In Africa and Latin America access to arable land remains a key factor determining people's economic conditions and possibilities for prosperity. Acknowledging this reliance, many international studies of poverty are also in agreement that the highest levels of poverty in Africa and Latin America continue to be found in rural districts. Common explanations of these persisting high levels of poverty in rural areas underline the symptomatic vulnerability of rural areas to natural disasters, war, and isolation from economic markets. Whilst accepting these symptomatic explanations, this project proposes that in search of solutions to inequality renewed qualitative consideration be made of deeper social structures of land conflict and land hunger in particular.  Throughout Africa and Latin America the uneven distribution and patterns of ownership of land continue to produce serious levels of unrest and desperation. Although clearly linked to a complex of social prejudices and unequal power structures, we seek to investigate further whether the facilitation of conflict and hunger fundamentally lies with the continuance of competing legal norms, or legal pluralities.

In Africa and Latin America the conditions of rights to land are commonly characterised by ambiguous rules and norms that are intimately connected to the construction and inequality of both national and local social structures and ethnic and religious identities. A plurality of legal norms, consisting not only non-state forms of law that oppose the laws of the State, but a plethora of legal alternatives that combine to constitute and actively structure the State, continue as key features in both regions local political dynamics, and central factors in determining varying level of rights and access to land. In both regions a series of different historical efforts have, as part of the projects of conquest, colonialism and development, been made to engineer and homogenise legality as a means to establish legitimate power and order. Recognition needs to be made of the existence and varying impact of these historic projects of legal homogenisation. Whilst recognising the importance and validity of these differences, it is also clear from both recent research and events that that the question of legal plurality and its link to rights and access to land continues in both regions. Indeed, in recent years the growing international political recognition of the continuing problems of legal plurality, combined with the changing foundations of national and international government, have led to new debates and practical efforts in both regions to address and integrate these competing legal systems in the interests of stability and poverty reduction.

The aim of this project is to consider the historical and anthropological development of these new initiatives to accept legal plurality and to consider their value as mechanisms of justice for the poor, and in particular for assisting rights and access to land. We propose that comparative south-south anthropological and historical research in a selection of countries known for their legal plurality (i.e Tanzania and Malawi in Africa and Bolivia, Guatemala in Latin America), will produce innovative detailed qualitative accounts of these initiatives and their function in contrasting, but illustrative, social and historical contexts. Whilst accepting the role that the ambiguity stemming from legal pluralities has played in generating conflict, we ask here whether the formalised recognition and dialogue between contrasting legal systems (inter-legality) can play an important role in assuring a vital development chain i.e. from easing negotiations over rights to land, and from there to peace and poverty reduction?

Project staff: John-Andrew McNeish (project leader), Eyolf Jul-Larsen, Siri Lange and Hilde Selbervik