A Glossary of Common Terms for Land and Land Tenure
Access to land: a local and/or legally recognized right to enter onto and use a physically defined land area. Access rights may be obtained through family, group membership, or legally sanctioned processes such as allocation, purchase, inheritance, etc. Access rights are defined in terms of location, time, use, and the individual’s relationship to the community.
Agrarian reform: a program of activities designed to alter the agricultural structure of a country to increase agricultural production and improve standards of living of rural populations. Such reforms will often include land reform or land tenure reform components.
Alienation of land: the transfer of ownership rights in land or property.
Alternative dispute resolution: a process of dispute resolution taking place outside of the formal court structure using arbitration or mediation mechanisms upon which both parties have agreed.
Arbitration: a process of dispute resolution through which a neutral third party renders a decision after each disputant has had a chance to be heard.
Boundary demarcation: the process of identification and acceptance of property boundaries. These boundaries may be physically created on the ground and have recognizable features (survey markers, fences, trees or bushes, roads, waterways, paths, etc.); or they may rely on a mathematical description usually based on a co-ordinate system.
Bundle of rights: rights held in relation to access and utilization of land resources. These include, but are not restricted to such things as the right to sell, mortgage, and bequeath land, cut trees, plant crops, construct homes, etc. This bundle can be broken up, merged, passed on to others, and so on. Some rights will be held by individuals, some by groups, and others by political entities. For any tenure system each of these rights in the bundle will have at least three dimensions: the rightholder, time (the duration of the right), and space (the geographical area covered by the right). The assurance of these rights is provided by community sanctions or the State.
Cadastral map: a map showing the boundaries of many land parcels over a larger geographic area. Such maps may also depict other geographic features such as roads, rivers, and structures. The level of precision and cost of cadastral surveys to create the map is dependent on the accuracy needed for boundary descriptions. The accuracy should reflect factors such as the value of the land, the risk and cost of land disputes and the information needs of the users of the cadastre.
Cadastre: a type of land information system that contains a set of records about land parcels. Specialized cadastres may support records of property rights (legal or judicial cadastre), taxation (fiscal cadastre), or records of land use (land use cadastre). A multi-purpose cadastre will register many different attributes of land parcels.
Civil Code: law inspired by Roman Law and the 1804 Napoleonic Code, the primary feature of which is that laws are written into a collection and codified, and not developed by judges. The objective of a civil code is to provide all citizens with an accessible and written collection of the laws which apply to them and which judges must follow.
Codification of customary law: the process of collecting and systematically arranging the laws and customs of a community. The end product may be formalized into statutory law or code.
Codified law: laws which have been compiled, arranged and systematized into an ordered code. This can be done for a given jurisdiction or for a discrete branch of the law, such as commercial, criminal, or land law.
Collateral: something pledged as security for the repayment of a loan. The collateral is held by the lender until the debt is repaid. If the debt is not repaid, the ownership of the property is transferred to the lender. In order to use land as collateral, proof of ownership is almost always needed. But most small-scale farmers in Africa lack proof of ownership, and therefore have little ability to access credit.
Collective ownership: situations where holders of land rights are clearly defined as a group and have the right to exclude others from the enjoyment of those land rights.
Common law: a body of principles and rules of action based on judgments and decrees of courts.
Common property: land and other resources over which individuals or communities have specific common rights. Common property refers to co-ownership rights which cannot be divided, alienated or developed without the unanimous consent of all common property owners, or according to the rules established by the common owners. Thus, common property owners have full rights of ownership as long as they act with common consent.
Communal ownership: situations where rights to use resources are held by a community. While these rights may include communal rights to pastures and forests they may also include exclusive private rights to agricultural land and residential plots.
Concessions: a specialized form of lease generally defined as a grant by a government of specific rights and privileges over property to an individual or company to develop the resources of the property, such as a mining concession, forestry concession, a concession to build a canal, or a concession to manage a government property. Payments for concessions may be related to the volume of sales or resources extracted rather than the fixed annual rental payment that occurs with leases.
Conservation management: an extension of land management that emphasizes the need to protect and safeguard natural resources.
Co-ownership: property held jointly by two or more people. The enjoyment of a property in co-ownership is said to be in undivided shares, in that each person has the same right to any part of the property. There are two forms of co-ownership; joint tenancy and tenancy in common.
Customary land rights: the holding of land in accordance with customary law or tradition. Customary land law regulates rights to enjoy some use of land that arises through customary practice rather than through written or codified law. They are often the rights created by ancestral occupation and use of land or by a cultural system whereby social identity and kin group membership provide people with access to land and resources.
Two central features are common to many customary tenure systems in Africa. First, many customary systems view land and resources as being inalienable, such that property rights cannot be sold by those to whom the land has been allocated. Second, the same piece of land can be subject to multiple claims that relate to the different ways in which it is used by different groups and individuals (at different times, intensities, duration, uses, etc.).
