Insecure land rights drive conflict over natural resources

A boy drags a branch by a muddy riverside. Conflict over land ownership can be severe that it can drive individuals and communities apart, and even so far as open relationship gaps between companies and state. Photo by: ryan harvey / CC BY-SA

The land-related drivers of conflict are complex and multilayered. Land is inextricably tied to the use and management of the natural resources on the land — oil, gold, minerals, timber, water, and more recently, carbon. As a result, stronger land rights allow individuals and communities to freely transact over the use of resources contained within.

In many countries, however, uncertainty of land ownership extends to the resources attached to the land. The resulting competition for control over these valuable resources can be severe, driving localized conflict and often pitting individuals, companies, communities, and the state against each other. In severe cases, such as the infamous blood diamond trade in West Africa, the unregulated, less-than-legal competition for land and resources fuels protracted conflict.

In many developing countries, the state actually owns all natural resources attached to the land, a byproduct of colonial-era laws that facilitated resource extraction by the colonial powers. This legal ownership has since transferred to sovereign nations where its existence overlaps and conflicts with individual and community land ownership and occupation.

Countries afflicted by the natural resource curse almost universally have a concession system where the state contracts with private (or parastatal) companies for resource extraction. The revenue goes straight to the treasury where it becomes the primary source of government funds — and corruption.

Tensions over control and benefit of resources tied to land are tangible in communities throughout the world. In Peru, Andean communities that have lived in villages and grazed their livestock on fields for centuries are routinely displaced to make room for gold and copper mines with little benefit from its extraction. In South Sudan, the coffers of the new government grow daily off the substantial oil revenue, but little direct benefit reaches the people that have been displaced by oil fields, pipelines, and environmental destruction. In Honduras, farmers don’t even own the trees on their land.

The dynamics that drive conflict over land and resources are multifaceted. As detailed previously, the uncertainty of ownership over land and valuable resources and their unregulated extraction can actually fuel wars. At the same time, the subjugation of community and individual land rights to resource extraction by the state can generate local conflict between the government and its citizens, as seen in the conflicts in Mindanao, Philippines; Papua, Indonesia; and in countless community roadblocks and protests in the Andes.

Further still, as Larry Diamond and Jack Mosbacher touch upon in their recent Foreign Affairs article “Petroleum to the People,” the natural resource course that derives from state ownership of lucrative natural resources creates rent-seeking, or kleptocracies. Elections become less about referendums on good governance and more about competition for control of vast, unfettered resources, creating high stakes and sometimes violent battles for economic enrichment of politicians and their followers.

The challenge to prevent or even mitigate conflict in this context is daunting. Nonetheless, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Chemonics, and other international development actors are pioneering new approaches and promoting policy standards such as the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure Governance that reinforce conflict mitigation strategies and tackle underlying, fundamental land-related conflict drivers.

First, as conflict over land use and resource extraction can originate from insecurity of land ownership, we have strengthened land tenure in fragile communities through participatory land surveying and titling methods. In Kenya, support has been provided to improve land registries and customer service, a counterweight to the opaque land deals that were a major source of conflict underlying the 2007-2008 post-election violence. In Tajikistan, USAID-funded rural legal aid centers have helped more than 26,000 women strengthen their rights to land. Additionally, in fragile areas of Bolivia, we have developed and promoted cost-effective community titling methodologies and improved government procedures to increase the legalization of land.

In Peru and Colombia, we are helping reduce localized conflict over mining by improving processes to clarify land and resource rights for small-scale artisanal miners that operate in the shadow of the law and often in conflict with communities, mining companies, and the government. By working with communities to identify areas of conflict with local miners, projects are able to facilitate application for mining concessions by local miners, and thus ensure they abide by regulations that minimize environmental contamination and ensure community monitoring. Projects also facilitate the implementation of free, prior and informed consent requirements for extractive and other infrastructure projects, a right enshrined in the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples which mitigates future conflict by ensuring communities are consulted about projects and provides a forum for addressing human rights violations.

USAID has also pioneered the development and implementation of the Kimberley process for artisanal diamond miners in Africa, helping clarify the land tenure and mining rights of small-scale miners so they can operate legally and thus participate in the KP, and keep diamonds out of illegal markets that can be used to fund conflict.

The potential for land-related conflict is increasing worldwide as competition grows for other resources, such as arable land and water, due to greater pressure from high commodity prices, global warming and population growth. Fundamental shifts of legal frameworks that devolve land and resource rights to communities are required, but this is a complex, politically sensitive, long-term vision. In the meantime, the development community and partners can continue to play an essential role in clarifying land rights and facilitating participation by communities in resource rights decision-making to set the foundation for post-conflict reconstruction and mitigate the prospect of future conflicts.

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.

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