Land, Conflict and Sustainable Development

By Caleb Stevens, Land and Resource Governance Advisor, USAID

When I arrived in Liberia six years ago, I was tasked with facilitating the development of the country’s first national land policy. Of the many reasons why such a policy was needed — improving the enabling environment for economic growth; advancing better land and resource management in a country rich in natural resources — none was more striking than the prevalence of land disputes. Virtually every single Liberian has been touched in some way by a land dispute. Although disputes over land and natural resources played an important role in the 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, today the majority of land disputes do not grab headlines. But they are nevertheless a source of real anxiety and insecurity. No one can be sure that their land is free of disputes without clear laws governing who can own what land and under what conditions. And clear laws and policies need to be complemented by an accurate and up-to-date land information system that can tell you with a reasonable degree of certainty who owns what pieces of land and where the boundaries are.

A man in Kakata, Liberia. Nearly all Liberians have been touched by land disputes in some way. Photo: Adam Parr/USAID

According to a 2008 survey, 59 percent of Liberians said that violent land conflicts arise ‘often’ or ‘always.’ And 62 percent said that land was the most important cause of violent conflict between communities. This is confirmed by 2013–2014 baseline data from USAID’s evaluation of a program to strengthen community land governance. That data showed that almost every community surveyed described an ongoing, protracted land dispute.

The pending Land Rights Act is a critical piece of legislation that will help address persistent land disputes in Liberia by creating a path towards tenure security for communities and private landholders.

While global, or even country-wide, figures on land disputes are unavailable, land disputes tend to clog a country’s judicial system.

In 2001, Ghanaian courts dealt with 60,000 land related cases.
In Ethiopia, more than 50 percent of district court cases are associated with land disputes. While in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia, land disputes make up about 70 percent of all civil cases.
In Cambodia in 2005, 850,000 people were affected by land disputes, representing about 6.5 percent of the population.
In Ethiopia, more than 50 percent of district court cases are associated with land disputes. Photo: USAID/Ethiopia

And the socio-economic consequences of land disputes are significant. A study in Tigray, Ethiopia of 175 rural farming households found that farmers involved in land disputes saw a decline in agricultural productivity of about 20 percent. In Uganda in 2001, an estimated 2.5 to 5 percent of the population (representing about 625,000 to 1.25 million people) were involved in a land dispute, which implied a dispute-induced loss of agricultural productivity of 5.5 to 11 percent. By undermining agricultural productivity, the adverse impact that disputes have on overall economic growth, nutrition, food security, and livelihoods cannot be overstated.

Given the volume of court cases and judicial backlog, passing national land legislation may appear to be an unusual solution to the problem of land disputes. Why not focus on building the capacity of courts — increasing their ability to resolve more land cases? Or train mediators and other alternative dispute resolution providers? Certainly these will have a more direct and immediate impact on land disputes? This is all true, but such direct interventions are only temporary remedies when land disputes are symptoms of a deeper problem: larger weaknesses in land governance.

The only long-term solution to land disputes on the scale experienced by Liberia, and so many other countries, is systemic improvements in land governance. For this reason, USAID is supporting efforts to strengthen Liberia’s policy, legal, and regulatory framework for land governance. This capitalizes on USAID’s past support of helping secure passage of the Land Authority Act, which amalgamates disparate governmental functions over the land sector into a single Land Authority.

The Liberian Ministry of Land, Mines and Energy, supported by USAID, is working with local communities to explain the benefits of registering tribal certificates with the government. Officials here teach residents how to map their property. Photo: Leah Butler

As Liberia and other countries around the world take steps to strengthen land governance, it is important to be mindful of the importance of addressing land disputes. And while addressing the complex issues around land disputes can be challenging, USAID has developed practical recommendations to help guide programs and decision making. One key resource is an issue brief on land disputes and land conflict, which provides guidance to humanitarian agencies, donors, and governments in understanding, avoiding, and minimizing conflict over land.

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