An image of the country's flag.

From 2005 to 2009, Angola‘s GDP growth annually exceeded 10%, one of the highest rates in the world. In 2009, Angola became Africa‘s largest oil exporter, sending 75% of its output to the United States and China and generating US $24 billion or more in annual revenues. The country is believed to have huge petroleum reserves off its coast and should be able to sustain its oil economy for decades. However, in the view of many observers Angola‘s political and economic future rests on the government‘s ability to use its oil-based wealth to facilitate broader job-creation and income-generation, with a particular focus on enabling Angolans to better use the county‘s extensive agricultural resources. In order to do so, significant improvements in the governance of the oil resources are necessary, including: greater transparency and accountability, less corruption, and a fiscal regime that would enable the government to redistribute revenues to the benefit of the 18 million Angolans, most of whom now live on less than US $2 a day.

Such a rebalancing of the economy would require significant public investments to extend infrastructure and social services (including education and healthcare) into rural areas. Financial and other services (some through the private sector) would enable rural households to expand the scale and productivity of their smallholder farms. The government‘s recent efforts to attract foreign investors into the agriculture sector reflect its recognition of the importance of developing the non-oil economy and bringing new capital and technology into the sector, as well as the relative abundance of agricultural resources that the country has to offer.

Less than half of Angola‘s population now lives in a rural area almost twice the size of Texas, so it is generally assumed that access to arable land is not problematic. However, issues of Angolans‘ access to land and security of tenure have arisen repeatedly in the nation‘s history. These issues have included: (1) encroachment of outsiders onto land claimed by local residents – initially the Portuguese in the colonial era and following the end of the civil war, but more recently the urban elites and commercial enterprises that have acquired formal rights to former Portuguese farms and prime agricultural land; (2) state expropriation of land for commercial development and urbanization; and (3) displacement and resettlement of combatants and populations fleeing conflict, and their movement into areas where they had few or no prior claim or rights. If resources to develop agricultural lands become more readily available, those lands will become more valuable than they are now, potentially creating new tensions between those with formal tenure rights and those with customary or informally acquired rights.

Such tensions have already been seen in the urban and peri-urban areas where more than half of the Angolan population lives, many having moved to these areas to flee the violence and destruction of the long civil war and acquired land through informal markets or by squatting. As urban land values have risen, competing claims have been registered. Government evictions of informal settlers to make way for commercial development or infrastructure have also contributed to tensions, amid protests that due process has not been followed and compensation not provided.

Thus, improvements in the systems and institutions governing both property rights and use of the country‘s natural resources remain a significant challenge for the government and people of Angola. If the post-conflict peace and stability are to be maintained, there is little alternative to continuing resolution of the resource governance issues that both caused and sustained the decades-long war. Institutions responsible for land administration and management must be better equipped to manage land administration functions, including implementation of the formal legal framework governing land, formalization of land rights, and accessible systems of enforcement and dispute resolution. A third of households in Angola are headed by women, and attention to measures that would enable women to have more secure rights to land, understand their rights, and have access to institutions to support their rights are essential.


  • Build capacity for formalization of land rights in urban and rural areas. Almost all Angolans hold their land, whether urban or rural, under principles of customary law; few have rights recognized under formal law. Many Angolans increasingly recognize the value of formalizing their rights to land, but the government does not yet have the institutional capacity to initiate formalization procedures. The land law and regulations set a 3-year window (currently to the end of 2010, with a possible 3-year extension) in which land occupants must apply for formalization of rights. Donors can provide short- term assistance that can both address the registration task and build capacities of local authorities to sustain formalization processes over the longer term. USAID supported small land-rights formalization pilots in rural and peri-urban communities in 2006–2007 and is well-positioned to take the lessons from that experience, refine materials, and conduct larger efforts. The experience from these programs will help the government to achieve formalization of land rights countrywide, providing information on procedures, timing, documentation, and best practices. The World Bank and several partners are beginning a large project focused on smallholders that does not appear to include a land rights component. The project may provide opportunities to consider land issues, conduct pilots (e.g., land rights formalization, dispute resolution and institutional development), and provide awareness building regarding the land law and rights.
  • Promote legal literacy with regard to property rights. Few people in Angola understand their legal rights to property under formal law, including land rights, marital property rights, and inheritance rights. Absent that knowledge, even equitable laws and procedures protecting groups such as women will have little impact. Further, many government officials need training in the land law, regulations, and procedures for implementing the laws, including the formalization of land rights and granting of concessions. Absent such training, the danger that a land-rights formalization program could have the effect of adding to the wealth of elites while disenfranchising smallholders, the poor, women, and marginalized groups is extremely high. Donors, including USAID, could assist the government by designing and implementing various programs to assist in conducting public awareness campaigns, legal literacy programs, and programs to build capacity within the government to address issues of land rights.
  • Support the development of institutions to improve transparency and accountability regarding resource governance and to resolve disputes. As the government continues to realize oil-generated wealth, it should be better prepared to redistribute that wealth in ways that will build a broader base of jobs and incomes for all Angolans. Initially, this implies greater investments in rural infrastructure and agricultural development. By placing greater priority on rural development, the government can ensure that smallholder farmers are able to increase their labor productivity and incomes. But smallholders as well as larger commercial farming enterprises must be provided security of tenure if they are expected to invest their own resources in the technology and equipment needed for boosting productivity. Donors should support government efforts, at all levels, to address gaps in land-use planning and administration skills and capacities, and work with both public and private sector institutions to establish viable and fair strategies for increasing agricultural productivity. Donor support to strengthen the capacities of the judiciary as well as alternative dispute resolution systems may also be helpful as the laws and regulations passed in 2004 are more fully implemented. USAID, for example, has worked on development of institutions at the municipal level in several Angolan provinces, and could use its experience to assist institutional development at all levels, with special attention to the provincial level responsible for most land matters and the judiciary. Given the continued importance of customary law at the local levels, assistance should be provided to enable traditional authorities to understand the potential for extending formal land rights as well as to apply customary laws and the principles in ways that meet standards of equity and fairness, especially with regard to women‘s access to land.
  • Support the development of analyses and procedures to better guide decision-making regarding land allocations for commercial development. Pressures to allocate land for commercial development and the construction of infrastructure have resulted in government decisions to expropriate land, forcing people with various types of formal and customary (informal) land rights to resettle elsewhere. Compensation to those evicted has not always been forthcoming. Renewed interest in commercial agriculture also threatens to displace rural residents who have customary rights to land. A more transparent process of analysis and consultation could avoid some of the tensions that have arisen to date. Donors could provide needed support to public and private organizations capable of furthering such a process, including, for example: developing procedures for involving civil society in the evaluation of commercial development proposals; establishing norms regarding investor contributions to community and rural development, public revenue, local employment, infrastructure, and environmental protection; and preparing or refining procedures for land expropriation, including clarifying the legal framework, establishing guidelines for mandatory consideration of options, developing procedures for community consultation and participation, developing procedures for land valuation, and designing compensation packages and resettlement programs.


