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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Ethiopia has also found methods for legalizing customary land holdings, essentially giving traditional arrangements the same legal weight as deeds – to the chagrin, in some cases, of Western donors who prefer privatization.Skip to next paragraph
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In these cases, Mr. Bruce says, the key is less about privatizing assets and more about making sure people feel their homes and farms are protected. "In a lot of rural countries, people are conscious of the need for tenure security," he says. "They don't spend a lot of time sitting around wishing their land were more marketable."
In Malawi, meanwhile, the government has brokered an end to an unhappy stalemate. "There are a lot of large foreign-owned estates that have not made out well financially in recent years and have large areas of uncultivated land, while at the same time pressure on the land is high in neighboring communities," Bruce says. "The government of Malawi has worked with the World Bank to set up a program whereby they provide funds for neighboring communities to purchase portions of those estates and distribute them to new households from those communities."
Tanzania is another oft-cited example of land reform success, based on leaving local communities in control of the land around them. Bruce says the key in each place is precisely that decentralization, which gives "communities that depend on [the land] for their livelihoods … the greatest livelihoods … the greatest interest in their sustainable use."
But Tanzania had another advantage: Personality. Julius Nyerere, the country's first president, was hugely popular across the continent. Where land reform has worked, says Mr. Steinberg of ICG, "I think it's [because of] a charismatic leader who is able to encourage reconciliation at the local level. And, frankly, an absence of population pressure."
If those are the factors, Liberia's outlook is mixed. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is much beloved at home and abroad. She's taken an uncompromising stand on the land issue, refusing to sign deeds for the sale of public land until the land commission recommends reforms. Because all customary land is considered public, that effectively halts land grabs, at least by large-scale entrepreneurs eyeing rural Liberia's abundance of timber, rubber, and diamonds.
But Liberia's capital, Monrovia, is beginning to crack. The world is in the midst of a sweeping rural-to-urban migration that seems especially stark in Liberia; nearly half of the country's 3.5 million people live in Monrovia.
"The greatest issues in my view are the urban land issues," says Brady. "They involve the majority of our poor people, who reside as squatters" in urban shantytowns. Until they are addressed, he says, they will "bog down the judicial system" and inhibit investment.
The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.
"Some people must make sacrifices. They must," says Brady. "It's as simple as that."
•Travel to Liberia for this cover package was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.