Vernacular Approaches to Land Holding in Acholi, Northern Uganda

Hosted by LSE’s Centre for Public Authority and International Development

Researcher: Julian Hopwood

There is a lack of acknowledgement of the lived realities of Acholi land holding, replaced by misleading caricatures of culture and kinship.

Researcher Julian Hopwood

Project aim

This research seeks to address the lack of acknowledgement of the lived realities of Acholi land holding, which has been replaced by misleading caricatures of culture and kinship.


Northern Uganda escaped many of the most disruptive imperial land interventions, including expropriation for colonial settlement and the introduction of non-autochthon labour forces. However, the Acholi region saw displacement of some communities and the imposition of cotton cultivation, and the colonial government regarded collective landholdings as inhibiting development, not least because it created difficulties for coercing cash crop production by individual farmers. Laws and systems allowing for formalised land ownership were created, but outside urban centres there was minimal take-up.

Based on the researcher’s observations of Acholi landholdings over extended periods, this project explores the disconnect between practice and policy. Many of the land pressures common to much of Africa are in play: population growth, land degradation, deforestation, climate change and commodification. However, most Acholi land remains in collective hands, undocumented and unregistered. Case studies illustrate that the dynamics of Acholi land management are less about land qua land, but about belonging to a group, and the intimate governance of that group, responding in diverse ways to different land pressures.  


Pressure for land reform in Acholi has been building since the end of the LRA conflict in 2006, driven by external bodies: UN agencies, donor governments and international NGOs. National advocacy NGOs variously support and oppose particular externally devised and funded reforms.

However, while all these parties claim to be acting in the interests of poor land users, there is a lack of acknowledgement of the lived realities of Acholi land holding, replaced by misleading caricatures of culture and kinship. The project explores how distortions of understanding and translations around customary social ordering have been the primary vehicles of colonial domination, new and old.

Intimate governance and land

The project explores changing patterns of social ordering in rural Acholi land holding communities, using four main case studies: one community is still land rich and the others are struggling to respond to their members’ needs and demands for land.

Until recently, localised over-population of specific land holdings was dealt with by division and migration: a subgroup would re-locate either to previously unsettled land – the ‘bush frontier’ – or to surplus land they can use belonging to a related group. In the 15 years since the end of the LRA insurgency, the bush frontier has virtually closed, while the number of groups that perceive themselves as having surplus land open to housing new arrivals is diminishing fast. This creates unprecedented challenges. How groups respond is often interpreted through reductionist notions of modernism and capitalism – a stereotype of greed-driven land grabbing in the face of inevitable commodification.  

It is not that either commodification or consequent land grabbing are entirely absent – in some areas they are quite common. But overwhelmingly, landlessness is being driven by very different dynamics, comparable to the situation described by Tania Murray Li in Sulawesi: land is filling up, the bush/forest frontier is closing, long-term cash crops contribute to land individuation and an increasing number of people lose access to land. In a context of no jobs and no likelihood of industrial development, this translates into mass starvation, albeit slow and discrete.

The project investigates whether landholding bodies function as families and what dynamics are contingent on this. The lens of intimate governance is useful in analysing the vast diversity of strategies that groups are adopting in the face of land shortage. Redefined criteria of belonging, and of the nature of belonging divorced from land access, can explain vulnerabilities to landlessness. Understanding how groups mediate this through spiritual, moral and deontological formulations for maintaining social order can reveal how land is a substrate to social dynamics and land shortage a catalyst for change, but that it is not useful to isolate it, to imagine a codifiable ‘land custom’ or ‘customary land law’.



Headshot of Julian Hopwood

Julian Hopwood

Julian Hopwood has been based in Northern Uganda since 2006. Alongside local partners he works on post-conflict humanitarian and development programmes and policy. Julian is pursuing a PhD at Ghent University.

Research interests: humanitarianism, resilience, justice, development policy


Photo: Sam D'Cruz: