stabilised their communities while ‘on the move’ as mobile farmers or labor migrants. It also demonstrates how the inhabitants of rural areas deal with actions of the state that affect their access to resources, social relations and political rights, such as the drawing of colonial boundaries, the establishment of colonial rule through chiefs, or post-colonial land policies.

More specifically, the book explores the construction, contestation and transformation of first-comer claims that assert rights over land. First-comer claims, presented in narra-tives about migration and settlement, support claims to property and to membership in a local community. In rural Africa, where the modern state has not (yet) established any written register of land titles, settlement narratives served as a kind of oral land registry. These narratives can be read as stories of ‘first possession’ that legitimate the origin of property rights. Violence and coercion may have been, and sometimes still are, im-portant for gaining access to land, but they alone cannot ensure long-term, uninterrupted use; the latter needs to be strengthened through building consensus. Convincing proper-ty narratives are central to bringing about this consensus. The validation of first-comer narratives in the face of rival claims, on the other hand, depends on the networks which the competing parties can rally. Politics and power thus play as decisive a role in prop-erty dynamics.

My book starts from the observation that first-comer narratives are the dominant idiom in which many of contemporary struggles over land in West Africa (and beyond) are expressed. Furthermore, we can find that so many of these struggles are inconclusive, running over years and even decades, with property claims and counter-claims being re-opened as soon as the relevant state legislation or the local, regional or national political power relations change. First-comer narratives are extremely malleable; they do not necessarily support the interests of the more powerful alone. They can mask strategies of enrichment, but also defend a moral economy of subsistence farming against power-ful interests of commercialization. They can be told in ways that shore up xenophobic sentiment or allude to human-rights discourses in the defense of indigenous minorities, but they can also buttress a labor theory of property in favor of immigrants.

The inconclusiveness of land conflicts owes much to the vicissitudes of state legislation on land tenure and to the fact that no single institution has been able to impose itself effectively. But there is also a reason intrinsic to the dominant first-comer ideologies that contestants invoke in these conflicts: they locate the origin of legitimate property not in any social contract, but in the encounter of man and nature, or, to be precise, man and the earth deities or bush spirits (the first-comer has propitiated the local spirits), and they do not establish any human institution that could legitimately arbitrate competing claims concerning this encounter. The foundational act of property, so to speak, is re-moved from the social sphere and the volatility of power and prowess. Obviously, this was attractive and useful for establishing a flexible and effective social order on an open agricultural frontier, but it contained substantial potential for conflict when land was no longer freely available, and new ‘ultimate’ property titles could no longer be estab-lished. 

My book examines the history of agricultural expansion in the Black Volta region, roughly from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century. It discusses the role of ritual, narrative and persuasion, but also of violence and power in shaping the region’s history of mobility, property and belonging. It looks at how the politics of belonging have influenced mobility and land rights, and, conversely, the ways in which land own-ership has become, and continues to be, a symbol of belonging, and how first-comer status and property rights are converted into political authority.

2. There is quite a bit of literature on the issue of land rights and migration. What kinds of gaps did you see in the existing literatue that led you to ask the central questions in this book?

Indeed, the literature on land rights and land conflicts in Africa (and beyond) is over-whelming, and I often felt quite discouraged and doubted whether I really had anything relevant to add. But as anthropologist deeply interested in history, I noticed that much of the existing literature is rather ‘technical’, if I may put it this way; it addresses rather short time spans, and follows sometimes a bit breathlessly certain fashions. First, there were modernist expectations that more state penetration into rural areas could increase tenure security and productivity, for instance through efforts to establish land registers, better maps, unambiguous land titles, and more sophisticated farming systems. Such hopes were soon frustrated, however, partly by lack of funds and personnel, and partly by the silent resistance of local populations. In consequence, policy makers as well as scholars turned to the possible merits of ‘customary tenure’. Since the 1990s, many now believed that ‘customary tenure’ and the arrangements of legal pluralism that were typi-cal for much of rural Africa have actually reduced rather than increased the insecurity of tenure. However, I felt that many observers have a rather romantic idea of ‘indigenous tenure’, and I wanted to take a fresh look at these issues by really investigating a longue-durée history of property rights in a specific region for a period of more than two hundred years. My book shows that indigenous tenure regimes have never been as static or homogenous as often assumed, but they were contested and negotiable from the very beginning. This may come as a disappointment for policy makers, but basically, I would argue that any codification of whatever people on the ground, in uncanny allianc-es with state agents or NGOs, define as ‘customary’ arrangements will create more problems than it will solve. 

There is a very rich literature on land rights and conflicts in French, and on cases in ‘Francophone’ Africa. Here again, I felt that most scholars did not really take into ac-count both the Anglophone and the Francophone literature on land which is something that my book aims to do. Not only with regard to the scholarly literature, but also the very case that I analyse, I cross the Anglo-Franco divide. My book is based on thorough archival work, meticulous analysis of oral traditions and complementary sources that cover the histories of more than one hundred villages in Burkina Faso and Ghana, as well as more than two decades of ethnographic fieldwork in the region under study.

3. Issues at the intersection of land rights remain highly contested in many parts of Africa. Do you have any plans to follow this research up with policy engagement?

This is an interesting question, and I believe that reading my book may be useful for policy makers – if they only find the patience and time to go through such a detailed and rich case study. My book does address issues that are relevant to many postcolonial so-cieties, in Africa and beyond. It offers fresh insight into the dynamics of property rights in situations of ‘legal pluralism’, where different ways of legitimating claims to land are available and are played off against each other. Secondly, it explores the conflicts re-sulting from politics of indigeneity, which tie belonging and citizenship to property rights, in contexts characterised by a long history of agricultural mobility. And finally, it sheds new light on these themes from the perspective of a segmentary savannah society in the ‘hinterland’ of the better-known empires and centres of the West-African slave trade. It even ends with a rather ‘practical’ conclusion, with regard to the important role of first-comer narratives. I argue that as long as the modern state’s imagery of citizen-ship and nation draws on older idioms of quasi-natural communities, the conundrum of first-comer ideologies will continue. The only way ahead seems to be the de-politicization of property, undoing its intimate connections with autochthony, belonging and political representation. Ultimately, this requires the strengthening of institutions that can successfully mediate property conflicts by virtue of the fact that their legitima-cy derives from a social contract and is not tied up with the irresolvable ambiguities of first-comer narratives.

In practical terms, however, I see myself as a scholar. I believe that my task is to make things more complex and difficult, not to take decisions or write recommendations, by cutting multi-facetted realities and histories down to a few operational factors. Policy-making and consultancy are very important and responsible tasks, but they are nothing that I would wish to undertake myself. Currently, I am even ‘off’ to quite another topic, namely the emergence of a middle class in Ghana and the history of social mobility in the country’s northwestern corner.