Authored on09 March 2021
Located in West Africa, Ghana in 1957 became the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain its independence. Agriculture, especially for cocoa and oil palm, is a major driver of the economy, accounting for one-third of the GDP. Approximately 68% of Ghana’s land is used for agriculture and 15% is used as permanent natural pastures.
Customary land tenure is seen as social trust held by stools, skins, or lineages for past, present and future generations living on that land. More than one quarter of the adult population feels insecure about their tenure rights.
In 2003, Ghana launched a major land reform project aimed at improving land registration, institutional capacity building, land dispute resolution and the harmonization of statutory and customary systems governing land. Most land is held informally under customary tenure, while approximately 20% of the land in Ghana is officially owned by the state. Despite significant economic growth, poverty and food insecurity remain a problem, especially in the rural North.
In recent years, tensions and conflicts over land have been exacerbated by the expansion of mining -including informal small-scale mining - and agribusiness for biofuel. Moreover, the lack of synchronization of the country’s pluralistic land tenure system has given rise to land disputes. In particular pastoralists’ rights, women’s land rights, and rural people’s land rights face challenges with regard to land access and titles.
Land legislation and regulations
Ghana’s Constitution vests all public land and all minerals in the President. However, lineage – both matrilineal and patrilineal - is at the centerstage of land ownership and has remained a key social institution in Ghana. While land is family or community owned, customary governments, called stools in the south and skins in the north, administer about 80 % of the land with chiefs acting as custodians . In addition, the spiritual leader is responsible to allocate land, mediate land conflicts, and to act as a link to the spirits of the ancestors.
The mandate of the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources includes facilitating equitable access to, benefit sharing from and security to land, forests, and mineral resources, and the promotion of public awareness and community participation in sustainable forest, wildlife and land use management and utilization.
In 2008, the Lands Commission Act was passed, which merged various land-related agencies. Responding to wide-spread corruption and poor coordination between these agencies, the act aims to ensure that land use is in accordance with sustainable management principles, in line with Ghana’s development goals. The Commission manages public land and other land vested in the President. The Land Use and Spatial Planning Act furthers these objectives with emphasis on a decentralized planning system for land and human settlements.
The new land bill was first presented to the parliament in 2018 but later withdrawn and passed in July 2020 eventually. It seeks to consolidate and harmonize the 166 existing land-related laws in Ghana, regulate land use and acquisition and enhance effective land management.
Land tenure classifications
Land tenure in Ghana is based on a pluralistic legal system in which customary and statutory laws overlap. The Constitution of 1992 distinguishes public land that is held under state authority for public interest and customary holdings formally under customary leadership. Customary land tenure is seen as social trust held by stools, skins, or lineages for past, present and future generations living on that land. More than one quarter of the adult population feels insecure about their tenure rights .
Legally, there are five title categories regarding customary land, namely allodial, freehold, customary freehold title, leasehold, and others, such as sharecropping. Allodial title is held in trust with the family head and considered the highest form of land ownership . If an allodial rights holder gives or sells land, it is called freehold title. Most common in urban areas, the parties involved may agree that land tenure moves from customary to common law. Customary freehold title refers to tenure rights somebody holds on behalf of the stool or skin. Going back to the idea that the descendants of the first settlers have the right to use some of the stool land, if they cultivate it, these rights are conditional and indefinite .
While there are individual grazing agreements for transhumant pastoralists in the north, they do not have legal access rights. Growing land pressure, development, and changing landscapes further add to conflicts between farmers and herders about access to water and pastures .
Land use trends
More than half of Ghana’s population works in agriculture and 44 % live in rural areas . The average farm size is less than 1.6 hectares. The most common crops are corn, cassava and yams, nuts, rice, and on commercial level palm oil, rubber, sugar cane, cotton, tobacco, and cocoa. 18 % of Ghana’s land is considered arable and another 15 % used as permanent pastures . Transhumance is mostly practiced by pastoralists from neighboring countries who lease land seasonally from chiefs and landowners.
In addition, mining plays a key role in Ghana’s economy. While artisanal mining has been a key source of income in rural areas for centuries, corporations set up large gold, diamond, bauxite, aluminum, petroleum, and silver mines. Almost one third of Ghana’s territory is under gold mining concessions alone. Especially in recent years there has been a significant shift of agricultural land diverted into mineral concessions. The Minerals and Mining Act (Law No. 703) of 2006 authorizes the government to acquire or occupy land that is “deemed necessary to develop or utilize mineral resources” but also requires adequate compensation. In addition, artisanal mining became increasingly mechanized, contributing to significant land degradation.
With its three large river systems including the Volta river, about 10 % of the country’s territory are wetlands . Between 2001 and 2019 Ghana has faced severe deforestation, losing more than one million hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 17 % decrease since 2000.
