Course:FRST370/Consequences of changes in land resource access among the Bassari Indigenous People of Ghana

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This case study covers four Bassari communities in northern Ghana and examines how population pressures have led to changes in their customary land tenure arrangements. Land once owned by a land priest and managed by the community is now privately owned, and community members now mostly disregard traditional governance systems as well as formal government policies and laws. Women and the poor are most at risk of losing resource access during these changes. Producers’ associations, NGO involvement, and adaptive governance could all help improve tenure security for Bassari people going forward, and specifically help protect these at-risk groups.

Key words: natural resources, privatization, tenure, Bassari, Ghana


This community forestry case study covers four Bassari communities, which are in the Tatale-Sangule district in North-Eastern Ghana. The four communities include Tatale, Kuyoli, Kandin and Sheine, each varying greatly in their population and size[1]. Tatale is the largest community, with 13,228 people, followed by Kuyoli with 5,804 people, and Kandin with 2,161 people[1]. The community of Sheine has no population estimates that are currently available[1]. In regard to household numbers and territorial maps in each area, there were no data available.

Map showing the Tatale-Sangule district of Northern Ghana and four Bassari communities covered in the case study

The Bassari peoples have a long history of traditional and customary land tenure systems. These systems have been determined by an “Earth God”, in which a land priest (otindaan) mediates between the people and a local deity[1]. The otindaan historically administered property to the community and gave permission for certain activities, such as fishing during specific seasons, and foraging for different plants. Furthermore, he could demand a portion of everything that the people produce, catch and hunt[1]. However, the population has drastically increased in some areas, and as a result the land has been directly impacted. Soil health/fertility has decreased, along with subsequent crop yields. In addition, due to the growing population, land availability has declined. This has prevented people from being able to rotate farmland in order to allow areas to lie fallow and regenerate, as well as prevented new families from having the opportunity to own land to begin with. Due to the previously mentioned issues, the otindaans have come to lose their customary and traditional power because there is no longer land for them to mediate and assign. Additionally, Bassari peoples have changed their tenure system and shifted to private land ownership. However, there are some communal land exceptions because there are specific resources that the Bassari peoples all require access to. In other words, as land scarcity and population increases, the dramatic shift from customary practices to private ownership and management will also increase.

Tenure arrangements

As was mentioned, the tenure arrangements for the Bassaris and people of Ghana have changed considerably over the last few centuries. For hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, the Bassaris’ land was technically owned by the otindaan and managed and harvested by the community[1]. To use the otindaan’s land, members of the community were obligated to give a portion of their harvests to him and were restricted from certain types of harvests such as fishing during the dry season. Land was not alienable and was considered an indivisible aspect of the community – members had rights to utilize the land as much as they needed to[2].

This began to change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under British rule. At this time, the British began to claim vacant land for the crown and gave chiefs authority to lease community lands to outsiders without first discussing with the otindaan[3]. This initiated the decline of customary law, and Bassaris began to lose their traditional rights to harvest resources.

Once Ghana gained independence in 1957, several Acts were initially passed which vested land ownership in the state[2]. However, these were revised in the 1970s to give more recognition to indigenous heritage. These reforms, along with more recent acts regarding resource governance, have created a unique pluralistic system. For example, Article 2 of the 1992 Constitution recognizes indigenous customary law[2], but the 1994 Forest Protection Decree and other laws state that most of the land resources are owned by the Ghanaian government, and these resources are meant to be extracted by the government for the benefit of the people[1]. Most Bassaris ignore or are ignorant of these statutory laws, such as the Water Resource Commission Act of 1996 and Minerals and Mining Act of 2006, and continue resource use without permission[1]. The tenure arrangements of the Bassaris seem to be at a crossroads – with disregard for statutory laws and for the otindaan’s authority and customary laws, the Bassaris are creating new informal tenure arrangements as they trend toward their new system of private land ownership.

Administrative arrangements

In Bassari communities, institutional and administrative power was historically and customarily held by the otindaan, who held many distinctive rights over community members. Over time, however, population increases have gradually and organically shifted the communities’ power dynamics. The trend towards privatization of property in Bassari communities has reduced people’s obligation to customary institutional arrangements and has begun to heavily favor community chiefs instead[1].

