The Church has always been aware that the distribution of land plays an important role in the struggle for justice and equality, particularly in rural societies.
In 1997, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued an important document on land reform. It strongly criticized the accumulation of large stretches of land in the hands of a few powerful people, called “latifunia” in Latin America. The church condemns the latifundia because they “deprive a vast number of people of the right to take part in the process of production through their own labour…” (Towards a Better Distribution of Land, no. 32).
The Bishops taking part in the Second African Synod in 2009 were equally worried about the surge of land grabs on the continent. In one of the propositions they made to the Pope they said: “since large stretches of fertile land and water resources are unscrupulously exploited by foreign and local investors in many African countries, causing the displacement and dispossession of poor persons and their communities, who are often powerless to oppose this ‘assault’, this Synod urgently calls upon all governments to ensure that its citizens are protected from the unjust alienation of their land and access to water, which are essential goods of the human person”.
The African bishops demand that “all negotiations on land deals be conducted in full transparency and with the participation of the local communities who may be affected; land alienation deals should not be contracted out nor signed without the free, prior and informed consent of the local communities concerned, nor should people forfeit their land without proper compensation” (Synodus Episcoporum, II Coetus Specialis Pro Africa, n. 30).
The bishops also committed themselves to get involved with land problems and gave themselves an outline of what to do. Given the moral standing that the church still enjoys in most countries, she could act on several levels. As most land deals are negotiated in secret, the Church should demand an open, public debate on land policies and major land contracts as they involve the well-being of present and future generations. Since the Church claims to be the “conscience of the nation,” it should denounce as illegitimate and immoral those cases when people are deprived of their land and their means of livelihood without adequate compensation.
In May 2012, the United Nations adopted international guidelines with the goal of “improving secure access to land, fisheries, and forests, and protecting the rights of millions of often very poor people.” These Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land Tenure pave the way for much-needed reforms to land governance, for example promoting equal rights for women in securing land titles and encouraging states to ensure that poor people get legal help during land disputes. A particularly strong point of the guidelines is their call for governance to apply to “all forms of tenure, including public, private, communal, collective, indigenous, and customary.” Also in May 2012, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) resolved that “all necessary measures must be taken by the State to ensure participation, including the free, prior and informed consent of communities, in decision making related to natural resources governance”; and to “ensure independent social and human rights impact assessments that guarantee free prior informed consent”.
If the church wants to be “a voice of the voiceless,” the national and diocesan Peace and Justice Commission could launch campaigns on land rights in the same way they worked to promote citizen’s rights in the struggle for more democracy. Catholic radio stations and publications can spread information based on the UN Voluntary Guidelines. Even parishes in rural areas could encourage their members to form farmers’ associations to know and defend their land rights.
The church owns much land in Africa and defends its land rights. To be credible it needs to defend with equal vigour the rights of those whose land and livelihood are threatened by the land grabbers invading Africa today.