Public land is allocated through the Lands Commission or Regional Lands Officer. Under customary rule, land holders may sell, lease, mortgage or pledge their rights. However, the new owners must recognize the ownership of the stool or skin and agree to deliver any customary services. In addition, allodial and freehold title holders may lease land to individuals for a certain period of time for an annual rent . According to the constitution, foreigners are not allowed to own land but limits them to leaseholds of maximum 50 years .
The state has the right to occupy and use any land for mining and public purposes but is obligated to compensate or offer land of equivalent value . Critical voices argue, however, that the government has misused its right to compulsory land acquisitions for public purposes, which span from reasons of defense and public safety to public health and community or town planning. That said, compensation is usually paid to the allodial title holder but not to the people actually using and living off the land.
In general, the land market is characterized by a lack of transparency, land scarcity, corruption and land disputes, which often turn violent. The property registration process is complex, expansive, and lengthy. Despite efforts to improve land administration, customary land tenure remains mostly undocumented and smallholders have little leeway if customary authorities lease or sell their land. Conflicts arise between the government, local residents, various ethnic groups, chiefs, migrant landholders – including Chinese artisanal miners  - and transnational corporations.
As in most West African countries, large-scale land acquisitions have been on the rise in Ghana, too. The possibility of renewable long-term leases has attracted foreign and national investors especially for cocoa plantations and biofuel cultivation. This was further facilitated by Ghana’s National Energy Plan of 2006 that supports renewable energy. According to the Land Matrix in 2020 more than 1 million hectares were granted to investors, while intended and failed deals amount to an additional 300,000 hectares. Besides Western investors, Ghana has attracted various companies from the Global South, such as Brazil and China .
This trend exposes land users without formal titles to arbitrary displacement and exacerbates the process of environmental degradation . While corporations and/or the state are supposed to pay compensation, many chiefs do not distribute sale, lease, or compulsory acquisition payments to the title holders - not to speak of the people working the land. Historically, the customary land tenure system allocated land for subsistence farming but is ill-equipped to deal with large-scale commercial transactions. The long-term impact of decisions and related conflicts are new to chiefs and lineage heads. In numerous cases, customary authorities received “handshake-money” in order to bypass land holders in their decision making .
Women’s land rights
According to the constitution, women and men enjoy equal rights in accessing property . In practice, only 10% percent are female land holders and women have only secondary access to land through their spouses, sons or brothers. In patrilineal families, land is passed from father to son and from maternal uncles to their nephews in matrilineal communities, and as such, always remaining in male hands. For women it is thus highly important to maintain good relations with their male relatives. Under customary law the – usually male - family head is considered the custodian of the land . In addition, traditional gender norms and wide-spread discrimination limit the women’s participation in public life and politics, including lineage, clan or stool meetings where most land-related decisions are made .
In both patriarchal and matriarchal families, women may gain access to land through inheritance though they face various restrictions . In fact, land remains in the lineage, but widows with children are usually allowed to continue farming . Despite legislative reforms in 1985, which do not address polygamous marriages, access to land might change in favor of the husband if the couple divorces or he marries another wife. More recently, a gender strategy was designed for the land sector to address issues at local level .
With regard to commercial agriculture, women bear most of the negative consequences. Particularly rural women depend on farming for their livelihoods but have only little options when losing their (or the family’s) land as well as limited access to compensation .
Urban tenure issues
Customary tenure still plays a pivotal role in (peri-) urban Ghana. In cities and Accra in particular, land pressure for development and housing projects is rising fast. Faced with increasing urbanization and population growth, local authorities increasingly allocate land to developers. Whoever acquires land is expected to pay a token to the original allodial owner. As a result of expensive tokens and market prices, about 65% of Accra residents cannot afford to acquire urban land anymore .
Estimations indicate that more than two thirds of Accra’s population live in informal settlements, which are characterized by tenure insecurity, poor health conditions, and lacking access to water . Although land tenure tends to be more formalized in urban areas, only 39% have their holdings formerly registered.
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
In 2018, a roundtable took place to discuss the relevance of the VGGT for Ghana’s fisheries sector as part of the EU Land Governance Programme.
Where to go next?
The author's suggestion for further reading
With small-scale mining becoming an increasing (environmental) issue, Crawford and Botchwey take a highly interesting take on conflicts and collusion between Chinese miners the Ghanaian government.
This paper provides a thorough analysis of farmer-herder conflicts in Ghana from a stakeholders’ perspective.
On south-south agribusiness investments, Amanor et al.’s publication offers interesting findings.
Timeline - milestones in land governace
1957 – Independence
Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain independence (from Britain).