Like the otindaan, chieftaincy in Ghana is not a democratic system, but rather a patriarchal, inheritance-based position that has evolved over time[4]. Previously, their role was mostly political; chiefs were intended to be mediators between the Ghanaian government, while priests were in charge of local land trusteeship[5]. The transition away from customary arrangements however has elevated the status and responsibilities of the chiefs. In both northern and southern Ghana, Bassari chiefs now oversee land trusteeship and tribal administrations; they are said to have both proprietary and territorial jurisdiction. While the chief in some respects has replaced the role of the otindaan, they do not have the same degree of power and influence as the otindaans once had under customary structure. For example, access to resources like water and pasture now require permission from landholders instead of the priest or the chief. Considering the increasing level of tenure that landholders have, it can be said that some institutional power has also been transferred to individual community members[1].

In Bassari communities, private investment and property are becoming increasingly recognized and accepted[1]. However, in the case of private resources being illegally accessed by other community members, a number of different dispute settlements can be pursued. These often take the form of customary tribunals, but in extreme instances cases may be taken to state courts or administrative agencies[6][1]. Within villages, conflicts over boundaries and resource access are often solved without significant issue. Higher forms of conflict beyond the village level however can be difficult to solve through just the village chief and family heads. These scenarios are problematic for communities in Ghana considering there is often a backlog of pending high court cases in the country; in 2002, 42% of high court cases involved land disputes. For this reason, state policy tries to encourage customary dispute resolution[6].

Governance and power

As was previously mentioned, power under customary arrangements in Bassari communities was largely held by the otindaan. While these rights were historically well established, over time they have diminished to the point where they are merely symbolic[1]. Based on the transition of responsibility towards the community chief, one may expect him to now hold a comparably large degree of power in the community. However, unlike the otindaan, the community chiefs are observers of land distribution, rather than administrators of it. When the otindaan held the most power, his tenure gave special rights in the context of both communal and private properties; for example, the priest held exclusive control over commercial fishing quantities, as well as access to important forest products, regardless of land ownership[1]. In contrast, the chief has not experienced the same degree of privilege. They do not interfere with the use and exclusion rights of private property owners unless turned to for protection against unlawful dispossession[6].

Governance in Bassari communities has reflected the changing values and conditions of the community. Population growth, changing economic behaviors, and a shift away from customary values has resulted in a system that supports more privatization. The current system however is certainly not without its flaws. Higher populations have come at the cost of environmental conditions as pressure has been put on the abundance and availability of land resources. Reduced fallow periods have led to soil degradation, and water scarcity[1]. Furthermore, marginalized groups without access to private property, such as elderly women in Bassari communities, are increasingly vulnerable; women who continue to rely on communal resources often have to negotiate or plead farmers to be granted access (J. Kidido, personal communication, 16 November 2020).

Social actors and affected stakeholders

Joseph Kidido and Elias Kuusaana[1] explain that many people are impacted by these changing tenure arrangements (2014). Regarding the affected social actors, the Bassari peoples as a whole are greatly affected by decisions regarding the land. However, different actors within the communities are impacted in varying scales, and this also applies to the relative power each social actor has. These social actors include the chiefs, the otindaan, farmers, and women.

The chiefs maintain tribal administrative tasks and have political roles, in addition to working with the otindaans[1]. However, the chiefs do not have a say in land tenure decisions. In regard to relative power, chiefs have a significant amount of political power as they have access to both of the community decision makers (the government and the otindaan).

Otindaans for a very long time had much power in determining land ownership through customary arrangements. More recently, most of their power has disappeared as they do not have as much leverage over the Bassari peoples anymore. This lack of relative power over the community is largely due to population growth and land scarcity as previously stated[1].

Farmers are a foundation of the community, yet they have very little say when it comes to land arrangements. This is because historically the otindaans had all the power, however now the power lies more in the hands of the government[1]. This means that they are impacted by every decision regarding land tenure and that they have very little say in respect to their own land and livelihoods. However, their main objective is to have access to more fertile land, so they can increase their crop yields.

Women are usually not considered in any of the decisions regarding land tenure. This is because women are not able to hold land title and are only allowed to perform specific tasks when it comes to farming[1]. Ultimately, women have no power in any regard to this topic. This makes farming and subsistence practices extremely difficult, because their survival depends on that of a man, and higher powers such as the government. However, they are affected by the decisions that are made regarding land arrangements as it affects their main objectives of subsistence, and the ability to provide for their families

Interested stakeholders

The interested stakeholders in this case study are researchers, students, the Ghanaian government, and potentially NGOs. Researchers Joseph Kidido and Elias Kuusaana have written extensively about the Bassaris and their resource access[1], and students such as us are interested in the case study so we can better understand how varying tenure arrangements affect resource access and livelihoods. However, we do not have any personal investment in these resources. We are interested purely from an academic viewpoint; therefore, we are not affected stakeholders. The government would also be considered an interested stakeholder because there are resources in the area that might be useful for the development of the country, and there are laws governing the use of such resources, but government officials do not rely on them for their personal livelihoods. Finally, there are many NGOs in northern Ghana who might be involved with Bassaris. However, while NGOs may sometimes provide vital services to a community, they are not reliant on the land resources and may leave or come at any time, which also makes them interested stakeholders.


