Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Land-Use Conflict in Africa

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor about conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa has pointed to seemingly petty land-use conflicts - the type that are unfortunately the bread and butter of planning - as the culprit for many larger-scale frequently violent conflicts. (CSM has also provide a guide to existing land-use based wholesale conflicts currently in Africa while including potential future flash points.) Land-use conflicts however rarely take on the same mundane tone as land-use fights we see in the US, frequently waged over minutiae such as leaves from neighboring trees falling into gutters or fence colour choices affecting 'neigbborhood aesthetics' but are frequently matters of life or death.

Of course, many of these land-use issues are tied to resources, development control and questions of tenure; however it may be overly simplistic to reduce a conflict as long-standing and multifaceted as that in the DR Congo to merely one over herding rights, as the article seems to. Despite this, the land-use argument certainly carries a great deal of credibility.

From an urban development perspective (and by 2035 the United Nations predicts much of Africa will have become urban), land-use and tenure issues seem to be the most common causes of triggers of ethnic or religious conflict within Africa's burgeoning urban slums. Again, the nuance here is that while many of these conflicts take the form inter-ethnic, tribal or religious violence, the underlying root cause is usually one access to resources, most frequently potable water or development rights within a squatter community - with the underlying irony being that as these are squatter communities, no one has de facto legal rights to develop.

Despite this, possession is frequently 9/10ths of the law, and slum land-lords have been happy to illegally erect tin-sheds and then rent them out at usurious rates in places like Lagos, and to play one ethnic or religious group off against the other in cases where squatters begin to agitate for increased tenure security. Further complications stem from inconsistencies within competing legal systems - from colonial era (though still standing) laws and conflict with new laws passed post de-colonization to conflict with existing indigenous, though informal, tribal laws and norms holding precedence within many areas.

Security of land tenure is of greatest import for many African squatters. While many development projects, including housing and infrastructure improvements have been targeted towards slum denizens within Sub-Saharan Africa, often issues of tenure security have affected the ability of governments and development agencies to improve these communities. In planning better communities for slum denizens it is crucial that legal issues of land tenure be improved such that infrastructure and housing improvements can be made. However, the laws detailing land tenure security remain obsequious in many cases.

Thus many countries, for example one I have experience working in: Ghana, are seeking to mitigate conflict through the reform of land tenure laws and the normalization of traditional tenure conventions with the legal code. What this means is that increasingly traditional tribal chiefs who are making land-use decisions in practice will be further empowered to do so by the state, thus making their decisions formal land-use policy. This strengthens the legal legitimacy of 'traditional' semi-legal conventions while also allowing tribal chiefs to serve as conflict resolutions bodies.

While this on paper may appear to open the system-up to further graft, chiefs tend to have smaller areas of authority that many of the post-independence bureaucratic positions and have well-known customs for conducting business or concluding disputes, thus making their system in many ways more transparent - or at least, the rules and inherent biases built into such a system would be at least known to the involved parties. Tribal chiefs also have greater legitimacy in the eyes of many recent rural to urban migrants than formal written (easily and frequently forged) legal documents.

While the empowerment of traditional tribal chiefs to serve as 'customary land managers' may be in imperfect solution, it is one that has great deal of salience with many living in African cities and villages and the further empowerment of chiefs as land-managers could, in many ways mitigate land-use conflicts and thus prevent bloodshed.


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Lee Shin

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