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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But that wisdom is driven largely by outsiders with hefty aid packages, and it's problematic for reasons anyone familiar with America's subprime mortgage crisis could understand. Those who push land reform "are asking people who really can't afford to use their land as collateral, who see their land in a completely different way – as their livelihood – to use their land as a source of capital," says Ambreena Manji, author of "The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets."Skip to next paragraph
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That land, meanwhile, is increasingly threatened. The UN Environment Program estimates that only 20 percent of Africa's land is arable; the rest – deserts, woodlands, wetlands – can't be farmed. What can be cultivated is quickly being swallowed up by countries like China and India, whose populations outstrip their agricultural capacity. Since 2004, 2.5 million acres of land have been allocated by five African governments to food production for foreign countries, often without recognizing or fairly compensating farmers with traditional claims to that land. Meanwhile, Africa's population is swelling; it's expected to double to nearly 2 billion within 40 years. If those 2 billion people doubt that they will have the land rights needed to feed and shelter themselves, experts say, the continent may yet again find itself overrun with war.
In fact, new violence has flared up. Kampala, Uganda's flourishing capital, saw 20 deaths last year in riots that broke out as a result of disputes between Uganda's president and the leader of its biggest ethnic groups over the country's ancient monarchies and their ancestral land claims. In one rural Liberian county, 22 people were killed in land disputes, mostly over rubber plantations, in the spring of 2008, stoking fear in the postconflict country's leadership that unresolved land issues might bring back war.
Even the continent's most functional governments can't always avoid violence.
"Up until recently, you would have said Kenya" was a model of successful land reform, says Donald Steinberg, deputy president for policy of the International Crisis Group. The violence that followed the 2007 election, he says, suggests generations-old land grievances – the colonial dispossession of the Kikuyu and the postcolonial dispossession of other tribes, in decades of tit-for-tat land policy – haven't been resolved.
Then, there are countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, where government is fragile – and corrupt. In those environments, says Ms. Nielsen, "you have enormous potential for elite capture. The minute you start [to] document [land] rights, the people who have the most power are going to have every reason to take rights from the people who have the least power." Tinkering with land policy – as in, say, Darfur – "is lighting the match, potentially, that causes the fire."
The TART SCENT OF MOLDY PAPER fills the archive of Liberia's national deed registry, a small room rimmed with bookshelves that hold crumbling tomes, some a half-century old. Inside the books, scribes have documented, with painstakingly clear penmanship, who sold what to whom. The books contain errors and contradictions and sometimes outright fraud; it's not uncommon for two people to produce paperwork they believe entitles them to the same piece of land.