Dr. Anatoli Ignatov, land ownership and management in Ghana

Faculty Member of Distinction
College of Fine and Applied Arts – Assistant Professor, Department of Sustainable Development

Land ownership is a big deal in many cultures. Just cut a tree one foot past your property line and see how quickly your neighbor arrives on the scene. Who owns the land in a society can have profound implications, including how the land is used and how sustainably resources are managed. It becomes further complicated when only a small percentage of a country’s land is legally registered, with the rest being claimed by competing oral histories. This is the case with the African nation of Ghana. 

Relationships of indigenous peoples to their land and the use of that land will be the primary focus of research by Dr. Anatoli Ignatov, assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s  Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development when he begins two trips to Ghana, bolstered by a Fulbright Scholar Award. 

Ignatov will travel to Ghana this summer for a five-week stint, later followed by a 12-week flex option period from May to August 2018.

Ignatov is no stranger to Ghana. His dissertation for a Ph.D. in political science was based on fieldwork in that country, where he studied political responses to an ongoing environmental crisis. His expertise is specifically in researching and articulating the relationships between land and people.

Land ownership is complicated in Ghana

As Ignatov explained, land ownership in Ghana is a complex mix of customary and statutory systems. This leads to significant ambiguity and land disputes, because only 10-20 percent of land ownership is legally registered. Ownership of the rest of the land is woven into oral history.

Competing oral histories and the political activities of chiefs and earth priests affect who makes the decisions about how the land is used and how sustainably resources are managed. For chiefs, land is thought of in terms of jurisdictions or political territories, which can be governed, taxed and provided with infrastructure and development. For earth priests, land is embedded in a social covenant with ancestors and spiritual entities, and rituals serve to continue the covenant. This idea of the sacred has implications for sustainable interactions with the environment.

What the Fulbright Scholar Award allows him to do

According to Ignatov, the project “aims to provide insights into the contemporary debates about sustainability and the central question of what is to be sustained, and to cast light on the complex interactions between the plural land tenure system in Ghana and development and state-building processes.” 

Concerning benefit of this project to Ghana, Ignatov wrote, “The project could benefit the host country by clarifying both who holds allocative authority over land and the status of contested land previously acquired by the state. It might also illuminate the tensions between customary and formal land rights regimes and how these tensions shape and have been shaped by Ghana’s Land Administration Project and various donor interventions intended to promote development.”

Ignatov will pursue qualitative research, using both interpretive and ethnographic methods. He plans to write a book about the results of his research and offer a series of articles in peer-reviewed journals. He also hopes for a documentary film that would be produced in collaboration with Appalachian and the National Film and Television Institute in Accra, Ghana.

Additionally, with his Fulbright grant, Ignatov said, “I will work on building a long-term institutional collaboration between Appalachian and the University for Development Studies in Tamale [Ghana].” He will also mentor graduate students during his two trips funded by the Fulbright award.

Broadened educational perspectives

Ignatov was educated in Bulgaria and developed an interest in African philosophies while studying at Johns Hopkins University. A number of collaborative experiences and personal contacts within the African studies community helped him realize how African perspectives are largely absent from the archive of environmental political theory, Ignatov said.

His research highlights African ecological knowledge, and he makes a point to include African perspectives into his teaching. “I strongly believe that one of the hallmarks of higher education is helping students to deepen one another’s awareness of our global connectedness and of the interdependence between people and the environment,” he said.

“My hope is that by introducing voices commonly excluded from the classroom, political discourse and intellectual study and requiring that we engage these arguments with the same care and rigor as we would thinkers from the Western canon, students will be encouraged to think more deeply about their own political, ethical and economic position and to seek understanding across historical, cultural and geographical distance.”

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