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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.

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It's too much to say that land is the cause of all of Africa's wars. But on a continent where villages are impoverished and cities are strained, "it's at the core of almost everything," says Robin Nielsen, a lawyer with the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute (RDI). "Land is the means for livelihood. It's power; it's status; it's security. It's the most powerful asset people have."

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Or, as the district council of rural Kailahun Province in Sierra Leone puts it, "The soil is our bank."

A good way to understand the roots of Africa's land dilemma is to drive through rural Sierra Leone or Liberia. Cratered dirt roads cut through what feels like limitless, untouched land: Stately palm trees and skinny rubber trees sway over miles of tall, tangled grasses. Along the road, people walk with the day's laundry or firewood on their heads – moving, one assumes, from the cluster of mud huts that make up the village just behind to the cluster just ahead. But to the left and right of the road is what the colonists called "virgin forest."

It isn't, of course. And even a stranger should know better: A husky, sharp scent wafts over the road, like burning buttery popcorn: someone deep in the forest is making palm-kernel oil. Or, just a 100-foot trudge off the road, through shoulder-high elephant grass, the sounds of what's hidden can be heard: Rice farmers splash through swampland as they harvest; cassava growers sing to themselves as they slash through last year's tangled weeds readying the ground for this year's crop. Deep in the woods that seem wild and untouched to outsiders, people live and work as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years.

"In Africa, most of the population has no documents. They believe they own the land as a group because they have been there for millennia," says John Unruh, a land tenure expert at McGill University in Montreal. "Their mythology about how they came into the world involves that specific location, so identity is often very much tied up in where groups want access."

But often outsiders didn't know – or just ignored – this. When European powers sliced up the continent in the late 19th century, they thought of Africa as an empty mass free for the taking. Colonial rulers brought along the notion of private property. Suddenly, the land system changed. In the old system, an entire community owned land, managed by the elders. With the advent of private property, history meant nothing next to paperwork: Title to land trumped tradition. But as is often the case with indigenous groups around the world – including in the United States – those who walked away with legal deeds for the land and those who lived and worked on those lands for generations were usually not the same people.

As a result, one big tension in today's Africa is about how groups get that access – by tradition or by title. Today, according to the United Nations Development Program, roughly 90 percent of rural Africa – 500 million people – have access to their land because their ancestors did. They trust this traditional system to give them the chance to farm crops and build homes. That utility is what gives their land value.

A title-based system looks entirely different: It starts and ends with money. A title system universalizes value by privatizing land, making it an asset that can be sold – or, more important, used as collateral. Any buyer with enough cash can buy a plot from a willing seller. Prevailing development wisdom says that, under this system, land begets credit, and credit begets wealth.