Back to the land for displaced persons?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I was recently struck by a CSM commentary on peace-building in Liberia by Greg Mills. Mr. Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg which is, by its own terms, dedicated to “strengthening Africa’s economic performance”. They operate in an advisory capacity in a number of African countries including Liberia, and appear to be juggling any number of initiatives, ranging from extracting applicable lessons from economic reforms in Georgia to improving corporate social responsibility in Liberia based on African principles. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise that the thrust of the CSM comment was the need to, in effect, improve attitudes and end a wartime culture of dependency:

Making an immediate impact after the conflict ends is relatively easy. Taking things to the next level involves more than providing potable water, roads, ports, and electricity, however challenging this may be. It requires aquiring the soft infrastructure of training, skills, work ethic, and mind-set right in getting Liberians working again.

What was striking was not so much this general diagnosis of what ails Liberia but rather the cure that was then put forward. In essence, Liberians are advised to seek their fortune in agriculture:

Right now, Liberia cannot feed itself and there is little appetite to work the land. But if Liberia is to be a sustained success story, it will have to get people working on the land where its biggest comparative advantage exists.

Low population density, rich soil, and plenty of water make it the perfect location for growing rice and other staples. As Patrick Mazimhaka, a veteran Rwandan and African Union politician notes, “One thing we have not got right is how difficult it seems to be for people to go back to agriculture after long wars.”

The author goes on to acknowledge the significant obstacles – insecure tenure, persistent disputes and ethnic schisms – that complicate such a proposal in Liberia. However, he concludes by noting that the inculcation of a culture of responsibility could provide the solution. While this was a well-put if slightly paternalistic argument, the device of encouraging a return of urban internally displaced persons (IDPs) to agriculture seems to play on an almost romantic idea of national renewal through a return to the yeoman virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency. It also seemed to strike a chord with efforts underway in Haiti, posted on earlier here, to ensure that those displaced to the countryside are encouraged to remain there rather than drifting back to overcrowded camps in the cities directly affected by the January 12 quake.

As many readers will be aware, these proposals take their place in a protracted debate about the role of return as a “durable solution” to displacement which has been rolling along since the early 1990s. The 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia posited return as a means of undoing the effects of the conflict and included property restitution as an explicit device to bring return about. Ultimately, many who worked in Bosnia, myself included, came to the view that encouraging individual choice about whether to return or resettle was both more meaningful and more challenging than focusing on return, per se.

However, a  preference for return continued to crop up in international policy, arguably culminating in the 2005 adoption of the Pinheiro Principles on property restitution for refugees and displaced persons (which clarify that property remedies cannot be held hostage to return, but place tight restrictions on when compensation can be allowed in lieu of restitution – effectively prioritizing remedies that would allow for return). Since 2005, there has been something of a backlash, perhaps most explicitly expressed by ODI in its recent policy brief on land disputes and humanitarian action:

In the aftermath of war, humanitarian efforts tend to focus on activities that aim to restore the pre-war status quo. These efforts are based on the assumption that there is a clear distinction between war and peace. In reality there is no clear-cut division…. Furthermore, violent conflict destroys not only political, economic and social structures, but is itself a process of transformation in which alternative systems of economic accumulation, social regulation and political governance emerge. These changes are part of an ‘accelerated transition’ that invariably accentuates processes of change that in most cases are already under way, and that are in any event irreversible. Returning to the status quo ante is usually impossible and may in fact not be desirable if it fails to tackle the grievances that led to the conflict in the first place, or that have emerged during the conflict.

In most cases, this ‘accelerated transition’ takes the form of urbanization through displacement, as seen in Liberia. And there is certainly evidence, all rural idylls aside, that urbanization may not only be better for the environment and checking world population growth, but that it may also, if properly managed, provide enormous benefits in terms of improved educational opportunities and living standards for rural migrants, forced or voluntary.

Indeed, coming from South Africa, Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation should be well aware of the problem of getting people to go back to agriculture after long absences. In recent months, the government there has appeared to back away from a highly ambitious goal of redistributing 30% of arable land to blacks by 2014. According to a recent article in the Mail and Guardian, this has come about not only because of the high prospective costs this would impose, but also because of the insight that more than 90% of the nearly 6 million hectares of land previously acquired for redistribution is now fallow, crimping Government revenues and raising food security concerns. In response, the Ministry of Agriculture is not only focusing on support and mentoring programs for new farmers but has also issued a controversial proposal to declare arable land a “national asset”, forcing redistribution beneficiaries to productivity through a “use it or lose it” approach.

The South African redistribution program – which includes a direct restitution component – was meant to respond to the near complete dispossession of black Africans beginning with the 1913 Natives Land Act. Confined to arid tribal ‘homelands’ and peri-urban shantytowns, many South African blacks found themselves in an effective state of protracted internal displacement at the fall of the apartheid regime. However, the current debate over land redistribution may represent a dawning realization that truly durable solutions to such dislocation are likely to result from supporting the choices of those affected themselves. As I described in an earlier publication for ICTJ, the political opposition questioned whether land distribution – and the underlying dream of a black return to agrarian livelihoods – truly resonated with shantytown residents, many of whom may have come to see their future in exclusively urban terms.

In any case, recent international policy documents such as the Framework on Durable Solutions for IDPs (see post here) reinforce the principle that informed choice lies at the heart of durable solutions to displacement. Policy preferences can come in to shape such choices, but the Framework stipulates that they must be “based on serious and objective reasons” (para. 30) and goes on to provide illustrations and criteria that underscore the exceptional nature of permissible restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence for IDPs (see paragraphs 29 to 33).

In a sense, this makes Liberia a resolvable conundrum. The rural economic potential appears to be there and if it can be harnessed in a manner that creates tangible opportunities for those now uprooted in urban centers, returns to the land will surely follow. However, actively promoting such returns at a time when the risks involved remain very concrete and the opportunities still notional could put the cart before the horse. The goal should not be to repopulate the countryside by reshuffling displaced people but to end displacement by creating the conditions for sustainable rural return.

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8 responses to “Back to the land for displaced persons?

  1. Of course, experience tells us that there is often a direct clash between restitution as a political tool (righting historical wrongs) and as a tool for sustainable land management. I remember once trying to sell the idea to a group of Palestinians that if, someday, restitution of land in Israel became a possibility, the last thing they would want is restitution of individual rural land plots scattered around Israel, because there would be no actual return. The only rational option for the ‘returnees’ would be to sell the land. Far better, from a sustainability perspective, would be to exchange the historical land claims for land around existing Arab towns and cities in Israel, which are currently being strangled by restrictive Israeli land policies, and where there would be a reasonable prospect of establishing viable communities of returnees.

    Needless to say, this argument won me no friends at all, and I was forced to conclude that it’s time had not yet come, and perhaps never would. Maybe jumping straight from mass displacement to a rational new land use policy is simply untenable?

    • Palestinian land grievances seem to provide one of the most forceful examples of how restitution claims can often target not only the return of specific assets but also an official acknowledgment of the wrongfulness of their original confiscation. From a transitional justice viewpoint, this type of acknowledgment is often seen as so central that going through the forms of things like reparations and institutional reform without it may do more harm than good. Where restitution programs actually go off (as in Bosnia, where I had the privilege to work with Marcus), one can argue that legislation allowing for programmatic restitution and its application by local officials may in itself constitute a form of acknowledgment, something along the lines of what many Palestinians also demand. But in Bosnia, restitution also cut against rational land administration in a number of respects, and was certainly carried out in a strict in integrum manner (‘svaki na svoju’). So maybe the answer is to let everyone get back what is left, make their individual choices about what to do with it, and move on.

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