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Power, Inequality and Local Land Conflict in Kabul’s Peri-Urban Areas


Identifying Power Hierarchies Driving Land Conflict

A primary source of local conflict in Afghanistan is land as it represents one of the principle assets owned by an individual or household. The mountains surrounding Kabul, previously uninhabited, are now painted with untenured residential housing – many situated in circuitous locations only accessible by foot.

Land registration in Afghanistan remains highly irregular, as only cities – and only certain areas therein – have been formally surveyed. The government provides registered property deeds (shara’i qabala) in surveyed areas; however, in peri-urban areas, land titling remains largely informal. These residents hold ownership through unregistered title (urfi qabala), which lack standardization and thus greatly vary from one to another.

This research project, carried out by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, looks into how power hierarchies and structural inequality are often entangled within conflicts over land in Kabul’s peri-urban areas. Structural inequalities in Afghanistan create a variety of challenges related to land tenure. Crucially, power structures within society – like patterns of patronage, clientelism, and patriarchy – may constrain the capacity of people to act ‘in practice’ even when they recognize that acts like registration may be favourable ‘in theory’. People inhabit networks of meanings that are shaped by experiences of exclusion, discrimination, marginalization, and violence; these networks define the available options for securing one’s best interests. Poor periurban residents involved in land disputes may be compelled to collude with existing power structures rather than challenge them.

Structural inequalities in Afghanistan create a variety of challenges related to land tenure. While the causes of land conflict in Afghanistan have been studied in the literature, the manner in which power hierarchies play a role in such conflicts has not been adequately explored. Only by understanding these power hierarchies does it become possible to understand the systemic nature of inequality in land-related conflicts.

This project adopts a qualitative research method using interviews with individuals directly involved in land disputes in Kabul. The main target group was residents of Kabul’s peri-urban regions since we sought to understand their land-related problems and conflicts and their underlying causes. In total, our study consisted of 28 interviews, including 20 community members and 8 members of the Afghanistan Land Authority (ARAZI). The community members interviewed included 5 women (all lay persons), 2 Wakils (government sanctioned community leaders), 2 Maliks (informal community leaders), and 2 Imams (religious leaders).

This study identifies five different power hierarchies that feed inequalities and land-related conflicts:

  1. Powerful land grabbers stand largely outside the realm of accountability. Owing to their privileged position in society, they are able to maintain their claim to land despite having obtained it illegally from the government or another private party.
  2. Corrupt government officials are able to use their position of authority to extract land benefits at the cost of lay individuals.
  3. Community powerbrokers, including Maliks, Wakil Guzars, and Imams, occupy a position of authority as they are viewed by the community as the individuals responsible for arbitrating land disputes, and in the case of the Wakil, serving as the go-between with the government.
  4. Within families, various power hierarchies have direct implications in the way land inheritance is allocated between members.
  5. Afghan returnees create a new set of land related challenges as many find strangers residing on their land upon their return to the country. Rather than relying on the government, returnees may be better able to secure their rights through powerbrokers who are aware of the movement of families due to civil unrest and land usage patterns over time, thereby bolstering the authority of these powerbrokers.

The innovative contribution of this study is introducing the concept of power to the discussion on land conflict and reform. To date, land reform efforts have solely focused on providing formal land tenure to residents of untenured areas. While formal tenure helps provide landowners with certain legal rights to their land, it does not necessarily address the power hierarchies that are sources of conflict. By highlighting these hierarchies, it becomes possible to show that attempts at providing formal titles to residents of peri-urban areas do not necessarily alter the underlying power hierarchies.

Addressing the Power Hierarchies that Drive Conflict

Understanding the various ways in which power drives conflict can help to reduce disputes by making it possible to undertake initiatives that address the underlying inequalities. Practitioners, researchers, policymakers, NGOs, and civil society actors could all benefit from a more thorough conversation on land conflict by exploring power hierarchies more closely so that actions and initiatives can be oriented towards the root causes of conflict. At the community level, powerbrokers must gain a clearer understanding of the ways in which power hierarchies affect land conflicts and spread information on these hierarchies within their communities. At the level of NGOs and government officials, initiatives that directly address inequalities require greater exploration.

The following strategies and initiatives could help address underlying inequalities, thereby confronting power hierarchies. Policies geared at promoting such strategies may be more successful in palliating land conflict than solely relying on formalizing land titles.

  1. Tackling government corruption: Addressing corruption is particularly important if officials hope for peri-urban residents to seek recourse to disputes through courts. Tackling corruption may allow for powerful land grabbers to be held accountable.

  2. Community-led educational trainings: Communities need greater education on issues such as land rights, the titling process, and the rights of women. Community-led initiatives are the most likely to succeed in changing community practices over time.

