A woman in Burundi carries a child on her back among a thick patch of vines. Land conflict affects small farmers the most, and as the global demand for land rises and investors acquire large parcels of public land, its these farmers that pay the price of their customary rights being taken away. Photo by: EC/ECHO Martin Karimi / CC BY-SA

Land disputes have been at the center of violent conflicts throughout human history. As a source of subsistence and natural resources, as well as a sense of community and identity, land often takes on deep political, socio-economic, emotional and symbolic meaning for people, making it a hotly contested resource.

Research and experience show that even in times of relative stability, latent land issues like scarcity and land tenure insecurity can present complex, intransigent obstacles to development. When these problems simmer beneath the surface, unaddressed by local leaders and the development community, they can boil over into violent large-scale conflicts that disrupt lives and hinder development. We have seen this happen in recent years in places like Colombia and Rwanda, two post-conflict countries where Chemonics works with the U.S. Agency for International Development and local stakeholders to address the land-related drivers of violent conflicts and instability.

The relationship between land and conflict has finally begun to garner the attention it deserves within the international community, and not a moment too soon.

Global and regional trends are heightening vulnerability to land conflict in many parts of the world where development practitioners work. Included among these troubling trends is the ”global land rush.” Over the past decade, the global demand for land has risen along with the demand for agricultural and other products to sustain the world’s growing population. Investors have been acquiring large swaths of public land, often ignoring customary rights and failing to compensate those without a voice who lose their land.

Redistributive policies on land have also resurfaced into political agendas in Latin America and elsewhere, heightening the potential for conflict if leaders repeat the mistakes of the past by ignoring the rights, laws and policies that must accompany redistribution. Ill-crafted policies can potentially exacerbate chronic vulnerabilities in the developing world, such as weak and corrupt land management systems, the legacies of colonial land tenure regimes, historical grievances, refugee movements, and land scarcity (whether absolute or distributional).  

Research and and lessons learned from the likes of USAID, which is investing heavily in land activities, have improved our understanding not only of why land matters in conflict resolution but how development organizations can better address land issues around the world to mitigate conflicts. We still have a long way to go toward developing and testing smarter, more nuanced approaches, but drawing on the global development community’s experience to date, including Chemonics’.

Below are a few key lessons that I am excited to see guide future programming and implementation.

Address land early in the conflict cycle and remain flexible

Future land conflicts may be preventable if concerted efforts are made to identify and address latent issues beforethey erupt into large-scale conflicts that create a hostile environment to development. This means being more proactive in land programming in relatively stable pre-conflict environments — with an eye to conflict prevention, not just conflict resolution. It is easy to ignore vulnerabilities until they become disruptive in mid- or post-conflict environments, but past experience has demonstrated that no matter how difficult the issues, the alternative to addressing them can be severe.

In addition to starting early in the conflict cycle, we need to remain flexible in our programming. As the United Nations observes in its ”Land and Conflict Guidance Note for Practitioners”: “Land conflict tends to be dynamic: the relationship between land and conflict often changes over time…

Similarly, international support to manage land-related conflict must be flexible.” This means tailoring approaches based on whether a country is pre-, mid-, or post-conflict and adopting appropriate strategies as a country transitions from one stage to another, even midproject. Doing so successfully requires practitioners to understand the types of interventions that are most effective at each stage, as established in current research, as well as unique needs, constraints, and opportunities in the countries where they work.

Seek multidisciplinary solutions and collaboration

Because the root causes of land conflict are diverse — ranging from historical grievances to land tenure insecurity — land conflict is a cross-cutting issue that touches on many traditional sectors of development, such as agriculture, economic development, environment, and governance.

More interdisciplinary solutions and greater coordination among development initiatives across traditional sectors goes a long way toward preventing and resolving land conflicts, with all the positive ripple effects to other aspects of development. In Colombia, for example, Chemonics is helping return land to people displaced by armed conflict.

Yet returning to an area ravaged by war and devoid of infrastructure and economic opportunity is only half of the solution. To ensure sustainability, we are also supporting local development and rehabilitation efforts in agricultural production, infrastructure, health, and education.

Account for parallel systems of land tenure

Countries with land tenure insecurity often have parallel land governance systems that overlap and conflict, giving rise to messy land disputes. In many cases, the state’s statutory system benefits an elite and does not recognize people’s customary land claims.

As a result, large-scale land acquisition between governments and investors, extractive industry activity, and large infrastructure projects can create local conflict by failing to compensate customary land holders or obtain prior, informed consent from local communities.

In post-conflict South Sudan, Rwanda, Colombia, and Burundi, we have seen how programming can clarify customary and indigenous land rights and land use to inform responsible, sustainable reconstruction, resolve disputes, and defuse tensions.  

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

  • Eric Reading

    Eric Reading started working for Chemonics in 1994. He currently serves as executive vice president. Previously, he was senior vice president of two different divisions overseeing activities with Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Jordan. He also worked in Kosovo and Egypt as chief of party and technical adviser for institutional strengthening programs.