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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
In this and many other ways, Liberia is a microcosm of Africa's land problems. The clash between customary and statutory tenure is exacerbated by uncertainty after a civil war that – after spanning the 1990s and ending in 2003 – has left the fragile country fearful that land disputes will push its population back to violence. The population, meanwhile, is fragmented: Liberia has 16 ethnic groups, relations between some of them tense.
"There is a bunch of confusion all over with regard to who owns what," says Cecil T.O. Brady, chair of Liberia's new land commission. Part of the problem is that traditional leaders may not have known the size and scale of the land they sold. "No villager has an idea that one acre is a football field. When they sold the land to somebody, they sold their whole villages as well."
The war adds to the confusion; there is missing paperwork and there are missing landholders.
Korkesi Jabateh's family knew that even if they survived the war, they could lose their land unless they came back with their deed.
The Jabatehs owned a gas station in Ganta, a town just a few miles from the Guinean border, and the extended family lived in houses just behind their business. When Jabateh returned from Guinea in 2005, he found the family property overrun. Nine other families had moved into the Jabatehs' houses; two dozen more had built makeshift shelters in the parking lot of his gas station.
Clutching his deed, Jabateh would seem to have the upper hand; but it's complicated. He is Mandingo, a Muslim ethnic group that traditionally have been merchants in the area, and that pass for economic elite. Before the war, the Mandingo owned all the shops along the dusty main drag of urban Ganta, where Jabateh's gas station is. Today, most of those shops have been appropriated by people from the Gio or Mano tribes, who stuck around when the Mandingo fled during the war.
The International Crisis Group says some Mandingo are threatening to take their property back by force. Jabateh's not one of them, but he feels the tension. If he tries to force the squatters from his land, he says, "It will create noise. People will come from other areas and say, 'Don't move! Don't move!' " Then, he thinks, they will point fingers. "There will be tension, and who will be the cause of that tension? They will say, 'Mr. Jabateh, he is the cause of that tension.' "
Despite constant talk of tribal tensions, experts say that in Liberia – and in much of Africa – ethnicity is rarely the real issue. Mr. Unruh, at McGill, says ethnic conflict, or even drought or famine, are usually symptoms of a deeper land dispute. "Underneath all of that," he says, "is an ongoing land conflict, or different understandings about how land is accessed and used."
But those understandings aren't static. Across Africa, circumstances are changing the way people think about land. In some places, such as Darfur, global warming is shifting natural boundaries, inviting clashes between once peaceful, pastoral farmers and nomadic herders over shrinking pastures; in others, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, war has shifted cultural norms of authority.
"There's a big conflict between traditional leaders and the children," says Dr. Brady, of Liberia's land commission. "They're going home and disregarding the elders" who make decisions about what and how to plant on communal land, he says. "And the elders are afraid, because these are ex-combatants."
Elsewhere in Africa, the change is often deliberate and politically orchestrated. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, for example, agricultural operations have been expropriated – sometimes with compensation, sometimes without – from white farmers and given to black farmers, to rectify generations of social and economic injustice.
As Brady sees it, the land problem is brought into relief, in country after country, by an increasingly educated and agitated citizenry, one no longer willing to tolerate what it perceives as unjust regulation or redistribution. "The genie has been let out of the bottle I would say," he says. "Local communities are now reexerting their rights."
Jabateh, on the other hand, has found a different path to resolving his land issues. Deed in hand, he has plenty of legal rights to exert, but he thinks there's a method faster and cheaper than Liberia's corrupt court system and more humane than taking up guns: compensation. Jabateh, after all, was a refugee, too, in Guinea, and so has some sympathy for the squatters. "These families have nowhere to go," he says. "The war brought them here. They are displaced also."
ACROSS AFRICA, INDIVIDUALS LIKE JABATEH, and even entire communities, are brokering their own solutions to land conflict. Sometimes those solutions require people like Elaine Kamue. A short woman with a soft voice and a blunt way of speaking, Mrs. Kamue travels from village to village in rural Liberia, educating women about the country's new land laws – and intervening to help put the laws into practice.
Without Kamue, 55-year-old Yar Gegh would be homeless and starving. For years after her brothers had left sleepy Zuluyee, a roadside market town a few hours from Liberia's border with Guinea, Ms. Gegh remained to farm the family plot and care for her dying mother. She had, she says, little choice: "Only a woman can mind her mother."
In 2005, her oldest brother, Lawrence, came back to the village and kicked her off the family land. "He say, woman didn't own land. Woman didn't get property," she recalls. "He beat me. He [insulted] me and dragged me on the ground." The abuse and insecurity became so bad, Gegh fled from Liberia to Guinea, at a time when thousands of Liberian refugees, ready to try out life under a new, democratic government, were making the opposite trip.
Mr. Gegh admits he pushed his sister off the family land: "I told her, 'I'm here now to take care of the area,' I was a soldier-man. I was a military person. I came to take charge of the post."
Four years into the dispute, they found a solution when Kamue came to town. Kamue, who works with the local Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, a chapter of an international nongovernmental organization that works on social reforms at the grass-roots level, told Gegh about the new law. She explained her conflict with her brother, and Kamue offered to mediate.
"It took four hours," she recalls of the one-on-one mediation that usually takes an hour. Mr. Gegh agreed to give his sister a small plot to farm for food, and she invited him to live in a room in the house she'd built in town.
Ms. Gegh is one of thousands of women across Africa whose access to land, in practice, depends on men. "One of the things that has happened historically is that land got titled," Nielsen of RDI explains, "[without recognizing] all the users of the land, so it was generally titled in the name of the head of the household."
But several countries are working on reversing this problem. Rwanda is preparing legislation giving women equal rights to title; other countries are following suit. In Botswana, meanwhile, women's land rights are getting a grass-roots boost. There, men are beginning to leave their land to their daughters, in recognition of their lifelong contributions to the household economy. In fact, Botswana is emerging as a model of successful resolution of land reform, according to John Bruce, a former lawyer for the World Bank and an expert on land issues in Africa. The country has twinned tradition with modern law, allowing local land boards and their elected membership to enforce customary law in rural areas, while urban areas use a statutory system.
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.
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.