Before Independence in 1975, Angola was known as an agricultural producer. Large commercial farms operated by Portuguese colonialists produced coffee, sugarcane, and bananas for export. The country‘s smallholders produced most of the substantial maize exports. Land was nationalized at Independence, most of the Portuguese population left the country and abandoned their farms, and 27 years of civil war forced many rural communities from their land. Agricultural production declined. The conflict displaced more than 4 million people and destroyed infrastructure and markets, further diminishing the productivity of Angola‘s 35 million hectares of arable land and undercutting government efforts to revive the agricultural sector through privatization of the large farms.

Exploitation of Angola‘s significant mineral resources sustained the war. Diamonds supported UNITA‘s efforts while an expanding oil industry fueled the MPLA. UNITA was defeated in 2002, and peace and stability have largely been maintained. In 2009, Angola overtook Nigeria to become Africa‘s largest oil exporter, with revenues topping US $24 billion in that year. Petroleum accounts for 90% of export revenues and 80% of GDP. Diamonds constitute the other principal export. Responding to investor interest, Angola plans to increase oil production even further. Few jobs will be directly created by these investments, and Angola faces the challenge of using its growing oil revenues to develop the rest of the economy. Sixty two percent of Angola‘s population lives below the national poverty line of US $1.70 per day. More than half the population lives in urban areas, most concentrated in informal settlements with inadequate services. Limited inputs, lack of access to markets, and inadequate infrastructure have prevented Angola‘s farmers from returning the country to its former levels of agricultural productivity.

China, a major customer for Angola‘s oil, pledged more than US $20 billion to finance infrastructure development and trade in the country, and has already provided Angola with an estimated US $12 billion in oil-backed loans. Angola is directing a portion of the money to development of the rural areas with roads, ports, and airports. Foreign private investors are also seeking concessions of agricultural land with the idea of redeveloping the commercial agricultural export-oriented operations (coffee, bananas, and cotton) that were successful in the 1960s. Issues of rights to the large farms and ranches held by the Portuguese during colonial times remain.Various groups claim rights to the land, with some claims predating the colonial era, some dating to a politically-motivated redistribution of land rights that took place in the early 1990s, and others based on competing principles of customary law applied during the war years.

Land-related issues pose problems more broadly as well. People displaced by violence often returned to find land they believed to be theirs occupied by other more recent arrivals, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other areas. Demobilized soldiers received land allocations in order to promote their peaceful reintegration into rural society. In some cases, IDPs elected to remain where they had migrated during the war even though their land rights in the new area were more tenuous. Households‘ flight into cities to escape the violence resulted in rapid, uncontrolled growth of informal peri urban settlements.

Eighty-five percent of Angola‘s land is unregistered, and most land transactions take place on the informal market. Formal land administration systems and institutions in many areas are not functioning, or lack the information and tools necessary to apply the formal legal framework governing land rights. Traditional authorities (sobas) continue to administer land according to customary law. In urban areas, however, there have been increasing tensions as households‘ informal rights are challenged or are simply abrogated by authorities seeking to develop increasingly valuable land.

Angola has abundant water resources, but distribution is challenged by damaged and deteriorating water-supply systems. The country is rehabilitating existing systems and has an active campaign to supply all of its population with access to clean drinking water. The country‘s forests are sources of fuelwood, charcoal, and food for Angola‘s people. The government has revised the legal framework governing the sector to support rehabilitation of degraded forests, sustainable use of forest resources, and prevention of illegal harvesting. The proposed legislation is pending before the Council of Ministers.

Published / Updated: September 2010