By Anne Hennings, peer-reviewed by Isselmou Abdel Kader, Former Governor and former Minister of Trade, Craft Industry and Tourism, and also of Health and Social Affairs
16 September 2021
Located in northwest Africa, more than three quarters of Mauritania are desert or semi-desert. Only 0.5% of the country’s land is considered useful for agriculture which equals 502,000 ha . Nonetheless, the rural sector is an important pillar of the Mauritanian economy contributing 17% to the GDP and employing 21% of the working population. 62% of the population depend on agriculture, livestock, and fishing for their livelihoods . The country gained independence from France in 1960. Its colonial past is reflected in its legislation that draws on the French Code.
Land tenure insecurity is relatively high in Mauritania, as many rights holders are unable to register their land individually or collectively
Since the Land Code of 1983, all land has been owned by the State. Customary tenure is widely common in rural areas but not legally recognized. Mauritania’s legislation provides special rights for pastoral lands and oases, however. The lack of access to land is one of the major factors contributing to poverty in the country . Fertile land is scarce and as such land-related disputes are the main source of conflict, particularly between farmers and pastoralists. Moreover, land tenure and registration are complicated and the revised Land Code (1990) provides little security for smallholders with usufructuary rights and women. Although the law supports the distribution of land to the landless, many former slaves continue working for their former masters. Land conflicts are fueled by ethnic tensions, large-scale mining projects, and agribusiness investments in the fertile Senegal River Valley.
SNIM's giant train, photo by Carsten ten Brin, 2019, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Land legislation and regulations
In order to facilitate development and overcome the traditional highly hierarchical tenure system, the government introduced major land sector reforms in the 1980s. Under Ordonnance 83.127 of 5 June 1983, all lands were declared state owned with the exception of those registered in the name of individuals, or granted as a deed of concession, or permanently developed before the enforcement of Law No. 60139 of August 2, 1960 relevant to the reorganisation of the domain. The successive implementing decrees of this ordinance adopted between 1984 and 2000, have invested the territorial administrative authorities, in particular the walis (governors) and the hakem (prefects), with broad powers to manage public lands in both urban and rural areas. During this period, land governance was largely characterised by overlapping jurisdictions and anarchy, even abuses in the individual access to land.
But a decree of 2010 addressed these issues and centralized the authority of land allocation, especially rural, which was given to the Minister of Finance and the Council of Ministers. This strong centralization of decision-making and the absence of a national land register or cadastral plan has in turn resulted in new abuses leading to the attribution of large areas to sometimes foreign developers, attributions which were described as grabbing by local communities.
In urban areas, the Ministry of Housing, Urban Development and Regional Management is responsible for land management. Land management concerns, according to the laws and regulations in force, Ministerial Departments responsible respectively for the Interior, Finance, Town Planning and Territorial Development, Rural Development, the Environment and Hydraulic. In addition, there is a lack of public awareness of existing land governance frameworks .
Law n° 2007/055, establishing the forest code, has for its scope the creation, management and protection of forests and wooded areas, including parks, reserves and other protected areas, which belong to the State, local authorities or individuals. The law distinguishes between state forest estates which are classified and underpin specific protection and protected forest estates which may grant rights of use . In addition, Law No. 98-016 defines the framework and methods of the sustainable participatory management of oases.
Land tenure classifications
The 1983 Land Code abolished traditional land tenure. As mentioned above, land considered to be private is only that which is registered in the name of individuals, or that on which there are traces of development resulting either from a regular act of concession, or from a permanent right of way prior to the entry into force of Law 60.139 of August 2, 1960 on the reorganization of the State. Only 27,075 full freehold titles have been issued in nearly 40 years, mainly in urban areas . There are an additional 500,000 provisional title deeds in Nouakchott.
Customary law based essentially, if not exclusively, on sharia law which still governs practice in Mauritania, particularly in rural areas where customary land tenure is governed by traditional agreements, recognized, in most cases, as evidence of property rights. Obtaining land titles is a long and complicated procedure involving, in addition to the Ministry of Finance through its Direction of Domains, the Ministries of Urban Planning and Rural Development with the support of its regional land offices which are rather under-equipped .
In 2014, a temporary electronic land registry system was established in Nouakchott and eliminated duplicate or false titles. Particularly in rural areas, the lack of a national registry has hampered mediation and settlement of land disputes.
Land tenure insecurity is relatively high in Mauritania, as many rights holders are unable to register their land individually or collectively . Small farmers can only receive formal recognition through cooperatives or associations. Landlessness remains a major challenge, although the revision of the 1983 law in 1990 recognizes the ownership of land users on a long-term basis. However, the distribution of land to landless peasants has only rarely been considered when large-scale irrigation schemes have been implemented, such as in Kaédi or Boghé.
In rangeland areas, the Pastoral Code (Law No. 2000-44) gives priority to transhumant pastoralists over cultural activities. Also, communities may, in areas of pastoral interest, define pastoral spaces and enter into arrangements with territorial administrations to define the conditions for mobility and exploitation of natural resources, but without prejudice to the right to the land itself. It is estimated that less than 5% of the country's land is covered by these usufruct transfer agreements .
