Beyond Binaries: The Social Organization of Land Mortgage in the Global South

Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Stefan Dorondel

Lending against real property is occurring in significant volumes globally. Homeownership remains a principal means of wealth creation for most Americans and Western Europeans. Mortgage is also an important part of land titling reforms that seek to enhance agricultural productivity and rural entrepreneurship in the Global South. The outcomes of such initiatives have been uneven and ambiguous, and remain a hotly debated policy issue.

Our chapters in the new edited volume, Land and the Mortgage: History, Culture, Belonging, study mortgage as central to broader struggles over belonging and identity. We call attention to an increasing plurality of property forms, entitlements, and calculative practices, as well as the historical continuities in the relations of inequality shaping the mortgage lending. The edited collection argues that the uneasy partnerships of the formal and informal, public and private have resided in mortgage and titling institutions throughout history. In an era of intensifying population mobility, agricultural commercialization, and political transitions in many parts of the world, these questions carry broader import. Attempts to institute mortgage lending in many settings in the Global South testify to the endurance of pre-existing authority patterns and recombinant property forms that mix frameworks from different periods and property regimes. Reforms that institute exclusive land rights may exacerbate political conflicts and economic inequalities.

We suggest that examining the social and temporal embeddedness of wealth transfers such as land pledging and mortgaging can provide novel perspectives into the social organization of debt and property in the Global South. Land property has been at the center of the interaction between custom and statutory law in Ghana, West Africa (Sara Berry in this volume, p. 95). While the economic and legal changes among the Asante in Ghana have aimed to promote individual titling of land claims, family property has not become a thing of the past: “credit and indebtedness continue to create and rework social relationships, as well as enabling and/or constraining economic activities” (p. 97). As the pledging or pawning of landed property has increased, relationships between people continue to play a significant role in negotiating loans and foreclosure among the Asante. Commodification of land has therefore not diminished the importance of social relationships in people’s economic lives.

Decentralization reforms have therefore brought renewed attention to local, “traditional” forms of organization and authority as new, alternative sources of legitimacy and governance (see also Geschiere 2009; Lund 2012; Sikor et al. 2017). Such intermingling of old and new authorities, normative templates, and collective and private forms of property also characterizes land mortgage in postsocialist Eastern Europe. Exploring the reinvention of the economic practice of land mortgage in Romania after fifty years of interruption caused by the socialist regime, Stefan Dorondel, Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Marioara Rusu (this volume, p. 161) highlight the multiplicity of formal and informal actors and hierarchies that define the economic practices in local communities. During the socialist era, most of the productive land was concentrated into state and collective farms, and the postsocialist land reform of the 1990s sought to “modernize” the country by re-establishing private property in land. Land markets were expected to facilitate social and economic restructuring of the agrarian communities, and mortgage was viewed as the primary vehicle for fueling rural investment and productivity.

Postsocialist economic reforms in Eastern Europe were largely inspired by neoliberal agendas that aimed to establish functional land markets, and were accompanied by a retreat of the state from the agricultural sector. However, since the start of Romania’s land restitution reforms in 1989, land-based lending has remained rather limited. The market value of agricultural land is low, and the restitution process has suffered from unclear ownership records and incomplete legal frameworks. While Romania has experienced some success recently with improving the situation with rural credit and expanding the range of eligible borrowers and forms of loan collateral, land reform is still an ongoing process. The recent subsidies of the European Union have helped in creating new opportunities for the agricultural sector, but it is up to the country’s regulators and administrators to facilitate an enabling economic environment for small and medium-sized farms and eliminate blockages present in the credit market.

Romanian landholding has been historically diverse and governed by inequalities and social differentiation. Much of the income of rural inhabitants was derived from informal or side activities during the socialist as well as postsocialist periods, and smallholdings remained intermeshed in broader work-exchange networks. We argue that in such transitional settings, formalization of land claims is a contested and political process.

As Chris Hann suggests, in order to understand land property beyond the formal codes of individual or collective rights, we need to look at the claims and entitlements of persons as members of communities (2003). During the socialist era, new forms of entitlement were created largely through informal practices that brought into contact new and old rules and social identities. Despite official ideology, socialist communes retained and developed a considerable degree of individual entrepreneurship and resource rights outside formal rules (see also Verdery 1996). Local power relations have continued to shape the rural landscape even in the postsocialist era. State bureaucrats have been able to assert their interests on the outcomes of land restitution reforms in many areas of the country, often replicating the pre-reform patterns of differentiation and inequality (Dorondel 2016).

The new ideologies of market and private property are therefore modified by older socio-cultural norms and templates. The cultural practices of mutuality that originate from the pre-socialist times affect the application of later state ideologies in local communities and impact the commercialization of land. At the same time, we contend that the “moral economy” explanation is not sufficient for understanding the reasons for the slow take-off of land mortgage in Romania. Both socialist and postsocialist land reforms reflected the attempts of the state trying to render local spaces legible and redraw administrative boundaries and property rules (see also Scott 1998). One could say that both collectivization and decollectivization reforms have therefore entailed attempts of a modernist restructuring of the agrarian economy, with a goal to enhance economic and political control from above.

Diverse collectivist ideas and norms of reciprocity thus endure and evolve through formal administrative regimes, affecting local forms and practices of property and belonging. Land claims and transactions continue to be embedded in interpersonal networks and socio-cultural norms of mutuality. At the same time, legal and administrative devices to manage real property have evolved toward growing exclusion of lateral claims, use rights, and ownership histories. This imbalance has a potential to deepen dispossession of low-income mortgagors globally who use their informal networks to manage their formal credit obligations and extend their everyday norms of mutuality to the anonymous mortgage markets increasingly managed through algorithms. The “new” mortgage borrowers in the Global South may be especially vulnerable.


Geschiere, Peter. 2009. The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hann, Chris, and the Property Relations Group. 2003. The Postsocialist Agrarian Question. Munster: LIT Verlag.

Lund, Christian. 2013. “The Past and Space: On Arguments in African Land Control.” Africa 83(1): 14–35.

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

Sikor, Thomas, Stefan Dorondel, Johannes Stahl, and Phuc Xuan To. 2017. When Things Become Property: Land Reform, Authority and Value in Postsocialist Europe and Asia. New York: Berghahn Books.

Verdery, Katherine. 1996. What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.