How to resolve land conflicts

By Deborah Horan 19 September 2013

40-year-old Ramadhan stands among his rows of cabbages at his small farm in Rugina, Rwanda. When it comes to land conflicts, it often occurs between opposing parties relying on statutory law versus customary law of land ownership. And since "prevention is better than cure", Former World Bank land policy counsel John Bruce believes that setting up a governmental land commission is a good solution. Tiggy Ridley/Department for International Development / CC BY-NC-ND

With globalization and rapidly growing population, the demand for land increases. That also heightens the possibility of land disputes.

Preventing and resolving land conflicts have no single solution. The Quick Guide to Land and Conflict Prevention, published by the Initiative on Quiet Diplomacy, outlines a number of approaches, including mediation.

“Mediation isn’t quite so concerned with the law,” John W. Bruce, the handbook’s principal author, told Devex. “It’s not that the law is irrelevant, but the parties make compromises to what the law would dictate.”

The former World Bank counsel has worked on land policy and law in more than 50 developing countries, including Cambodia, Malawi, Rwanda and Sudan. He’s currently a partner at Land and Development Solutions International.

In this exclusive interview, Bruce shared some of the innovative approaches to preventing and resolving land conflicts.

You have proposed some interesting ways to resolve land disputes, including mediation. Can you expand on that a bit?

Yes, I was in Rwanda looking at the way humanitarian organizations handled land issues in years immediately following the conflict. I started to look at conflict and land from a conflict prevention standpoint — which ones are useful in short run, which ones are useful more permanently and who should deploy them. One of the short-term ones is the use of mediation of land disputes rather than relying on the judicial system.

And then there are a lot of land disputes where parties aren’t agreeing on what the law says — one party is relying on statutory law and the other one is relying on customary law, so there’s no consensus on what the law should be. Adjudication by the court is going to be very unsatisfactory to one side. So mediation is often a good option.

What about land reform? Can that also be useful?

Land reform often addresses historic grievances regarding land. It can be a contentious process, so it’s often seen as a last resort. But it shouldn’t be.

Land reform should to be thought about in post-conflict situations much earlier than it typically is. There’s often a tendency to rely on NGOs to calm things down immediately after a conflict has ended.

But in the longer run there are things that only governments can do — legal reform, land reform. You can use other methods to mitigate disputes until something more dramatic is done to redress wrongs.

What about setting up land commissions? Is that a good option?

It’s a good solution. It can bring a wide range of stakeholders to the table and does not allow land policy directions to be set by a single government agency, which often will have vested interests in the system as it stands.

But most land commissions have limited implementation capability and the rebuilding of institutions that deal with land often lags behind. I argue that rebuilding land administration and management agencies responsible for implementation deserves greater priority and needs to be tackled early in post-conflict contexts.

In Liberia, they finally set up a national land commission years after conflict ended. It would have helped if that had happened three or four years earlier. In the immediate post-conflict phase, there is an opening, an opportunity. Sometimes it’s an opportunity that is missed — when you try to do it later, the new order of things has solidified so you tend to face more opposition.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

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Deborah Horan

Deborah Horan is an award-winning journalist who has written about international development issues for the World Bank's Human Development Network and for the International Finance Corp.'s Sustainable Business Advisory about health, HIV/AIDS, early childhood development, education and the promotion of small business through business management training. Deb has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war, among other international assignments.


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