Customary law: the body of past and present indigenous law and custom which regulates how a society functions.
Decentralization: the transfer of administrative powers (decision making, executive, and/or fiscal) to lower levels of government with varying degrees of autonomy.
Deeds registration: a system of proof of property ownership and interests based on the registration of transfer and other documents. An entry in the registry provides evidence of the vendor’s right to sell. Under a deeds system of conveyance, security of title is obtained by reviewing all previous transactions on a piece of property, demonstrating an unbroken thread of ownership through the sequence of deeds over the requisite number of years, to ensure that there are no outstanding claims of ownership. A deeds registration system does not provide a guarantee of title, only access into the chain of transactions that can be used to prove title. Further security of ownership is often provided through title insurance which underwrites any losses that may arise through defects in the title.
Dispute resolution: the settlement of conflict between groups or individuals. The factors determining how societies deal with internal disputes are related to the formal authority structures of courts and written law or traditional authority structures of family, village councils, and leadership figures.
Easement: the right of use over the property of another, for example the right of access or the right of passage of utilities.
Eminent domain: The right of the State to acquire real property without the consent of the property owner in order to use the property for a public purpose.
Expropriation: the process through which the State acquires land or property for the purposes of redevelopment in the public interest, such as road construction, schools, hospitals, etc. Expropriation may also be used to redistribute land in land reform programs. The definition of the ‘public purpose’, the identification of owners of the property being acquired, the valuation of the property, and the payment of compensation are all issues to be considered in expropriation of land. Expropriation occurs when the State exercises its right of eminent domain.
Forest code: the package of laws and regulation which govern individual and collective use of forests (production, protection, preservation, etc.) as well as regulates the powers and mechanisms for the administration of the forest area.
Freehold: the right to full private ownership of land, free of any obligations to the State other than payment of taxes and observance of land use controls imposed on the land by the State in the public interest. The term freehold is used interchangeably with private property or private land ownership.
Immovable property: property in land and fixtures such as buildings attached to the land, also referred to as real property. The term immovable property is typically used in civil law countries.
Inalienable: not transferable, that which cannot be bought, sold, or transferred from one person to another such as rivers, public highways and certain rights.
Indigenous land rights: rights specific to a particular ethnic group having evolved through interaction of culture and environment and overseen by authorities whose legitimacy is based on occupation and spiritual ties to the locality.
Informal settlements: areas where a large number of people illegally occupy land and build housing and businesses. Informal settlements, also called “squatter settlements”, are created due to a lack of access to urban land or a lack of access to urban housing. Rights to the property are not recognized by the State. Tenure in informal settlements is insecure and the property is not part of the formal property or financial markets.
Land administration: refers to the processes of recording and disseminating information about the ownership, value, and use of land and its associated resources. Such processes include the determination of rights and other attributes of the land, the survey and description of these rights, their detailed documentation, and the provision of relevant information in support of land markets and land use management.
Land-based revenue: revenue generated from land through sales of State assets, property taxation, transfer fees, and various land administration fees.
Land consolidation: the combining of small land parcels into larger units of more economic and rational size, shape, or location. Consolidation of parcels of land into a single holding, whether voluntary or enforced, is intended to provide a more rational distribution of land to improve the efficiency of farming.
Land court: a court established having exclusive original jurisdiction over disputes involving land.
Land fragmentation: division of land into units too small for rational exploitation or so widely dispersed as to present constraints to effective management by its holder.
Land information system: a tool for legal, administrative and economic decision-making, and an aid for planning and development. A land information system consists of (i) a database containing spatially referenced land related data for a defined area and (ii) procedures and techniques for the systematic collection, updating, processing and distribution of the data. The base of a land information system is a uniform spatial referencing system.
Land market: the foci where buyers and sellers of interests in land meet. Broadly speaking the market in land rights includes a range of possible transactions such as sales, leases, mortgages, land exchanges, and other temporary transfers.
Land transaction: the transfer of rights in land, permanently through sales or inheritances or temporarily through leases, sharecropping arrangements, mortgages, etc.
Land ownership: the set of rights in land held by an owner. These include rights to use and dispose of the interests in the land through sale, lease, bequest, etc.
Land policy: the set of objectives put forward by the State through various laws, regulations, and policy directives that delineate its goals, intentions, and measures for its desired land tenure, land use, land management, and land administration structures.
Land reclamation: the process of bringing unusable land to a usable state with higher value, for example through swamp drainage, desalinization, reforestation, or recovery from past environmentally unsound land use or natural disaster.
Land redistribution: the redistribution of landholdings usually involving the resettlement of farmers and reallocation of property rights over the land.
