An image of the country's flag.

Zambia is a heavily rural low-income country with widespread poverty. Eighty percent of the rural population makes a living through subsistence farming on customary land. Zambia’s 1.1 million small-scale farm households cultivate on average just one hectare each. Only about 2000 large-scale farmers cultivate 20 hectares or more. Agricultural production levels vary widely due to policy interventions and weather, and the percentage of the population vulnerable to food insecurity has increased. In general, the least productive land in Zambia is held under customary tenure by small farmers while the most productive land is leased for commercial farms, mining operations, and urban and tourism developments.

Thirty-four percent of land in Zambia is agricultural and 57% is forest. Deforestation is occurring at a rate of 1% annually as a result of encroachment from agriculture, tree harvesting for fuelwood and sale, and uncontrolled burning. Overgrazing, the use of heavy machinery, fertilizer and chemicals in commercial agriculture, and mining operations have all contributed to soil degradation and erosion.

Since enactment of the 1995 Land Act allowing for conversion of customary land to state land with private leasehold interests, at least 10% of land held under customary tenure has been privatized through conversion to leaseholds. In some cases these leaseholds have resulted in needed investment in rural areas and created opportunities for local employment, contract farming, secondary businesses, development of infrastructure and social services, and transfer of know-how.
However, the conversion of customary land to large leaseholds has in other cases eroded local rights to common-pool resources and enclosed communal land, causing local people to lose access to water sources, grazing land, and forest products.

No regulations were enacted under the 1995 Land Act. Efforts to pass a land policy since then have been unsuccessful. Beginning with the passage of the 1995 Land Act and continuing through the years that followed, civil society members raised concerns that proposed land policies failed to provide adequate protections for the population dependent on rural land and access to natural resources. Policymakers have turned their attention to the land provisions in the new constitution, which is expected to be adopted following the 2011 elections.

The draft constitution provides for: (1) equitable access to land and associated resources; (2) equitable access to and ownership of land by women; (3) land tenure security; (4) sustainable and productive management of land resources; (5) transparent and cost-effective management of land; (6) conservation and protection of ecologically sensitive areas; and (7) cost-effective and efficient settlement of land disputes.

In addition, the draft constitution provides for the continuation of the customary and private (leasehold) tenure systems and calls for revisions to legislation to be enacted to: revise existing land laws; prohibit land speculation; address imbalances in land alienation; provide for periodic land audits; provide means for securing customary land tenure; provide equitable access to state land; enable settlement of landless people; and establish minimum and maximum holdings of arable land.


Donors can help Zambia develop a more dynamic, productive agriculture sector by providing assistance in the following areas:

