Customary tenures, whereby the pattern of use rights over land are recognized by the community for centuries without necessarily the sanction of statutory or recorded evidence, are prevalent on varying scales in many countries of the developing world. The problem is of crucial importance in Africa. Though this type of tenure system was eminently suitable for regulation of land use in the past, it has undergone such modifications under the impact of the modern economic systems that new problems have arisen largely as a result of growing trends towards individualization.
Monetization and commercialization of agriculture is widely recognized as an important prerequisite for developing agriculture but the existing tenure system in its present state of breakdown acts as a limiting factor. The progress in regard to remedial measures has been very uneven, and many new problems have arisen. For instance, a cardinal feature of the old customary tenure is the delineation of specific areas as belonging collectively to a specific tribe or community. The conflict between the interest of subsistence farmers operating within the customary tenure system, individual farmers cultivating cash crops on a small scale, and that of the big commercial plantations, organized on modern lines, has become acute; well-intentioned but ad hoc efforts to tinker with tenure systems have adversely affected the interest of the subsistence farmer.
While the problem of landlessness has not yet arisen in Africa on the same scale as in Asia and Latin America, there is great danger that unregulated individualization of land and introduction of the concept of land as marketable commodity may eventually result in a growing class of rural landless, unless adequate steps are taken at this stage to solve these basic problems.
The problem of customary tenure is closely linked with the problem of subsistence economy, unequal population pressure between different regions reserved for different tribes, and the need for balanced development of different regions. As many countries have not formulated a comprehensive land policy, a large segment of the subsistence producers has often failed to participate in the benefits flowing from economic development.