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Africa's continental divide: land disputes

African land reform, plot by plot, may be the foundation for solving so much else – from famine to poverty to genocide.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / January 30, 2010

Pastureland encroaches on farm plots in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo where cattle herders have fought farmers in land disputes.

Julien Harneis

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Zuluyee, Liberia; and Kailahun, Sierra Leone

The specialists know the warning signs. Analysts and scientists and field officers and academics spend years writing white papers, issuing reports and holding conferences, trying to provoke interest in issues that often seem arcane. Please, they have urged governments and the United Nations and activists, think about something that sounds boring – land disputes – before it turns into something that is not – war.

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Land, at the very heart of security and survival, looms behind most of the African conflicts we've all heard of and dozens of others we have not. The Rwandan genocide, some argue, was as much about the dwindling land availability in Africa's most densely populated country as it was about enmity between ethnic groups. The wars recounted in the movie "Blood Diamond" in Sierra Leone and Liberia saw land grabs by warlords eager to exploit commodities like diamonds and timber. The violence following Kenya's 2007 election reflected generations of dissatisfaction with land policy that favored different ethnic groups over time. Beneath the genocide in Darfur is a broken land tenure system, full of fights over soil that climate change is making increasingly unproductive. Somalia's infamous pirates gain cover for plundering from political chaos in the country, whose warring clans fight not only for power but primacy on disputed lands, full of resources to fuel ongoing violence. And beneath last week’s Muslim-Christian riots, which killed at least 260 people in Jos, Nigeria, are decades-old grievances about political rights and the land they are tied to.

Africa's most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn't sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa's other ills will be easier to treat.

In communities across the continent, that hypothesis is bearing out. Rwanda is giving women the right to hold property. Botswana is experimenting with community-based land negotiations. Malawi is brokering a delicate land redistribution.

Certainly fixing Africa's broken land system means the most to the farming families who depend on the soil for their survival. But with land security comes stability, and with stability, Africa has the potential to ease poverty, grow economically, and exploit its unmatched natural resources – from oil off the western coast to minerals in the central mountains.

The end of land conflict might just mark the ascent of Africa.

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