The importance of land in the Great Lakes Region of Africa is undeniable. It is central to livelihoods and identity, and unfortunately also to conflict. Scarcity of land and questions about ownership drive violent conflict. Improper land governance problematizes prevention and resolution of this violence.
Together with Search for Common Ground, the Platform organized an expert meeting on 15 June to address land issues in the region. Bringing together a number of policy makers, practitioners and researchers working on and in the region, the meeting encouraged reflection on and exchange of (un)successful approaches to tackling land issues.
Root causes and drivers – and different priorities
Throughout the discussion, it was apparent that the priorities on the side of donor governments have shifted from land governance specifically to conflict more generally, and, in particular, migration. On the other hand, it was acknowledged that improper land governance and consequent land grievances are catalysts for both violent conflict and migration from the region.
The meeting highlighted a number of sources of conflict in relation to land. To begin with, various groups in society lack access to land, which leads to grievances that often flare into violence – even within families. Women in particular struggle with access to land. They are limited by patriarchal inheritance laws and unfavorable land registration policies. Additionally, the fear of reprisals or exclusion, and the lack of recourse to justice mechanisms, prevent women from taking claims to objective arbiters.
In Burundi, as well as elsewhere in the region, returnees that fled the country make claims on land that is now in the hands of others. Contested claims spur violence among neighbors and within communities. Unclear or outdated land registration documents prevent dispute resolution on the basis of fact, and, in some cases, only serve to worsen the situation.
While some participants argued that the lack of awareness of land governance legislation among communities in the region prevents them from addressing land injustices, others countered that often the awareness of laws is present, but enforcement by officials and local or state institutions is non-existent. Raising awareness through targeted campaigns must therefore be coupled with institutional development and real change in how land rights are enforced by authorities.
As often is the case, widespread corruption at every level of governance, from the community to the national level, exacerbates many of the aforementioned hurdles to peaceful land governance. Formal institutions tasked with land registration, adjudication and enforcement are all susceptible to corruption. As such, informal mechanisms, like mediation, present themselves as alternative options.
Addressing and mitigating conflicts
Training mediators – often women – proved to be a successful way to find solutions for land disputes that are acceptable to all parties involved, without recourse to local or state institutions. Mediators are taught to bring disputing parties together to find amicable solutions outside of regulatory frameworks. By training women and giving them an important role in resolving disputes, the program also helps to shift the perception and enhance the standing of these women in the community, as well as their involvement in land affairs in general.
A different method of mitigating or preventing land conflicts is to create opportunities for alternative livelihoods. Many land issues center on a lack of alternatives to subsistence farming. As such, employment in other sectors could help ease land scarcity and reduce contested land claims. However, doing so requires two major shifts. The first is the actual creation of sustainable alternatives. In many of the Great Lakes countries, this may be difficult to achieve without donor or government support. The second is a shift in attitudes towards a positive view of work in other sectors and away from the exclusivity of subsistence farming as a livelihood in the region.
Recommendations going forward
The Platform and Search for Common Ground will compile a one-pager that outlines the most important recommendations for policy makers and practitioners to address land issues.