by Barbara McCallin
Côte d’Ivoire is currently experiencing a renewed political crisis that has overshadowed many of the issues faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs), and in particular land disputes. On 12 February, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo dismissed both the Electoral Commission and the Coalition Government, thereby delaying the election process for the sixth time since 2005 when they were first scheduled to take place. Meanwhile, the mandate of the Ministry of Solidarity and War Victims to act as a national IDP focal point has been discontinued. The Ministry had set up an inter-ministerial committee on IDPs and was working on draft legislation on compensation and restitution issues. It is unclear whether its responsibilities will be taken up by another branch of the executive. A new government was announced on 23 February but, as of the beginning of March, the eleven remaining vacant ministerial posts (out of a total of 27) included the Ministry for Agriculture, which is in charge of implementing important land reform legislation.
The political crisis and the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire are closely linked to the issue of migrants’ citizenship and land rights. One of the underlying causes of the original 2002 conflict was resentment against the very migrants’ whose massive immigration to the Western Forest area of the country had been encouraged during the 1960s and the 70s through facilitated access to land and voting rights. The exploitation of region’s fertile lands contributed to increased exports of agricultural products that benefited the whole country. However, resentment against migrants from other regions of Côte d’Ivoire as well as foreigners was exacerbated by the economic crisis that affected the country in the 1980s and the 90s, resulting in growing calls by ‘indigenous’ Ivoirians to revoke the land and voting rights granted to migrant workers during previous decades.
These tensions resulted in an armed conflict which broke out in 2002, causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands people. Since the 2007 Peace Agreement was signed, the number of displaced has dropped to approximately 600,000. However, as there are no comprehensive records of return movements, the total number for IDPs in 2009 cannot be precisely determined except for the Moyen-Cavally region where some 80,000 people remain displaced.
A November 2009 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) examines land disputes in the Moyen Cavally and 18 Montagnes regions which are situated in the Western Forest area of Côte d’Ivoire. This area was one of the main arrival points for migrants and has been most affected by displacement and return movements. Longstanding land disputes in these regions have been exacerbated by the armed conflict, the resulting displacement and the subsequent return of IDPs. As in many other post-conflict situations, many IDPs and returnees have found their plots sold or leased by others, depriving of the means to independent subsistence and sustainable return.
The IDMC report analyses the nature of land disputes and the existing customary and statutory mechanisms to address them, focusing on the specific difficulties faced by displaced persons and returnees in resolving their land claims by these means. As Côte d’Ivoire has not developed an IDP-specific system of restitution or compensation for properties abandoned due to the conflict, these pre-existing mechanisms represent the only hope of redress, despite not being adapted to IDPs’ specific circumstances.
Reliance on the Rural Land Law
The Government’s intention is to settle both pre-war and post-war land disputes through its 1998 Rural Land Law, which aims to recognise and formalise customary land rights by setting out procedures and conditions for them to be transformed into title deeds. However, the law reflects the tensions between native Ivoirians and migrants in that only Ivorian citizens are to be granted ownership title, while others will be entitled to a long-term lease. Although this formulation at least allows Ivorian migrants from other regions of the country the possibility of obtaining title, the resentment of ‘autochtones’, or original inhabitants of the region, against all migrants, domestic or foreign, means that careful monitoring of the process will be necessary to avoid discrimination. The implementation of the law is likely to raise all of the social, economic, institutional and political challenges inherent in ordinary titling programs exacerbated by tensions related to the conflict and resulting displacement.
In a country where only two per cent of rural land is registered, and nearly all land transfers are informal, the reform represents a radical change. Populations used to customary management of land may be wary of a system that imposes a complex procedures and a new land tax without providing clear new benefits. Migrants, whose land rights have been challenged, may appreciate the new possibility to secure their land rights, even if this is limited to a long-term lease for non-Ivorians. From an institutional point of view, the formalisation program will require considerable administrative, financial and human capacity over the short and long term. To put this in perspective, in 2009 Côte d’Ivoire had only 23 surveyors available to demarcate the over twenty million hectares of rural land covered by the Land Law.
Little impact, high tensions
Although the aim of the Land Law is to reduce tensions resulting from the uncertainty of customary transactions, implementing it in the context of ongoing displacement may raise new tensions, as its provisions now represent IDPs’ only legal recourse to repossess their property. The IDMC report identifies several rules in the Law that may discriminate against IDPs and makes corresponding recommendations. For instance, in the absence of a formal instruction clarifying that absence due to the conflict should not be taken into account, there is a risk that the Land Committees implementing the law may interpret the requirement of “a certified statement of the continuous and peaceful existence of customary rights” to the detriment of absent IDPs. Similarly, the requirement that requests for formalisation must be made in the place of origin penalises IDPs. Finally, IDPs also need to be informed that requests may be submitted on their plot of land without their knowledge, so that they can make inquiries and defend their interests.
While the various elements of the Law have hardly begun to be applied, a recent announcement by the Ministry of Agriculture on accelerated implementation has raised tensions in the Western Forest area. It is therefore imperative to inform the population about the actual content of the law while at the same time advocating with the authorities to correct the problems identified.
The Rural Land Law has had a limited impact so far. As of November 2009, not a single title deed had been issued based on the Law. This means that IDPs and others affected by land disputes have to seek other mechanisms to address their problems. Unfortunately, the crisis has also rendered existing customary, administrative and judicial mechanisms for managing land disputes less effective. The legitimacy of customary institutions has been weakened by the younger generation’s rejection of land sales concluded with migrants by the elders. Conflict also stems from confusion over the nature of land sales: migrants believed they bought the land permanently while native villagers pretend they merely sold a temporary right of use. The displacement of many customary chiefs has kept them from performing their roles and led others assert contested claims to their office. Finally, local authorities, NGOs and private individuals have initiated ad hoc dispute resolution mechanisms in some areas, adding further confusion and promoting inconsistent adjudication processes.
Adjudicating rights in forestland
The Rural Land Law does not cover disputes over land located in protected forests, where many IDPs had plantations, and there is at present no mechanism to address such disputes. Land transactions in protected forests are prohibited by the forest code and the administration of the forest is delegated to a public institution (‘Sodefor’), which may contract with private companies to undertake regulated exploitation of forest resources. In practice, many transactions between native Ivorians and migrants have taken place. Such transactions being illegal, there is currently no possibility either for IDPs to repossess their land or for migrants to formalise rights they acquired. The ad hoc solutions that have been proposed so far reflect political calculations than a rights-based approach. Further research on ways to address land disputes in protected forests would be useful, and I would welcome examples of good practice from other countries readers may be familiar with.
On the occasion of the report’s launch by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Abidjan last November, the participants agreed to create working groups on land issues in Abidjan and in the Prefectures (regional level) that would include the Ministry of Agriculture, Sodefor and UN agencies. However, in view of the current political tensions, only two local land working groups have begun work in the Western Forest area.