  • Support Implementation of Land Principles in the Draft Constitution. The draft constitution currently being debated by the National Constitutional Convention includes a comprehensive land section that supports private investment in rural land while recognizing the need for tenure security in customary land, equitable land allocation and alienation procedures, and support for small farmers. The draft constitution calls for new and revised legislation to support these principles. Donors should provide early support for the process of creating legislation and necessary implementing institutions in order to help prevent the gaps and voids in implementation that have undermined the effectiveness of laws governing the country’s land and natural resources. Also, since the formal and customary laws governing land and natural resources provide no affirmative support for the protection and improvement of women’s rights, donors should bring a gender focus to the legislative framework and help create the legal space to protect and improve the land rights of women.
  • Support Community Involvement in Rural Investment. Donors can provide critical support for the drafting of laws and regulations that encourage investment, while ensuring that the rights of the rural population are protected through options for securing customary land rights and provisions for community notice and authorization of land conversion and investment plans. As an initial step, donors should support case studies of several of the investments in agribusiness, industrial development, and tourism enterprises. The case studies should evaluate the processes followed, and identify the positive and negative impacts of the investments on the communities. They could be used as the basis for developing recommendations for the legal framework and best practices for communities, investors, and local governments. As opportunities for investors and rural communities to work together increase, donors can assist in capacity-building within communities and with investing entities. To this end, donors should help local governance systems to integrate aspects of customary and government systems and provide effective roles for traditional authorities and local officials, especially in the areas of land use, land investment, and rural development.
  • Develop and Strengthen the Legal Framework for Urban Land. In conjunction with urban and peri-urban planning efforts, donors can support a land tenure assessment for urban areas and provide assistance with the development of a legal framework for formalization of urban and peri-urban rights. Donors can also assist with the development of urban and peri-urban land allocation programs that provide land access for marginalized migrants to urban areas and the poor.
  • Strengthen Land Administration and Land Dispute Resolution. Donors can provide support for the streamlining and simplification of Zambia’s land administration system, including effective decentralization of land administration and the creation of a next-generation land tribunal that is accessible and effective and integrates customary and formal systems.
  • Support Community-Based Forest Management and Forest Institutions. The failure to establish the Forestry Commission called for by the legislative framework has limited advancement of sustainable forest management, including community-based forest management programs in Zambia. Donors have been reluctant to continue programs or develop new interventions absent the necessary institutional framework. The country’s experience with community- based wildlife management in programs such as the Luangwa Integrated Rural Development Project (LIRDP) and Administrative Design for Game Management Areas (ADMADE), along with the pilot efforts at joint forest management programs, will provide useful background and foundations for the design of a community-based program focused on forests. Assuming that political will for revitalization of the sector is forthcoming, donors should provide substantial support to help develop the necessary institutions, provide capacity-building, and begin program development. Donors should pay particular attention to the engagement of women in forest institutions and at all levels of any future community-based forest management program.


Despite a decade of economic growth, two-thirds of Zambia’s population is poor; half lives in extreme poverty. Eighty percent of the country’s rural population is dependent on subsistence and small-scale rainfed farming on customary land. Drought and flooding are common and agricultural productivity is low.

About one-fifth of irrigable land is irrigated, remote provinces lack critical infrastructure and inputs, and marketing outlets are undevel- oped. Zambia has a high rate of migration from rural to urban areas, and the cities are over- crowded. Most of the country’s urban population lives in unplanned settlements with substandard housing and limited services.
In the mid-1990’s Zambia enacted legislation intended to encourage investment in rural land and improve agricultural productivity through the privatization of customary land. The 1995 Land Act permitted conversion of customary land into long-term leases of state land. In the decade following the adoption of the Land Act, foreign investors, politicians, and local elites obtained leaseholds. Some large agribusiness, industrial, and tourism investments have provided local communities with benefits including employment, outgrower schemes, small-business opportunities, and infrastructure development. In other cases, the conversion of customary land has rendered whole communities landless, eroded rights to common pool resources, and enclosed communal land. The Land Tribunal, which was intended to protect and enforce land rights, has been underfunded and inaccessible to most of the population, leaving limited options for addressing land grievances.

Zambia’s National Constitutional Convention is drafting a new constitution, which continues to support and encourage investment in rural areas while also recognizing weaknesses in the operation of the current legal framework for land, including imbalances in the alienation of land and the need for security of customary land tenure. The draft constitution calls for new and revised legislation governing land rights and supporting principles of land tenure security and equitable access to land.

Zambia has abundant surface and groundwater water resources, but only 40% of the rural population has access to improved drinking water and only about one-quarter of the irrigable land is irrigated, leaving most farmers vulnerable to frequent droughts. Zambia is one of the most forested countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and forest land and forest products provide a critical safety net. Zambia is losing forest land to agriculture and to feed the population’s dependence on fuelwood. The lack of an operating institutional framework in this sector has left the country unable to enforce principles of sustainable forest management, including community-based forest management programs.

The development of minerals resources – particularly copper and cobalt – has driven Zambia’s economic growth in recent years, leading to infrastructure development and providing employment. The Government of Zambia (GOZ) recognizes the need to diversify the sector to develop other mineral resources, enforce environmental standards, and provide support for small-scale mining enterprises.

Published / Updated: September 2017

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