Land reform: the redistribution of land holdings in an attempt to improve access rights to certain segments of a society. The process usually involves the breaking up of large land holdings and redistributing the land to landless people or to those who have been working on the larger land holdings. (See also Agrarian Reform and Land Tenure Reform)
Land register: a public register used to record the existence of deeds or title documents over land and comprises the registered details of each property.
Land registration: the process of entering land rights into a public register. The aim of land registration is to guarantee the security of property transactions, to protect the owner from encroachment by third parties, and to generally enhance land tenure security. This is accomplished through the ability to uniquely identify a piece of property and attribute ownership or other real rights of that property to an individual or legal entity. The location and extent of the estate in question and the nature of rights affecting it are defined and recorded in the land register.
Land reserves: land set aside by the State for future State needs, for future allocation or for protection of unique ecosystems or biodiversity.
Land speculation: the process through which land is acquired not for immediate productive use, but for the expectation that the land will increase in value and that subsequent sale will generate a profit. Speculation is generally common in situations of rapidly rising land values due to urban expansion, public works programs (road corridors), or other changing economic opportunities.
Land subdivision: the process through which a piece of land is divided into smaller units.
Land taxation: the process through which governments levy taxation on land parcels. Land taxation is a major source of local government revenue for those countries where land and property taxation is in place. Land taxes are usually based on a rate levied per hectare with adjustment for land quality and use. A system of land taxation requires the ability to identify parcels of land and the owners to which they belong, thus requiring some form of land records which provide the necessary information while being relatively inexpensive, and is easily understood by the population being taxed.
Land tenure: the institutional (political, economic, social, and legal) structure that determines how individuals and groups secure access to the productive capabilities of the land.
Land tenure reform: the process through which tenure rights are changed.
Land tenure system: the totality of rules governing use and property rights in land including both formal law as well as custom.
Land valuation: the process of assigning a monetary value to a unit of land. All land may be considered to have a value.
Landlessness: the state of having neither access to land nor rights in land.
Landlord: the holder of an estate in land who has leased it to another person.
Leases/leasehold: any agreement which gives rise to a relationship of landlord (lessor) and tenant (lessee) vis-à-vis real property. In a lease, the owner gives up possession and use of his real property for a definite term, and at the end of term the owner has the absolute right to retake, control, and use property.
Legal pluralism: the existence of different legal systems existing parallel to one another which apply to different groups citizens or to all citizens (customary law and formal law, or Islamic law and western law).
Marginalized groups: those individuals or groups who have limited or restricted access to or control over land resources because of gender, economic status, tribal or ethnic background, social status, citizenship, religion, or other stratification mechanisms.
Marital property: property, including land, owned by married couples (and in some cases couples in consensual unions), which is managed during marriage and is divided if the marriage ends. Property brought into the marriage may have different rules than that which is acquired during the marriage.
Matrilineal inheritance: a system by which, according to law or custom, land passes from the deceased owner through the female line to his or her heirs.
Mortgage: the conveyance of a property by a debtor (the mortgagor) to a creditor (the mortgagee) as security for a financial loan with the provision that the property shall be returned when the loan is paid off by a certain date.
Movable property: a category of property that can be moved, also referred to as personal property.
Notary: a legal professional who in many jurisdictions is responsible for seeing that transactions are properly undertaken.
Parcel/Plot: the basic spatial unit in a cadastre. The parcel/plot is an area of land having a particular ownership, land use, or other characteristics to distinguish it from neighboring areas of land.
Pastoralism: an economic production system dependent on livestock and the range and water resources necessary to support it. It may include both natural vegetation as well as agricultural land where animals graze following harvests. Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people and livestock in search of grazing and water. Agropastoralism combines both crop agriculture and animal husbandry with pasture uses.
Patrilineal inheritance: a system by which, according to law or custom, land passes from the deceased owner through the male line to his or her heirs.
Peri-urban area: an area on the periphery of the urban area of a town.
Private property: property held in freehold by private persons, either natural persons or legal persons.
Privatization: the transfer of economic activities and resources from State ownership and/or control into private ownership. These activities include state enterprises, state farms, collectives, and public lands.
Property rights: a bundle of rights to possess, use and transfer land and other natural resources. Different rights within the bundle may be distributed in various combinations among people, legal entities, and units of government. Transfers may occur through selling, leasing, inheritance and other means.
Protected area: an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means.
Public property: property owned by any level of government.
Real estate: land and anything permanently attached to it.
Registration of deeds: a system whereby a deed transferring rights in land is recorded in a register of documents in order to provide public notice of the transfer. The legal right to the land arises from the deed, not from the act of recordation.
Registration of title: a system whereby a transfer of rights in land is registered in a land register. The act of registration gives rise to a legal right and is guaranteed by the State.