1992 – Adoption of the new Constitution
The Constitution underpins the differentiation of public land that is held under state authority for public interest and customary holdings formally under customary leadership.
1994 - The Office of the Administrator of Stool Lands Act
The Act strengthens the authority of customary authorities, including stools in the south and skins in the north, in administering customary land with chiefs acting as custodians.
2003 – Begin of the land reform process
The land reform aimed at improving land registration, institutional capacity building, land dispute resolution, and the harmonization of statutory and customary tenure.
2006 – Adoption of the Minerals and Mining Act (Law No. 703)
The act extends the government’s rights to acquire land that is “deemed necessary to develop or utilize mineral resources” in return for an adequate compensation.
2006 - 2020 Strategic National Energy Plan
One of the goals of the SNEP was to contribute to the development of the renewable energy sector which attracted various biofuel investors.
2020 – Adoption of the Land Bill
After some delay, the new land law aims to consolidate and harmonize the 166 existing land-related laws in Ghana, regulate land use and acquisition and enhance effective land management.
 The Office of the Administrator of Stool Lands Act of 1994.
 Ubink, Janine and Julian Quan. 2008. How to combine tradition and modernity? Regulating customary land management in Ghana. Land Use Policy,25:198–213.
 Land Title Registration Law 1986
Lenz, Carola. 2001. Contested boundaries : decentralisation and land conflicts in northwestern Ghana. Bulletin de l'APAD 22. https://journals.openedition.org/apad/50
 Stanley Dary et al. 2017. Triggers of Farmer-Herder Conflicts in Ghana: A Non-Parametric Analysis of Stakeholders’ Perspectives. Sustainable Agriculture Research. 6 (2): 141-151. http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/sar/article/view/67465
Setrana, Mary B. 2018. “No Cattle Would Be Left Out”: Farmer-Herder Conflict and the Challenge of Peacebuilding from Below in Ghana. 21 February: https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2018/02/21/no-cattle-would-be-left-out-farmer-herder-conflict-and-the-challenge-of-peacebuilding-from-below-in-ghana/
 Global Forest Watch. 2020. Ghana. https://www.globalforestwatch.org/dashboards/country/GHA
 Land Title Registration Law 1986
 The Constitution of the Republic of Ghana, Article 266
 The State Lands Act 1962, Section 4(1) and 5
 Crawford, Gordon and Gabriel Botchwey. 2017. Conflict, collusion and corruption in small-scale gold mining: Chinese miners and the state in Ghana. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 55(4): 444-470. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14662043.2017.1283479
 Amanor KS and Chichava S. (2016) South–south cooperation, agribusiness, and African agricultural development: Brazil and China in Ghana and Mozambique. World Development 81: 13-23. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X1530320X
 Yaro. Joseph A.; Tzikata, Dzodzi 2015. Recent transnational land deals and the local agrarian economy in Ghana. In: Hall, Ruth et al. Africa’s Land Rush - Rural Livelihoods and Agrarian Change. Rochester, US : 46-64.
 Hughes, Ailey et al. 2011. Focus on Africa Ghana Lesson 1: Chiefs Behaving Badly: How Greed and Rising Demands are Fueling Tenure Insecurity in Ghana. Focus on Africa: Ghana. World Resources Institute and the Rural Development Institute. http://www.wri.org/property-rights-africa/
 The Constitution of the Republic of Ghana, Article 18(1). http://www.parliament.gh/constitution_republic_ghana.html
 The Head of Family Accountability Act, 1985 (PNDC Law 114): Section 1 (1).
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Centre. 2020. Social Institutions and Gender Index. Ghana. Paris: http://genderindex.org/country/ghana
 Kuusaana, Elias D. et al. 2013. Customary Land Ownership and Gender Disparity. In: Ghana Journal of Development Studies 10 (1-2). https://www.zef.de/fileadmin/user_upload/ekuusaana_download_115786-322067-1-SM.pdf
 The Constitution, adopted in 1992, Article 22
 FAO. 2004. Access To And Control Over Land From A Gender Perspective. A Study Conducted In The Volta Region Of Ghana, FAO Regional Office for Africa. Rome. http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/ae501e/ae501e00.htm
 Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources. Ghana Land Administration Project. Accra. http://www.ghanalap.gov.gh/index1.php?linkid=47&sublinkid=97
 Osorio, Martha; Park; Clara. 2013. The Gender and Equity Implications of Land-Related Investments on Land Access, Labour and Income-Generating Opportunities in Northern Ghana The Case Study of Integrated Tamale Fruit Company. FAO. Rome.
 IBP. 2018: Ghana Land Ownership and Agricultural Laws Handbook Volume 1. Washington, 86.
 UN-Habitat. 2014. The State of African Cities 2014. Re-imagining sustainable urban transitions. Nairobi.