• International Lawyers Project

Zambia: ILP’s work towards Undoing 7 decades of Exclusionary Land Reforms



Upon independence in 1964, the government of Zambia began distribution of land that had previously been held under colonial ownership to Zambian citizens. This prompted reforms in the land regime, beginning in 1970 with the coming into force of the Land Acquisition Act. The Act’s main objective was the nationalisation of land held by absentee landlords, to stimulate private and foreign investment. These reforms also paved the way for the conversion of customary land to state land. About 94 per cent of the total land mass of the country previously held under customary tenure in the 1960s passed to local and foreign individuals and companies through privatisation. Whilst many of the land reforms have been lauded for promoting major improvements in agricultural productivity and output, and contributing to social economic developments in rural areas, the conversion of customary land to large leaseholds has had some very unfortunate consequences including: the trampling of communal rights, an increase in rural poverty and degradation of environmental resources.


Local communities have increasingly lost access to water resources, grazing land, and forest products. The least productive land in the country, which had traditionally been held under customary tenure by smallholder farmers, effectively passed into the hands of local elites and foreign investors, to the great detriment of poorer, rural communities who have become increasingly marginalised. The issue has been aggravated by the weak implementation of customary land rights due to the lack of a legal framework and land rights documents.


ILP and local partners- Protecting community land and environmental rights

In recent years, civil society and indigenous people’s organisations have been calling for greater equality in implementation of land rights, and raising concerns about the inability of existing land laws to protect rural populations’ access to natural resources. Implementation of land rights is also compounded by the fact that almost 80 percent of lands in Zambia are not registered.


ILP was approached by the Zambia Land Alliance (‘ZLA’), an NGO promoting pro-poor land policies, laws and practices. ILP has been supporting ZLA to provide legal services to eight marginalised and rural districts on issues of dispute resolution;arbitration of land disputes and legal awareness advice on land and environmental rights, particularly in areas where there are mining operations. Over the years, ZLA’s mobile paralegal clinics have benefited over 20,000 citizens.


Mentoring ZLA’s Mobile Paralegal Clinics


Paralegals play an important role in facilitating legal knowledge and awareness of rights at the village level. ZLA, ILP and ILP’s volunteer experts partnered to design a training and mentoring program for ZLA’s community paralegals to improve their legal skills and knowledge on land and environmental rights to better advise the communities they work in. The ongoing partnership comprises a team of pro bono lawyers who train ZLA paralegals in small groups, with two to 5 paralegals per group to facilitate tailored learning. The ILP enlisted the help of pro bono lawyers from Clifford Chance and its affiliate firm Corpus Legal Practitioners, who provided contextual knowledge of land matters in Zambia. The virtual training sessions have been ongoing from the start of 2022.


There is hope that with the increased awareness and legal capacity building passed on in local Zambian communities by ZLA paralegals, beneficiaries of the Paralegal clinics, more people in Zambian would seek to enforce the law by initiating legal action to actualise their rights. Such a case is that of 13 village dwellers in Zambia who were evicted by a commercial farmer in 2013 and forced to live out in the open for months without adequate access to water and no source of livelihood or permission to cultivate land. They filed a complaint with the Zambian High Court with the help of the ZLA and Southern Africa Litigation Centre.This action followed the findings of the ZLA in 2017 regarding displaced residents. The High Court in Lusaka ruled in their favour, holding that the conversion of customary land was illegal and that the resulting forced displacement violated the community’s rights to life, freedom of movement and association, dignity, and equal protection of the law. The court ordered the Attorney-General, the local government and one of the companies at issue to provide relief, including providing alternative land and compensation for rights violations.