When the residents of Owele, a northern village in Uganda, heard about a plan to document their land, they worried it would be stolen.
But after photographing the land in Owele and taking coordinates, government officials gave residents something they’ve never had: certificates proving the land was theirs.
The lush grasslands of Owele, in Pader district, are regulated by clans, families, and tradition. Before this, the village had no formal land titles.
Santa Otyeka is a 73-year-old parish leader. She said her new land ownership document stopped her brothers-in-law from taking her land after the death of her husband.
She says, “You, as an individual, are now in possession of your land.… There is nobody who can trespass.”
Since 2015, the government of Uganda has issued more than 25,000 Certificates of Customary Ownership (CCOs), giving customary landholders evidence of their tenure. The initiative aims to reduce land conflicts and improve the financial security of rural families.
But local cultural leaders say the government’s attempts to document customary land is at odds with traditional concepts of “property” and who gets to define it.
Ambrose Olaa is prime minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi, a cultural institution that represents the Acholi people in the region. He says the notion of “ownership” does not take into account the way that customary land is held in trust for past, present, and future generations.
He explains: “It changes the understanding of land, from it holding an intrinsic value to it holding more of a material and commercial value.”
More than three-quarters of land in Uganda is held under customary tenure systems.
Dennis Obbo is a spokesman for the land ministry. He says that the certificates are designed to be cheap and easy to obtain. Instead of a full land survey, as is required for freehold titles, Certificates of Customary Ownership need only a sketched map of the land—although the use of GPS mapping is increasing, he noted.
Mr. Obbo says: “It doesn’t require anybody to have an agent, an advocate, a lawyer. You can speak for yourself.”
He notes that the documentation also turns land into a tradable asset.
He explains: “It was one of the best ways to go if we are to [increase] productivity and investment and also ensure that we involve the locals, [giving them] a stake as landowners.”
He adds that the certificates allow people to use their land as collateral for bank loans.
Jimmy Ochom is the Ugandan land rights coordinator for Oxfam. He says the certificates could allow villagers to be better compensated if their land is taken for factories, commercial farming, and infrastructure projects.
He says, “If the land is titled, the value attached to that land is higher than that without a title.”
The certificates can also help women protect inherited land from being taken by people from outside their community. But the certificates offer less protection against “insiders,” such as in-laws who try to take land from widows.
Even so, Mrs. Otyeka, the parish leader in Owele, says her certificate has earned her recognition from the community.
In the past, she says, “They would say women have no rights. [Now,] the land of my grandparents has all been written in my name.”
Land experts say the uptake of Certificates of Customary Ownership in Uganda has been slow, partly due to the cultural gap between the government and rural citizens.
Judy Adoko is a land rights campaigner based in northern Uganda’s Lango sub-region. She says, “The state system and the customary system are very different. It’s like trying to change a mango into an orange.”
Mrs. Adoko worries that documentation will result in customary land being individualized, converted to freehold, and sold off.
Mr. Obbo, the land ministry spokesman, disagrees, saying that nobody is forced to get a Certificate of Customary Ownership.
Father Joseph Okumu, a Catholic priest, is skeptical as well. Mr. Okumu leads a committee on land issues for the Joint Acholi Sub-Region Leaders Forum, a group of politicians and civil society leaders.
He says, “I thought my great-grandfather would certify that ‘this is your land.’ Instead, the government is coming to say ‘I give you a certificate.’”
Mr. Okumu demonstrates the values of land by explaining that Acholi women traditionally bury the umbilical cord of their children in the centre of the homestead.
Mr. Okumu says: “Land is considered a mother. Therefore, leasing land, where you bring in money, it’s like selling your mother.”
And yet, Mr. Okumu said traditionalists like him are fighting a losing battle against those who see land as a marketable asset.
He says, “Society is changing … and people here are absolutely unprepared. But, of course, the world economy doesn’t have patience.”
This story is based on an article written by Liam Taylor and published by the Thompson Reuter’s Foundation on June 1, 2021, titled “Uganda drive to certify customary land runs into culture clash.” To read the full story, go to: https://news.trust.org/item/20210601112117-udjzv/ 
Photo: A cow stands in a scenic landscape in Eastern Uganda, 2015.