Regularization: a process through which informal or illegal occupiers of land receive a recognized legal right of access to the land.
Resettlement: the relocation of individuals, households or communities from their land or from land they are occupying. Resettlement often results from infrastructure upgrading, large development initiatives, new government land policies, or natural disasters that destroy land. Resettlement can also be driven by government policies dealing with marginalized or minority groups. Resettlement can be either voluntary or involuntary.
Restitution: the restoration of former rights in land to previous owners of that land. In a sense, restitution involves the re-privatization of land and property or the creation of new property rights over land that had been formerly taken over by the State. It may also include the return of land to indigenous groups. Often, this land was acquired by the State during programs of collectivization or conversion of private to State assets by socialist or communist governments.
Rule of law: respect for the legal system (Constitution, Civil Code, law, and regulations) in a given country by all citizens and public authorities such that legal decisions are made and adhered to by application of the law in a systematic and transparent fashion.
Security of tenure: is related to the recognition, guarantee, and enforceability of property rights by the State and other members of the community.
Sharecropping: a mechanism whereby a landowner lends out land to individuals in need of land in exchange for a portion of the crop grown.
Sporadic registration: the process of registering land for the first time on a case-by-case basis. Sporadic registration may be less expensive in the short term than systematic registration, but it will take much longer to achieve complete coverage of all titles within a given jurisdiction.
State land: land owned by the government in contrast to land ownership by private persons legal or natural.
Survey: the process of measurement of land and the recording of related geographical information for planning, management, and administrative purposes.
Systematic registration: the systematic approach to adjudicating, surveying, and registering parcels on an area-by-area basis and bringing all claims in an area to light at the same time. Systematic registration is relatively expensive because of the typically large numbers of parcels being dealt with, although the average cost per parcel may be significantly lower than with sporadic registration.
Tenant: the person in possession of land through a lease with a landlord.
Tenure security: the situation in which landholders consider their continued occupancy rights to be guaranteed whether by virtue of formal rights, customary rules or some other form of assurance. In contrast, tenure insecurity exists when tenure rights are considered precarious, due to the risk of dispossession by the actions of other individuals, communities, or the State.
Transaction costs: the costs involved in completing a transaction in land rights. These costs are both opportunity costs and monetary costs. Opportunity costs involve the cost of transportation and accommodation (if coming to the registration office from long distances), and rent-seeking practices of land registry officials. Monetary costs may include survey costs, legal and notary fees, stamp duties, and the fee charged by the land registry to register or record the transaction.
Tree tenure: tenure rights held by individuals over trees and their products. Tree tenure rights include the right to plant trees, harvest fruit, and harvest the trees themselves. Tree tenure rights may vary from the land tenure rights. Under some systems, farmers may have land rights, but not have rights to use or benefit from the trees on their land.
Trust: an arrangement through which property rights are transferred from an individual to one or more trustees to be held for a set of beneficiaries. A trust may be established to manage income from property on behalf of minors or a large group of people.
Use right: the right to use a thing in accordance with its designated purpose. A use right is linked to membership in the resident community and perpetuated by stable and continuous occupation, confirmed by the work carried out by a family of farmers.
Usufruct: the right to use land and benefit from the production of the land, but does not include the right to transfer the land.
Valuation: the process through which land is valued using a set of criteria for determining this value. These criteria may include market prices, land capability assessments, soil quality, etc.
Zoning: a planning procedure where a designated area is allocated for a specified use or uses. Zoning is commonly intended to promote orderly development and to reduce or avoid inconsistent uses being adjacent to one another.
- Black, Henry Campbell: Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th ed. West Publishing Co., St. Paul, Mi, 1990. (Black)
- Bruce, John: “Review of Tenure Terminology”, Tenure Brief No 1, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin, July 1998. (Bruce)
- Choudhury, K., and Jansen, L. J. M., Eds., Terminology for Integrated Resources Management and Planning, FAO/UNEP, Rome,1999
- Dorner, Peter: Land Reform and Economic Development, Penguin, 1972
- Gérard Ciparisse, ed. Multilingual Thesaurus On Land Tenure, English version, Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations, Rome, 2003. (FAO)
- “Land Administration Guidelines: With Special Reference to Countries In Transition”, United Nations Economic Commission For Europe, Geneva, 1996 (LAG)
- Leonard, Rebecca and Longbottom, Judy, eds., “Land Tenure Lexicon: A glossary of terms from English and French speaking West Africa”, International Institute for Environment and Development, March 2000. (DFID)
- Münkner, Hans-H., and Kaunianen, Hagen Henry, “Fachglossar zum Orientierungsrahmen Bodenrecht und Bodenordnung der GTZ”, GTZ, Jan 2000. (GTZ)