The failure to thoroughly reform the 1983 law and the lack of definition of the means to materialise the recognition and delimitation of customary rights has led to unrest and conflict, as in the violent conflict between farmers and herders over grazing rights on the Mauritania-Senegal border (1989-1992) .
Land use trends
According to FAO statistics, 53.7% of the population now lives in urban areas of Mauritania . As much of the country is uninhabitable, 4 million Mauritanians live only on one fifth of the land area with the Senegal River Valley being the most fertile area. Mauritania’s major land-related challenges are desertification and a high vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather conditions, notably recurrent droughts, and flooding.
About 38% of the land can be used for agricultural purposes including farming, livestock, and oases . The latter are essential for Mauritania's food security by producing dates, vegetables, wheat and barley. They are exploited thanks to ancient knowledge and rational management of water and land resources. However, they are threatened by the overexploitation of groundwater, increasing land fragmentation, desertification, expansion of agricultural land, and the loss of traditional knowledge. It is for these reasons that the government has established an institutional framework and an early warning system to protect the oases .
Less than 0.2% of the country’s land area is forested . In 2020/21, the country experienced an unusually strong fire season that threatened its forest resources . Mauritania is rich in natural resources, notably iron ore, copper, gold, silver, and offshore oil and gas. The country is the world’s seventh largest exporter of iron ore which is found in the north. Moreover, there are rich deposits of phosphates along the coast, copper in the west, as well as zinc, uranium, gypsum, and other rare earths .
Land acquisitions and investments
In rural areas, traditional land chiefs from ruling lineages manage large holdings of community land to ensure that all community members have access to land. Individuals and investors can acquire state-owned land. By 2025, the National Agricultural Development Plan (PNDA) aims to promote the intensification and diversification of agricultural production. Likewise, the Investment Code (Law No. 2012-052) encourages agribusiness investments, i.e. with benefits for medium-sized enterprises or special conditions in Free Zones.
In 2021, the Land Portal listed three operating agricultural investment projects of roughly 10,000 ha, all of which were located in the Senegal River Valley . However, it has been noted that investors are afraid of coming into conflict with communities that rely on customary law and do not hesitate to express their dissatisfaction when an investor begins to develop land that has been granted by the State.
Investors must apply to the Ministry of Economy and Finance and register the land granted to them at the Direction des Domaines (department of lands) under the Ministry of Housing. In case of acquisition of the land by purchase, the acquirer must register the land with the Direction des Domaines by means of a notarial act. International investors may circumvent this procedure if granted a Certificate of Investment by the Office for Promotion of Private Investment and International Cooperation (Guichet unique).
Although legislation aims to prevent corruption, the laws are not enforced effectively. There are various reports about government officials who misused their position to get special grants of land or fishing licenses . Moreover, social and environmental conflicts have emerged in mining areas and the Senegal River Valley .
Fish market in Nouakchot , photo by Evgeni Zotov, 2011, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2) license
Women’s land rights
The issue of women’s rights has gained increasing attention in Mauritania in recent years. Yet, a different picture unfolds in the land sector where gender disaggregated data has only been introduced lately. The aforementioned land ordinance guarantees equal land rights to women and men, just as sharia law establishes this equality.
The government encourages women and women's cooperatives to register the land they are granted, particularly in rural areas. Despite these efforts, however, the legislation does not specifically prevent discrimination in practice. Although women are increasingly represented in government positions, they remain largely excluded from land management structures and local land conflict management commissions. In addition, patriarchal customary views and practices still prevail in rural areas, putting women at a disadvantage in accessing and managing land . Women hold only 8% of the registered title deeds, mostly in cities where customary practices are less influential, and women tend to be more independent and vocal .
In rural areas, women are heavily involved in agricultural production, particularly in market gardening and wood collection, and are essentially responsible for household food security . One study highlighted the interest of women, and women cooperatives in particular, in securing their access to land by obtaining legal titles. However, women are often illiterate, unaware of their rights or unable to cover the costs of the concession procedure in rural areas and registration in urban areas . Women have access to land ownership through inheritance, but the patriarchal system hijacks this right by compensating women with movable property instead of land to preserve the lineage character of land inheritance. Furthermore, it is noted that women have not benefited from agricultural investments specifically designed to encourage them (foreigners) .
Urban tenure issues
Since the 1970s, the country's urban centers have undergone rapid urbanization due in large part to prolonged periods of drought, desertification, and land degradation. In addition, ongoing problems of access to land and water scarcity in the Mauritanian rif have exacerbated the rural exodus. At the same time, the war in Western Sahara has contributed to the population growth of the major cities, particularly the capital Nouakchott. About 75% of the city's residents live in barely structured neighborhoods with limited access to basic services .
The city and its infrastructure are threatened by advancing sand dunes coming from the east, which led the Government, since 1975, to take the Green Belt Initiative of Nouakchott which was extended in the 2000s to protect the capital from desertification . However, Mauritania does not have a long-term urban development strategy at present, although the government is aware of this.
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
Mauritania endorsed the VGGTs, but there is little evidence that the principles have been incorporated into the country’s strategies that relate to land issues.