  3. Association of powerbrokers: While powerbrokers have a significant ability to resolve disputes within their community, they have difficulty keeping powerful individuals, including powerful land grabbers, accountable. One means of increasing the authority of powerbrokers in this regard is to explore the notion of associations between powerbrokers in different communities. Associations have an authority beyond just one person, which may be better able to constrain the activities of powerful individuals.

  4. Increasing community-government cooperation: The channels between communities and the government need to be increased. While the Wakil is one example of cooperation, this role is hardly sufficient. Communities are rarely consulted for projects targeting them (for example, no community leader interviewed was every consulted about the formation of the occupancy certificate initiative). Greater cooperation is likely to bring out greater dividends.

  5. Strength in informality: Communities and government officials should find ways to recognize the benefits of informality. The immediate assumption by many that informality is a problem takes away from its ability to flexibly find solutions. Programs that target land conflict should also emphasize the usefulness of informal processes.

Facilitating Uptake

Power hierarchies are often difficult to recognize because of their omnipresence in society. This research has sought to bring greater clarity on the manner in which power hierarchies drive inequalities and conflicts regarding land tenure in Afghanistan. This knowledge can help to reduce such disputes by making it possible to undertake initiatives that address the underlying inequalities.

1. Community level empowerment: Communities themselves are structured around rigid power hierarchies, where community powerbrokers have a strong influence over community members. Powerbrokers have a clear self-interest in ensuring their continued authority over the community, as their role in solving local land conflicts helps to consolidate their role. At the same time, these powerbrokers are also in a position to bring attention to the various other power dynamics that drive conflict in the community, such as those involving land grabbers, corrupt officials, and family inheritance. The first step is for powerbrokers to gain a clearer understanding of the ways in which power hierarchies affect land conflicts. Power is tacitly understood by all parties but is often left out of discussions of land allocations. Failure to discuss power hierarchies directly ends up leading to supporting efforts such as formal titling that do little to change the underlying inequalities. The second step is for powerbrokers to spread information on power hierarchies within their communities. Thus, powerbrokers should receive knowledge on power hierarchies through ‘training of trainers’ forums or similar settings, which would equip them with tools to transfer 4 knowledge to local communities. Trainings at the community level could help introduce members to the notion of power hierarchies as well as techniques for dealing with inequality. Discussions of power could be tied to Islamic religious teachings emphasizing equality, equity, and social justice, for example, as conveyed through the concepts of zakat (charity) and maslaha (public interest). Furthermore, on a more basic level, the practice of storytelling through a variety of artistic and media practices can help introduce creative approaches to understanding power. Storytelling can help make discourses on power available to people of all ages. Creative expressions of inequality through dance, painting, plays, and otherwise can help to spread knowledge while also consolidating community members.

2. NGOs & government-level efforts: NGOs and government officials occupy a privileged position with respect to land conflict because of their greater access to resources. NGOs have the ability to devise programs (for example, programs that train community members on power structures, storytelling, etc.) by working with local communities. They are also in a position to connect communities with one another, thus introducing the possibility of addressing power hierarchies through intercommunity cooperation. Government officials, such as those at ARAZI, are directly responsible for initiatives such as the OC that seeks to grant formal titles to those who currently hold customary titles; consequently, awareness of how power hierarchies may drive land conflicts can help to reveal the limitations of formal titling, thereby raising the possibility of exploring other initiatives that directly address inequalities.

Ensuring Continuity

As discourses on power hierarchies takes time to be dispersed widely amongst communities, NGOs, civil society actors, and government officials, special effort must be made to sustain initiatives over a sufficiently long period of time, thereby facilitating uptake.

This project culminated with a ‘training of trainers’ workshop, which adopted a cascading outlook where knowledge moves from trainers, to training recipients, and ultimately to communities. The workshop hosted community powerbrokers as well as NGO and government officials. The goal of this event was to introduce the notion of power hierarchies to stakeholders and to emphasize various ways in which knowledge could be disseminated to local communities. At the workshop, participants were provided a copy of the research report (hard- and soft-copies in both English and Persian) as well as a PowerPoint document in Persian with the main findings, as this document could facilitate the widest possible dissemination of the project. The workshop involved an introduction to the concept of power, workshop activities emphasizing the way in which power affects land conflicts (which participants could then use within their own social spheres, whether within communities or within the government), an open discussion where participants got to know one another as well as the trainers, and a lunch during which discussions continued informally.

The project also resulted in two locals being trained as ‘resource persons’ who community leaders and local community members can turn to for further engagement with discourses on inequality and land conflicts. The two assistant researchers who helped in the preparation of this paper also serve as resource persons available to community members, NGOs, and government officials seeking further engagement in the discourses on power hierarchies. Resource persons help to cultivate local knowledge since these persons are based in the local environment – namely, Kabul’s peri-urban areas – and thus are well-situated to continue discussions on inequality and land conflict in their real-world instantiations.

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