Page last updated at 21:16 GMT, Monday, 29 May 2006 22:16 UK

Ghana chiefs' land rows spook investors

By Orla Ryan

Accra businesswoman Efua nearly lost her farm when she found herself at the centre of a row over land ownership.

Palm plantation in Ghana
Chiefs frequently control the land for the benefit of communities

She leased 1.5 acres of land from one of the country's many chiefs, only for the chief's relatives to lease the land to someone else several years later.

"They said the person who originally leased the land had no authority to do so," she says.

"I had to pay some money to them. Apart from what I originally paid, I paid them some 9m cedis ($1,000; 538).

"After paying them the money, they wanted me to pay another 40m cedis."

Once she realised the initial payment would not satisfy them, she contacted the police.

Eventually the chief's relatives agreed to give up their claim on the land.

Centuries of tradition

Ghana's centuries-old chieftaincy system is one of Africa's oldest ruling classes.

Osu Tool property, with a "Keep Off" warning
Demand for land is growing fast in Ghana

In line with tradition, chiefs cannot sell any of the land vested in the chieftaincy, but they can lease it.

That way, future generations will continue to benefit from chieftaincy land, either by collecting rent from tenants or by tilling the land themselves.

But a growing population and investor interest have increased demand for land in Ghana, so the chiefs, who hold much of the country's land in trust for future generations, can wield huge power.

The country's unique system of land ownership, where chiefs frequently control the land for the benefit of the communities they represent, is revealing an ugly side.

Some chiefs and their extended families are pushing for profit from their valuable asset, profit which is not necessarily shared with the communities they represent.

Drink money

In some parts of Ghana, chiefs traditionally got drink money or a bottle of schnapps as a token offering to start negotiations on the terms of the lease.

But as demand for land has grown, this drink money is no longer just a pre-negotiation icebreaker, says the Land Commission's Principal Lands Officer Isaac Karikari.

Instead, it can now be a request from the chiefs for hard cash, cash which may not be used to benefit the communities they represent, he says.

Land can be leased several times over and thousands of disputes are clogging up Ghana's legal system, making investors wary of putting their money into the country and life difficult for small businesses, he adds.

Mr Karikari frequently tells investors to ensure they are dealing with the rightful owner of the land.

"There are so many chiefs fighting against each other. If you want to get land you have to really conduct a search," he says.

It is very difficult when it comes to investment.

Palm woes

Land ownership is so fragmented that many find it difficult to get a large chunk of land.

Access to land is one of the major obstacles to the expansion of palm oil plantation GOPDC.

"The farmers may have land, the chief may have land [but] the land tenure is so fragmented, if you want to talk about a certain piece of land, you are dealing with several people," says Joseph Inkumsah, managing director of GOPDC.

An adviser to the Land Administration project, which was set up in 2003 to harmonise laws on land ownership, Dr Karikari says legal reform is needed and chiefs need central land offices, to keep track of who is leasing what land.

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