Timeline - milestones in land governance
1970s-1990s - Rapid urbanization
The country’s capital Nouakchott and Nouadhibou underwent extreme urbanization largely due to extended drought periods, desertification, and land degradation. By the 1990s, one quarter to one third of the country’s population lived in Nouakchott, largely in informal settlements.
1983 – Adoption of the Land Code
The Land Code vested all land in the State and abolished customary tenure. It was revised in 1990.
2000 – Adoption of the Pastoral Code (Law No. 2000-44)
The Pastoral Code prioritizes mobile grazing over settled cultivation. Communities can enter agreements with local governments, although it makes no provisions for community titles. Less than 5% of the country’s land are estimated to be under such usufruct arrangements.
2000s – Extension of the Green Belt Initiative
Initially established in 1975, the Nouakchott Green Belt Initiative was extended to protect the capital from desertification.
2007 – Adoption of the Revised Forestry Code (Law No. 2007/055)
It replaced the 1997 Forestry Code and provides a community-friendly definition of usufructuary rights.
2012 – Adoption of the Investment Code (Law No. 2012-052)
The Investment Code encourages and simplifies agribusiness investments, e.g. through the introduction of Investment Certificates.
2020/21 - Unusually strong fires
The country experienced an unusual strong fire season that threatens its scarce forest resources.
Where to go next?
The author’s suggestion for further reading
This World Bank and UN Women report provides detailed insights into women’ land rights and access to land in Mauritania.
 FAO. 2021. Family Farming Knowledge Platform: Mauritania. URL: http://www.fao.org/family-farming/countries/mrt/en/
 UN Human Rights Council. 2017. Rapport du Rapporteur spécial sur les droits de l’homme et l’extrême pauvreté sur sa mission en Mauritanie (A/HRC/35/26/Add.1). URL: https://landportal.org/fr/library/resources/rapport-du-rapporteur-sp%C3%A9cial-sur-les-droits-de-l%E2%80%99homme-et-l%E2%80%99extr%C3%AAme-pauvret%C3%A9-sur
 World Bank/ UN Women. 2015. Women’s Access to Land in Mauritania: A Case Study in Preparation for the COP, p. 5. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/women%E2%80%99s-access-land-mauritania-case-study-preparation-cop
 Gouvernement de la Mauritanie. 2007. Loi n°2007-055, IV URL: https://landportal.org/fr/library/resources/loi-n%C2%B02007-055-du-18-septembre-2007-abrogeant-et-rempla%C3%A7ant-la-loi-n%C2%B0-97-007-du-20
 Baro, Mamadou et al. 2014. Contribution à l’Amélioration de la politique foncière en Mauritanie à travers l’usage du Cadre d’Analyse de la Gouvernance Foncière (CAGF). World Bank Report. URL: https://landportal.org/fr/library/resources/contribution-%C3%A0-l%E2%80%99am%C3%A9lioration-de-la-politique-fonci%C3%A8re-en-mauritanie-%C3%A0-travers-l-0
 World Bank/ UN Women. 2015. Women’s Access to Land in Mauritania: A Case Study in Preparation for the COP, p. 8. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/women%E2%80%99s-access-land-mauritania-case-study-preparation-cop
 Prindex. 2021. Mauritanie. URL: https://www.prindex.net/data/mauritania/
 Baro, Mamadou et al. 2014. Contribution à l’Amélioration
 ECC. 2021. Conflit Mauritanien-Sénégalais. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/communal-violence-mauritania-and-senegal-1989-1992
 FAO. 2021. Country Stats. URL: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#country/136
 World Bank. 2021. Country Data. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.TOTL.K2?locations=MR
 FAO. 2020. Final evaluation of the project “Adaptive management and monitoring of the Maghreb’s oases systems”. Project Evaluation Series. Rome, p. 7. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/final-evaluation-project-%E2%80%9Cadaptive-management-and-monitoring-maghreb%E2%80%99s-oases
 World Bank. 2021. Country data. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.TOTL.K2?locations=MR
 Global Forest Watch. 2021. Mauritania. URL: https://gfw.global/3aTU4Ej
 EITI. 2021. Country Stats. URL: https://eiti.org/mauritania
 Land Matrix. 2021. Country data. URL: https://landmatrix.org/map
 US Department of State. 2011. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Mauritania, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, p. 15. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/country-reports-human-rights-practices-mauritania-bureau-democracy-human-rights
 EITI. 2021. Mauritania URL: https://eiti.org/mauritania
 World Bank/ UN Women. 2015. Women’s Access to Land in Mauritania: A Case Study in Preparation for the COP, p. 9. URL: URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/women%E2%80%99s-access-land-mauritania-case-study-preparation-cop
 Ibid, p. 4.
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 4.
 Ibid, p. 5.
 Urban Habitat. 2016. Urban Habitat - A World Map of Urban Habitat as Seen by Civil Society. URL: https://www.wm-urban-habitat.org/eng/mauritania-2/
 See more information: http://www.fao.org/dryland-forestry/projects/past-projects/nouakchott-green-belt/en/
Authored on16 September 2021