Niger is among the poorest countries in the world, with most of its population dependent for their livelihoods upon subsistence agriculture and livestock-rearing. The country has experienced declining average rainfall, desertification, recurring droughts and deforestation. Undernourishment is widespread and the majority of the rural population does not have access to safe drinking water. The severe drought and food emergency in 2005 caused the under- or malnourishment of many and left the country’s population extremely vulnerable.
The government has been unsuccessful in its attempts through legislation to increase land tenure security for the population, individualize land-use rights, and reduce the power of traditional chiefs. Instead, there are now layers of often contradictory land rights. The 1993 Rural Code decentralizes land administration and allows for registration of customary land rights, but confusion over what rights can be registered, and the lack of capacity to manage land registration, has caused an increase in land disputes and increased the risk that those with less power to assert claims, such as women and pastoralists, will ultimately lose land rights.
In principle and under law, women and men have equal rights to land and other natural resources. However, in practice, rural women are among the country’s poorest people and their ability to access land depends on their relationships to male family members.
KEY ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERVENTIONS
Donors could consider the following land and natural resource interventions as ways to promote food security, improve natural resource management and increase economic growth through greater tenure security:
- Implementing the Rural Code. Many commentators have noted that the Rural Code is being only marginally implemented, and that where it is implemented it has uncovered latent conflicts without providing for an accessible and effective dispute-resolution forum, thus reducing tenure security. Donors could assist in reviewing the current status of the Rural Code’s implementation and provide technical advice for improving implementation or making necessary course-corrections. USAID in particular could use its expertise to evaluate the vision of the Rural Code against the situation on the ground and its impact to date, targeting the locations where pilot registration has occurred and pilot local land commissions have been established. The study could also investigate how the code’s implementation is affecting the country’s poorest families, emphasizing its impact on women.
- Strengthening and Implementing the Water Code. Donors could support an evaluation of the Water Code in light of the Rural Code and customary practices. The study could include recommended changes to the Water Code that harmonize it with the Rural Code and customary practices on the ground. USAID in particular could work with the government to design pilot efforts to protect the rights of traditional user-groups to manage grazing resources and exclude others as necessary to promote sustainability.
- Strengthening Conflict Resolution. One gap in the current framework for dispute resolution is the lack of implementing regulations for the Rural Code that could provide guidance to dispute-resolution tribunals. Donors could work with the government to draft such regulations. In addition, it might be appropriate to help the government amend the Rural Code to recognize and register overlapping tenure rights. Finally, donors could support an assessment of current conflict-resolution mechanisms and then assist the government in strengthening or creating local dispute- resolution institutions.
Following Niger’s President Tandja’s unconstitutional effort to extend his term in office, in 2009 most donors (including the US) suspended all but humanitarian assistance to the country. A military coup with substantial public support ousted President Tandja from office in February 2010. Political stability remains fragile in the months following the coup; the military junta is working toward creating a functioning government capable of responding to donor pressure for elections by the end of 2010. In the midst of the political upheaval, drought and failed harvests created a significant food security crisis in Niger. USAID has responded with US $48 million in humanitarian assistance (Reuters 2010; USAID 2010b).
Niger is among the poorest countries in the world, ranking last in the most recent United Nations Human Development Index. Most Nigeriens depend on subsistence agriculture and livestock-rearing for their livelihoods – activities that are highly susceptible to the harsh climate, increasing degradation of soil and vegetation, and the droughts that plague the country. Thirty-two percent of the population is undernourished and 40% of children under five are chronically malnourished. Sixty-four percent of the rural population does not have access to safe drinking water, relying on pond water that is often contaminated with guinea worms, animal waste, and chemicals.
Since its independence from France in 1960, Niger’s successive governments have passed legislation intending to increase land tenure security for the population, support the individualization of land-use rights, and reduce the power of traditional chiefs. The laws have created layers of often contradictory land rights and have been largely unsuccessful at increasing land tenure security for the rural population. The Rural Code of 1993 allows for registration of customary land rights. The combination of confusion over what rights can be registered under the Rural Code and the lack of capacity in local institutions to manage land registration have caused an increase in land disputes and a risk that those with less power to assert claims, such as women and pastoralists, will ultimately lose land rights.
Niger’s Constitution asserts the right of all individuals to own property, and the Rural Code provides women and men with equal rights to land and other natural resources. Despite these formal pronouncements, Niger’s rural women are among the country’s poorest people; they have little economic power, are almost entirely dependent on the land for their livelihoods, and their ability to access land depends on their relationships to male family members. If those relationships end due to death, marriage, or divorce, women risk losing their means of survival.
Niger suffers from declining average rainfall, desertification, and drought. The country has limited forestland and deforestation is occurring at an annual rate of 1%, yet the vast majority of the population is dependent on forest resources for fuel. Policies in recent decades have encouraged the sustainable harvesting of fuelwood through regulated markets. Reforestation efforts to combat desertification are also underway.