Skip to main content

Protecting Land Rights of the Vulnerable

By September 2, 2016December 16th, 2019Internship Grant Program, LEMU, Uganda

The following post is written by 2L Gloria Dandridge, who interned with Land and Equity in Uganda (LEMU) this past summer.

I joined the Center for Global Justice, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law so that I could gain practical legal experience. I also joined because I know that the Center for Global Justice is partnered with some great organizations around the world. The Center for Global Justice was able to send several students out into the world to intern with its partners. The organization that I was blessed to work with as an intern this summer is the Land and Equity Movement of Uganda (LEMU). LEMU is an organization that uses law and politics to bring change to Uganda by stimulating debate about land tenure and helping to protect the land rights of the vulnerable population in Uganda. They encourage all people to get involved in the fight to protect land rights.

One thing that I appreciate about LEMU is the functionality of the organization. LEMU has a board of directors that oversee the works of the organization, and it does much of its work behind the scenes. The Executive Director of LEMU is accountable to the board of directors, but has freedom to make any necessary decisions concerning LEMU. The organization has four offices strategically placed in different parts of Uganda. Each office has a program manager, at least one lawyer, an administrative assistant, a finance and budget coordinator, and paid volunteers to help with the cases that LEMU receives. During a M&E meeting, I had the privilege to meet most of the people in the organization. In addition to the functionality of the organization, I love that each person working at LEMU works hard to make positive change in the communities in which they work. Each position in the organization is important to its functionality, and the leaders of LEMU are sure to uphold that principle. I am so honored to have worked with such an awesome organization and such amazing people.

My internship with the Land and Equity Movement has given me a new perspective on land and property. As an American city dweller, I think of land in terms of the building built on the land. In Uganda, land is in many cases the only source of income or the only way of feeding one’s family. Thus, the value of the land among the people has nothing to do with the property built on the land, but everything to do with what that land can produce (e.g., food). Also, in the United States, there is only one way to show land title. In order for title to transfer from one person to another, the owner must have a valid deed of title and convey it to the new buyer. In Uganda, however, there is more than one land tenure system. For example, one system is that of customary land title and another is that of a freehold land title. This dual system originated from colonialism where the British had one set of laws and Ugandans had a separate legal system to govern themselves under customary law. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, they adopted the British law as the law of the land, but customary law still remains valid law in the Constitution as long as the customary law is not repugnant to basic principles of equity and justice. Customary law is the law that is known by the people and many of them only relate to the customary law. Despite this, customary laws are not favored by the people in positions of power. 

Because of this dynamic, land laws and land transactions are very complicated. For example, succession under customary law protects widows and orphans on the land even though land passes through the patrimonial lineage. There is no such protection in the formal system. Title to land is only a matter of paper work, and it does not consider anything outside of that. Customary land laws have principles that are designed to consider families and the community at large. Because many of the local community members relate to the customary law, vulnerable people are at risk of being taken advantage. For instance, customary land may be converted to a freehold estate under the law, but a freehold estate may not be converted to customary land. When the land is passed to the customary heir, who then has the responsibility to protect all of the customary owners, the customary heir could get the proper paperwork showing freehold ownership and remove everyone he does not want around. The people most likely to experience an ousting are widows and orphans. They end up having to leave their land, even though they should have been protected and their ownership rights should have been enforced. 

This is a very interesting phenomenon that LEMU is actively addressing. Because 80% of land ownership in Uganda is under the customary land tenure, LEMU seeks to bridge the gap by linking communities to policy makers. LEMU is empowering communities to follow the good practices of customary law, since customary law is officially recognized in the Constitution. Many people in the Western World only see one way of owning land, and customary land is indeed a difficult concept to grasp. LEMU, however, is a local organization that sees land the same way that communities see that land. Because of this truth, LEMU is a very valuable asset to Uganda concerning land disputes. I am so privileged to be working with an organization that works alongside communities to reconcile land disputes, while also addressing legal discrepancies in the system. These complications in Uganda need to be addressed and LEMU is an excellent organization working very hard to make a difference. 

This post was written by a Center for Global Justice student intern.  The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.