The federal government of Ghana has statutory rights over Bassari land that play a significant role in resource access and use. Legally, the president of Ghana has jurisdiction and ownership over water, minerals, and forest resources in the country. To accommodate this, the Bassari must acquire permits from state agencies/institutions in order to undertake extraction and use. That being said, individuals in these communities are often uninformed or dismissive of the statutory system. Many people claim state control to be illegitimate and instead assert their customary rights of land stewardship. As a result, Bassari communities often do not oblige to the requirements for permits, and thus government agents have to conduct enforcement[1].

While on the topic of statutory law, it is worth discussing the various powers of eminent domain that the Ghanaian president can use to override customary rights. That is, the various legislations that permit him to convert private or communal property into public use.

The Constitution of Ghana says that regardless of private or customary property rights, compulsory acquisition may be necessary “in the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, development, etc.” (Article 20). Furthermore, the State Lands Act and Administration of Lands Act that were both passed in 1962 allow the president to acquire and manage customary lands when he feels as though it is in the public interest (Acts 125 and 123). In each of these instances, the president can swiftly transfer rights and legal title to himself and act as the land trustee for any territory in the country. Finally, the Mining and Minerals Act, Water Resource Commissions Act, and Forest Protections Decree also vest access to resources in the president in the name of all Ghanaians (Acts 703 and 522; N.R.C.D 243).

When eminent domain is passed, the state is required to provide adequate compensation with regards to economic well-being, as well as social and cultural values ([7][1]. However, the amount of power vested in the president has been argued as problematic from a human rights perspective. For example, the State Lands Act and Mining and Mineral Act have been criticized for empowering authority without significant oversight. These legislations have shown an inability to address the power and resource imbalances of negotiating parties, oftentimes leading to what communities’ feel is inadequate payment for compensation. In the case of the Administration of Lands Act, compensation is not even outlined explicitly, which has led to issues for many communities, particularly those around mining areas[7]

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

There is not much literature about NGO interactions with the Bassaris of northern Ghana. In the paper that served as our main resource, the authors Kidido and Kuusaana did not mention any NGOs specifically working with Bassaris in northern Ghana[1]. However, there is a huge presence of NGOs in the area, with over 70 in Tamale alone[8]. There are mixed opinions on NGO presence – many northern Ghanaians say the NGOs in the area have not personally helped them, according to a 2016 Deutsche Welle article[9]. They reported that several NGOs in the area have the goal of helping people escape poverty by starting small businesses, but many people have started a small business on their own or with the help of family members rather than these NGOs.

In other cases, though, NGOs seem to have a positive effect in areas like farming. Avea et al. (2016)[10] found that NGOs and development agencies in northern Ghana can help soybean farmers increase production and improve efficiency. The authors also found that some of the more successful programs administered by NGOS can be a useful tool to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable groups such as migrants, women, and the poor who face tenure insecurity. This is especially relevant to the case of the Bassaris where women, migratory herders, and poor people have been most affected by the move toward privatization.

Kidido and Kuusaana suggested in their paper that formal access channels may be necessary to ensure that these groups are still able to access resources throughout a shift toward private ownership of property[1]. However, in our interview with Kidido he told us that as of November 2020 there are still no formal access channels (J. Kidido, personal communication, 16 November 2020). It is possible then that one of the many NGOs in northern Ghana could be a valuable resource for these vulnerable groups in coming years as the shift towards privatization continues.

Aims and intentions

This case study is unique because there is no formal community forest project. Rather, it is an example of how a group who once communally accessed their natural resources is shifting to private ownership to manage threats such as a growing population. According to Kidido, this boom in population growth is the biggest challenge facing the Bassaris. In our interview, Kidido mentioned that the Bassaris do not necessarily realize they are moving toward privatization – it is simply how their land management practices have naturally evolved with increasing population pressure. As the Bassaris attempt to more efficiently manage their land, however, this puts groups such as women, migrants, and poor people at risk because they cannot own land [11][1]. So far, the Bassaris have been using their community solidarity to help these groups. For example, elderly women typically are the main harvesters of shea nuts, which are a communal resource even if a shea tree is growing on someone’s private property. In this case, if an elderly woman wants to harvest the shea nuts she must ask permission of the landowner (J. Kidido, personal communication, 16 November 2020). These informal access channels are currently working, but may need to be expanded and formalized in the future to continue protecting vulnerable groups.


