Media coverage of Africa and development issues in general takes quite a lot of flak from bloggers, and rightly so I believe. So, let's give credit where credit is due: The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a piece by Jina Moore, entitled "Africa's Continental Divide: Land Disputes." From the standpoint of tackling complex and multifaceted issues without oversimplifying or dramatizing them, this is one of the better newspaper features I've ever seen:
"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...
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...
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."
My only complaint is that I don't think she adequately fleshes out the dark side of customary systems:
"ACROSS AFRICA, INDIVIDUALS... 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."
I don't think the lesson of this story is that communities are brokering their own solutions to conflicts. Rather, it's that customary systems have losers too- generally women, minorities, and migrants. One the most important justifications for interventions in tenure issues by governments, NGOs, etc. is to try to get these people a fairer shake. Yes, any formal property rights system must involve a high degree of local control and take cognizance of what's already there. But formalizing the informal system isn't always the right answer.
A minor quibble with what is overall an excellent piece.
Thanks to Texas in Africa for the pointer.