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When Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Kabore first came to power in 2015, his platform included the promise to build 40,000 affordable homes through a national housing programme. The project launched a year later, and since then 275 real estate developers have been involved, said housing minister Benewende Stanislas Sankara at a press conference last week. According to government figures, more than 5,360 homes have been built so far. Real estate companies need government authorization to build homes that count toward the 40,000 goal, Sankara explained.

But complaints of “so-called land grabbing” have prompted the ministry of housing and urban planning to suspend the validation of new construction requests while it focuses on reforms for the sector, he said. Those reforms could lead to changes to Burkina Faso’s 2009 land tenure law, including stricter enforcement, he added.

“The law was passed for the sake of the people and if this law doesn’t fit the people, it must be revised to adapt to the context,” Sankara told the press conference. By the time of publication, the ministry had not responded to questions about how the government plans to change the land law, what exactly the suspension covers or how it affects the 40,000 houses project.

The land law includes protections to ensure landowners are being paid fairly – for example, any sale above 10 hectares (24 acres) has to be signed off by the government. But Nakoulima and others say some companies take advantage of impoverished communities who do not know their rights. Sometimes the developers buy property for less than it is worth or make unilateral deals with one landowner without consulting the rest of their family, who all legally own the land, villagers and lawyers said.

In 2017, Nakoulima and several others in his community agreed to transfer 225 hectares (556 acres) to three property companies, who said they would use half the land for public services – such as schools and hospitals – and the other half for housing. The companies agreed to give the villagers 12 plots of 250 square metres each to live on, he explained.

But while these negotiations were underway, local real estate developer Saha Immobilier was making separate deals for land belonging to some of the same residents, Nakoulima said. Now the company, which is one of the firms working with the government on the 40,000 houses project, is laying claim to all 225 hectares, including the land on Nakoulima’s farm, and offering the villagers only five plots in return.