Because groups such as women and the poor become more vulnerable with a change to private property (Akamani, 2014), it has been suggested that formal access channels be created to ensure that these groups continue to have access to essential resources in the future. These currently do not exist, but as seen in the research done by Avea et al[10], NGOs might be able to play a role in forming them.

We also considered producers’ associations to unite individual farmers. As seen in the caboclo communities of Mazagao, Brazil, these associations can create strength in numbers and allow farmers to become price makers rather than price takers[12]. We asked Dr. Kidido about this in our interview and he agreed that they could be useful in the future, but none have formed yet. He said that markets for some of the high-value forest products such as shea and dawadawa are not fully formed in the north, and more investing needs to happen before producers’ associations can be useful (J. Kidido, personal communication, 16 November 2020).

Lastly, there could be changes in governance that could help alleviate population pressure while still allowing the Bassaris to manage resources under their customary arrangements. According to [11]Akamani (2014), adaptive governance and integrated resource management are two tools that help tackle these types of complex issues. Currently the Ghanaian government technically owns the natural resources and restricts their use, but the Bassaris are often unaware of these laws[1]. This violates the FAO guidelines for responsible governance of tenure which says that states should “promote and facilitate the enjoyment of legitimate tenure rights” and “protect tenure right holders against the arbitrary loss of their tenure rights”[13]. If these guidelines were followed and Akamani’s suggestions were taken, the Ghanaian government might recognize that Bassaris have lived in these areas for hundreds of years and have legitimate rights to land resource access. Additionally, if these rights were legally recognized, this could give local institutions more power in policy decisions, potentially leading to laws that work with the Bassaris instead of against them.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 Kidido, J. K., & Kuusaana, E. D. (2014). Access to Land Resources under Customary Arrangement: Emerging Issues among the Bassaris of North-Eastern Ghana. Environmental Management and Sustainable Development, 3(1), 25. doi:10.5296/emsd.v3i1.4635
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Ruffin, F. (2019). Land governance in the context of legal pluralism: Cases of Ghana and Kenya. In A. O. Akinola & H. Wissink (Eds.), Trajectory of land reform in post-colonial African states: The quest for sustainable development and utilization (pp. 91-108). Springer.
  3. Ruffin, F. (2019). Land governance in the context of legal pluralism: Cases of Ghana and Kenya. In A. O. Akinola & H. Wissink (Eds.), Trajectory of land reform in post-colonial African states: The quest for sustainable development and utilization (pp. 91-108). Springer.
  4. Slater, A. (2014). Traditional Legal Institutions through a Rule of Law Lens: The Chieftaincy in Ghana. International Human Rights Internship Working Paper Series, 2(1).
  5. Lund, C. (2008). Local Politics and the Dynamics of Property in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511510564
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Ubink, J. M., & Amanor, K. S. (2011). Contesting land and custom in Ghana: State, chief and the citizen. Amsterdam: Leiden University Press.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Nyarko, M. G. (2019). The Right to Property and Compulsory Land Acquisition in Ghana: A Human Rights Perspective. African Journal of International and Comparative Law, 27(1), 100-125. doi:10.3366/ajicl.2019.0261
  8. FindGlocal. (2020). Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Tamale [Interactive map]. Retrieved from
  9. Mwakideu, C. (2016, November 13). Northern Ghana ‘poor’ despite NGOs presence. Deutsche Welle.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Avea, A. D., Zhu, J., Tian, X., Baležentis, T., Li, T., Rickaille, M., Funsani, W. (2016). Do NGOs and development agencies contribute to sustainability of smallholder soybean farmers in northern Ghana—A stochastic production frontier approach. Sustainability, 8(5).
  11. 11.0 11.1 Akamani K. (2014). Beyond panaceas in land tenure systems in Ghana: Insights from resilience and adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. In Asuelime L., Yaro J., & Francis S. (Eds.), Selected themes in African development studies. Springer.
  12. Menzies, N.K. (2007) Our forest, your ecosystem, their timber: Communities, conservation, and the state in community-based forest management. Columbia University Press.
  13. FAO. (2012). Voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security.

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This conservation resource was created by Margaret Gullion, Noah Bettauer, and Danyelle Bernier. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.