Mauritania Table of Contents
Irrigation dam at Foum Glaeta
Courtesy United Nations (John Isaac)
The system of land tenure was in transition in the 1980s. Factors contributing to this transition included government abolition of centuries-old slavery practices involving tribal and ethnic relations between various herding and sedentary communities; government development policies, particularly with regard to land reform and large-scale irrigation schemes; and tremendous shifts in land settlement and herding patterns because of drought (see Changing Social Patterns , ch. 2).
Historically, landownership and range management were based on tribal relations and ethnic settlement patterns. Rangeland for herding was controlled through tribal ownership of wells; around oases, slave groups worked cultivable plots, although traditional noble clans held ownership of the land. In more southerly settled agricultural areas, ownership varied from region to region and village to village, depending on ethnic settlement patterns. Landownership might be vested in the clan or village chief as representative of the group and land distributed in perpetuity to family units having usufruct. Elsewhere, traditional nobilities might hold ownership of lands worked by formerly enslaved groups, who held traditional usufruct. Although a village chief could not sell land belonging to the clan (which would alienate family groups from the land), traditional noble clans could more easily sell property and effectively displace or disinherit slave groups. By the late 1980s, it was not known to what extent the formal abolition of slavery had affected traditional land relationships among noble and former slave groups. Also unknown was the impact of the government's stated policy of giving priority to former slave groups when lands that might be claimed under eminent domain were redistributed. Of potentially far greater importance in land tenancy was the 1983 Land Reform Act (see Political Power in the Mid-1980s , ch. 4). The underlying first cause of the act was the state's inherent and overriding interest in land development. According to the act, the government could grant title for parcels of undeveloped land-- which apparently included fallow land--to whoever pledged to improve it and at the same time possessed requisite resources. Although the economic necessity of the act was beyond question, the social costs of appropriating valuable Senegal River Basin land hypothetically controlled by blacks and redistributing it to wealthy Maures from farther north could prove unacceptable. It was evident, however, that the situation was in considerable flux.
Large-scale government irrigation projects and plans for integrated development based on regional water management created another set of variables for traditional patterns of land use and ownership. Groups located in areas behind dams or in areas to be either permanently flooded or deprived of annual floods with increased control over flow levels in the Senegal River were undergoing a process of controlled resettlement. The formation of cooperative production groups that were to be settled on the land--often on a first-come, first-served basis--was essential to project implementation.
Data as of June 1988