As battles over land rights increase and intensify, development stalls.
Land has become a four-letter fighting word for communities worldwide. Like many civil conflicts, land-use disputes can be boiled down to the consequences of inequitable policies, widening socioeconomic gaps, and resource competition.
Today, about 1.4 million people live in extreme poverty. Seventy-five percent live in rural areas, where land equals livelihood, but access and rights are weak. Since land and property rights underpin economic development, resolving these conflicts is crucial.
After checking out land conflicts around the world, a few themes stand out:
1) Get everyone involved. For everyone to agree on a solution, everyone must help find it. Parties need to communicate directly with each other for this to happen.
2) Markets, markets, markets. Once negotiations take place and land is parcelled out, landowners need the tools to increase their agricultural productivity. With all of the extra crops they grow, they also need help accessing local markets to sell them.
3) Talk about it publicly. Without awareness through political advocacy, unjust land conflicts remain in the shadows. Public promotion of fair and workable land registration sheds light on them, helping to end inequitable practices.
How do these themes play out around the world? Let’s take a look at Guatemala, Uganda, and Indonesia.
Guatemala land resolutions, jaded no more
In the Alta Verapaz region of northern Guatemala, a 36-year civil war has centered on land: simply put, it’s unclear who owns it.
In Alta Verapaz, roughly 90 percent of the population is indigenous – often of Maya descent – and over 85 percent are rural. Of these, a whopping 63 percent live in poverty. Many have either been denied land ownership or forcibly removed from tribal lands. At one point, over 65 percent of Guatemala’s arable land was controlled by just 2.5 percent of the country’s population – ruling elites or businesses.
Currently, there are about 1,450 declared land conflicts in Guatemala and most involve the indigenous communities of Alta Verapaz. Not only has this affected the livelihoods of those dependent on agriculture, but it has prompted violent uprisings and constrained economic development.
Here’s what’s being done: In 2003, Mercy Corps partnered with the Association of Lawyers for Legal Development (JADE) to provide integrated land conflict resolution services. Their methodology combines three important tools: conflict mediation, institutional capacity building, and advocacy.
What exactly does this do? It brings landowners and indigenous workers together to work out their own solution; it helps newly landed communities organize a profitable farming system; and it promotes advocacy for land reform at various government levels.
As of 2009, seven mediation centers were opened, 100 community representatives were trained in conflict mediation, and 28 workshops were held on the topic of conflict resolution. Mercy Corps provided technical support by using GPS to help identify property boundaries, while JADE helped residents navigate the land tenure process, ensuring all had proper legal documentation.
The results have been encouraging. Since November, 2010, Mercy Corps’ project has resolved over 305 land conflicts, benefiting more than 14,582 indigenous farming families, and establishing 493 parcels of land.
An important component of the Mercy Corps program is the promotion of economic development. The program doesn’t just stop at land mediation but provides agricultural education and assistance with direct market access. The program also stipulates that new owners use a percentage of their new land earnings as a means of payment, prompting income generation through increased output. No longer are they relying on subsistence farming or cash crops but a larger, diverse agriculture yield.
Subsequent research by Mercy Corps shows that 98 percent of the participants experienced at least a 15 percent increase in economic output, some over 100 percent.
Old Practices Clash with New Laws in Uganda
In Uganda, similar land-use conflicts occur. Over 80 percent of Uganda’s land is unregistered private property; the owners need no legal documentation, most boundaries are locally recognized and given the full protection of state law.
However, a combination of increased population density, land scarcity, and a 1998 act put into place that legalizes a market for land acquisition has caused intense competition, land grabbing, encroachment, and inequitable appropriations by elites.
The Land and Equity Movement in Uganda (LEMU) is currently providing conflict mediation in the Northern and Eastern regions of the country, where the greatest conflicts have arisen.
Judy Adoko, LEMU’s program director, explained that when new freehold land laws were imposed, they didn’t consider, and thus don’t work, with the customary tenure system already in place. She stated that “this created a middle ground of confusion.” Local clan systems serve as authority figures in the community and only recognized customary law. Residents who filed court claims in the city for newly subdivided land were simply ignored.
Since 2003, LEMU has researched land rights, public policy, and created a grassroots organization to address these land-use disputes. Similar to Mercy Corps' program in Guatemala, LEMU brings local farmers, government officials, and community leaders together to work out solutions. They facilitate the creation of policies and laws that ensure fair access to land and promote poverty eradication.
Post-conflict areas, such as Acholiland in the north, are especially vulnerable and could greatly benefit from similar mediation processes. Establishing the land rights of returning displaced populations, like those affected by the decades-long civil war, presents a crucial opportunity to reintegrate communities and improve overall economic health when most critical.
Advocacy in Indonesia
In Indonesia, land battles have reached a boiling point. The last few months have seen escalating violence between local residents, the government, and private companies – all due to land seizures.
A few bad policies have created licensing overlaps that favor resource extraction companies over local farming communities. A mining or plantation company may receive a government okay to work on an area of land, but it ignores customary land rights that have been in place for generations.
Locals experience a loss of income-generating land, increased pollution, and fatal conflicts due to heavy-handed security forces. In January, activists staged protests to push for a bill that would establish and regulate a new integrated system.
As land becomes a scarce commodity, it plays an increasingly important role in development.
Guatemala shows us that facilitated negotiations allow locals to create their own land-use solutions. Beyond a handshake, helping farmers increase their yields and access local markets is key to sustaining land mediation solutions.
Uganda proves that if you don’t involve the right people at the beginning, you can’t come to a resolution. Simply imposing Western institutional systems on customary land only perpetuates conflict. Thus, creating institutions that can effectively enforce new property laws, in tandem with participatory development, will boost success.
In Indonesia, political advocacy takes the spotlight. Exposing inequitable policies can garner international media attention, resulting in a platform for institutional change.
By combining these tools, we can begin to break the cycle of conflict stemmed from land disputes.
While it's easy to see land disputes as an isolated local issue, they can add up to a huge challenge for a country's economy. Smart national policies can make it much easier to fix these piece by piece and subsequently resolve broader issues.