Guinea: Where land and debt collide

“This land is not for sale” sign outside of Timbi Madina in the Fouta Djallon

The Guinean property regime makes it hard for external actors to co-opt land. Land grabbing in Africa has made quite a stir in recent years. Large Scale Land Acquisitions (LSLAs) happen in various forms, but some of the most impactful involve government-let public-private partnerships. In his book The Land Grabbers, Fred Pierce details how multinational corporations, investment firms, and even foreign countries are purchasing land in Africa at increasing rates. Youjin Chung and Marie Gagné describe how many of the deals made during this period have stagnated due to local roadblocks. While Guinea hasn’t been as heavily targeted for its agricultural land (that honor goes to mining concessions), it’s useful to understand how different communities might be more or less vulnerable to expropriation in the future. This anecdotal example may help us understand how farmers protect their landholdings in the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

In the summer of 2023, I conducted field research in Guinea in partnership with a large rural farmer’s union. While our surveys and interviews focused predominantly on agricultural practices and external shocks, the stories shared by farmers made it clear that the relationship between land, debt, and social reproduction is just as important. The following is based on field notes taken during farm visits in the Pita and Labé prefectures of the Fouta Djallon.

Local conditions which complicate land-grabbing arise for a few reasons. The fact that, in many cases, land tenure is not formalized and is often only recognized by community understanding, especially via broad acknowledgment of family land tenure, means someone can’t simply walk into town and buy up a lease. To use the terminology of James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State, the property system in rural Fouta Djallon is illegible to external private actors that attempt to consolidate landholdings. Second, and more unusually, the next generation of children has a right to block or nullify a land sale by their parents if it would mean they would lose out on their inheritance. If a parent were to sell the family land against their children’s wishes, those children could raise a complaint to the mayor or other official, who could then cancel the transaction. Parents need permission from their children to sell. This wouldn’t seem like a huge issue if the children didn’t care about the land and were working hard to emigrate or urbanize. But there is a recent remigration of youth returning to their home villages to work their family plots. Furthermore, land prices are skyrocketing as even more people migrate to the Fouta to cash in on the potato boom. One woman said that the parcel she bought for 500.000 GNF (~$58) ten years ago is now easily worth twenty times as much. No heritor is going to let their parents deprive them of an investment like that. Finally, the Guinean culture greatly values family landholdings. None of the farmers we talked to would consider selling their land, even if it was for enough money to retire with. One group said that if they got a big lump sum for a sale, there was no guarantee that they would still have the money in a month. With the land, they can always guarantee themselves an income if they work it. That sort of long-term security is more valuable than short-term liquidity.

The most poignant example I heard would have to be the grandfather of a local farmer who, in his last will and testament, laid a curse on any of his progeny that would sell a part of the family land.

Many contemporary scholars characterize access to formalized liberal institutions like microfinance as unambiguous social goods. But in the Fouta Djallon, rural farmers are incredibly suspicious of private credit. Few people will admit to taking out private loans, and those who do borrow take out very small amounts. Furthermore, nobody is taking out loans for consumption: loans are only ever used to increase the purchase of agricultural inputs to the level needed to exploit as much of their land as they feasibly can, given other constraints. Horror stories abound of people who fail to pay back their bank loans. People can be sent to prison, kidnapped and locked inside the credit bureau offices, or publicly humiliated by bank officials. Most farmers would prefer to run away in case of default. In every single village we visited, someone could point to an example of an individual or even whole families that fled their homes to escape creditors. Considering how strong village ties are and how deep family roots penetrate these communities, this form of self-exile is a sign of desperation. But one group of women said that running away was preferable, regardless, to the sale of their land. They said that they would rather flee and wait out the authorities than sell their family land to pay off the debt. And without a formalized property regime, the bank has a hard time using legal mechanisms to seize that land from the farmer’s family against their wishes. The notorious reputation of rural credit unions has taught me that microfinance in this region will have a hard time becoming a successful mechanism for increasing farmer liquidity. Compared to informal community- or family-based credit, the risks are far, far too high. Even in regular times, these risks of default would likely be considered unacceptable to the average farmer. Still, the recent (last five years or so) increase in the number of on-farm shocks and resulting catastrophes and crop failures means that the likelihood of non-payment is higher than ever.

This is one of the reasons why when academics advocate for formalizing property regimes — sometimes for the explicit purpose of enabling farmers to put up their land as collateral for loans — it makes me nervous. This notwithstanding the long and sorry history of colonial governments and modern neo-imperial arrangements that use rural banks with exorbitant interest rates to relieve farmers of their land. Land liberalization advocates often miss the point: many rural banks don’t intend to make the majority of their incomes from interest. They count on farmers defaulting to collect land that they would otherwise never sell. Luckily for the farmers here in Guinea, they have a strong and healthy distrust of microfinance institutions. But more importantly, they have access to a form of liquidity that will never put their land, or their ability to live on it, at risk.

Interactions between farmers and credit can be seen as well with the local farmers’ Federation (Fédération des paysans du Fouta Djallon – FPFD) but with many different results. The Federation’s interest-free input credit accounts for almost all of the agricultural debt that farmers accrue each year, totaling as little as $200 and up to $4000 for the farmers we interviewed. But farmers are entirely comfortable with this paradigm because a. they don’t have to pay back interest on the principal, and b. the only penalty for nonpayment is exclusion from Federation services. No running out of town, no jail time, and certainly no loss of family land. The Federation, however, does itself buy these high-quality bulk inputs on bank credit. They can pay their interest, as well as staff salaries and operating costs, by charging farmers an unspecified premium on the imported field products, the most important of which are seed potatoes and fertilizer.

Member nonpayment obviously affects the Federation’s ability to repay its large yearly bank debt. With an increasing number of union chapters that have defaulted on their credits, the Federation must be feeling a squeeze to pay off their own debt and interest. For the time being, it seems that the premium they receive from farmers who do harvest enough to pay their credits is enough to maintain solvency. But these thinning margins may make it harder for the Federation to run its discretionary outreach and training programs, which include things like bookkeeping support, Pular literacy classes, and agricultural extension services. Along with the recent reduction of grant support from organizations like the World Bank, this may help explain why, in these difficult times, most of the farmers we interviewed have not benefitted from any of the Federation’s outreach programs this last year.

My point is alternative debt instruments like the Federation’s interest-free input credit could, in the long run, and indirectly, help protect farmers’ land from being consolidated by large agricultural multinationals and other financial institutions. This sort of instrument is typically deployed by governments, especially in wealthy Northern countries. They are also understood as “subsidies” to their farm sector, not basic services. But there is no tangible government support for rural agriculture in Guinea, at least with the farmers we have met. It’s fascinating that the Federation, which operates as a non-governmental organization, has successfully provided government-level agricultural services for the last thirty years. And all of this without the risk of your grandfather’s curse haunting you forever after.

Scott, James C. Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale Agrarian Studies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Nicholas Newman is a Master of Public Policy student (’24) in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.