Avoiding conflict through early and effective management of land disputes

by John W. Bruce

The last decade or so has seen growing recognition of the major role played by competition for land in generating conflict. However, the often extremely complex and embedded nature of such conflicts—and associated political sensitivities—is such that both international and national actors have in many cases shied away from fully engaging with them. In other cases, forms of intervention have not always sufficiently taken into consideration their major—and potentially recurring—causes. The challenge is to better understand the role played by land, combined with related factors, in the generation of conflict—both in terms of the conditions that create a vulnerability to conflicts and events that tend to trigger violent conflict—as a basis for preventing or de-escalating violence.

I had worked on land issues from a development standpoint in Mozambique, Sudan and Cambodia, but a 2009 study in Rwanda for the Overseas Development Institute and follow-up work with UN-Habitat made me aware that the humanitarian community working in peacebuilding contexts had developed new ways of looking at land conflict and useful short-term approaches for addressing it. The land tenure in development community had little knowledge of these and often saw land policy and administration exclusively through an economic development lens. At the same time, those in the humanitarian community working with post-conflict land issues lacked familiarity with the role of land tenure in development processes and sometimes did not appreciate what was needed to lay the basis for sustainable, sound land governance.  These bodies of understanding and differing perspectives about land issues had not been integrated-an integration that is essential to the development of effective strategies for prevention and mitigation of land-related conflict.

With these challenges in mind I agreed to work with the Initiative on Quiet Diplomacy (IQd) to develop a handbook on Land and Conflict Prevention The handbook is one of a series providing third party actors with practical guidance in addressing issues that are frequently the sources of tension before violent conflict (re)erupts. IQd’s approach to me coincided with a train of thought that began when I worked with UN-Habitat on post-conflict land issues. I was struck by the fact that the valuable thinking that had been going on in the post-conflict context needed to be walked back through time, as it were, into the pre-conflict period, asking “What do we know about land and conflict that can be mobilized for prevention?” The result is a blend of ideas and practical guidance for preventing land-based conflict drawn from both the post-conflict and developmental contexts.

Intended as an accessible and practical ‘how to’ guide, the overall aim of the handbook is to inform and capacitate those trying to preserve peace by finding the space for legal, institutional and policy reform in the land sector. It is targeted at various actors (including relevant governmental and IGO staff who may act as mediators and facilitators) who often do not have a strong background in land issues, as well as land experts with relatively little exposure to the practice of preventing and mitigating conflict. National and local officials, civil society representatives and others whose work involves or is impacted by these issues may also find it useful.

In developing the handbook, we started from the understanding that conflict and its management and mitigation are highly contextual, and that solutions will only be realistic when they respect and take into account national and local values and sensitivities-which can be pronounced in the case of land resources. Respect for the local context requires a structured process, and the handbook sets out clear step-by-step guidance for identifying and assessing problematic land-related situations which need to be addressed, and developing appropriate immediate and long-term measures and responses. Options in policy, law and practice that can be tailored to the situation at hand are introduced and the advantages as well as drawbacks and potential risks of each are explored. Examples of where they have been implemented in different contexts to good or bad effect-as well as the consequences of failure to act at all-are presented.

The options explored include process-oriented measures for enhancing the function of land tenure systems which can be critical to managing conflict and buying the time needed to avoid conflict escalating into violence. The main emphasis, however, is on measures that directly address structural deficiencies and other sources of inequality or injustice which can give rise to conflict over land. It is this focus on early preventive action to address the root causes of conflict which sets the handbook apart from other literature and toolkits for addressing land-related conflict. Other aspects of the handbook’s approach also distinguish it. First, the guidance provided is normatively-grounded, drawing on international law, comparative national law and local norms, as well as general principles of good governance in land matters. The potential of international human rights law, in particular, to contribute to the de-escalation (if not complete resolution) of disputes and tensions around contentious land issues is recognized. Its limitations are also acknowledged and other normative frameworks (e.g. humanitarian, refugee, or religious law) are recognised as equally—if not more—useful and effective in certain circumstances.

Second, the handbook promotes a ‘quiet diplomatic’, ‘assistance-oriented’ and ‘problem-solving’ approach which seeks to avoid a zero-sum outcome and relies on cooperative and facilitative processes to identify viable and sustainable solutions to which all parties can adhere. Users are alerted to a range of diplomatic means for managing tensions arising from competing interests and claims, including through techniques and mechanisms for dialogue and mediation.

In one sense, the task of managing competition and conflict over land and the different interests involved is a continuing one and expectations of complete resolution should be modest. On the other hand, there are critical political and other windows of opportunity at which engagement can make a major difference. For third party actors much depends upon the ability to create new understandings and to convince and motivate governments and others that have the power to instigate and implement change. The handbook therefore identifies some pointers for selecting approaches and developing strategies for encouraging and influencing change, for recognising those critical windows of opportunity and exploiting their potential to the full. Opportunities for better coordination and cooperation between different third party and other actors also receive attention-although this is perhaps one of the greatest challenges as all too often differences in policy, priorities and approaches, territoriality and jealousies throw up barriers to such coordination in practice.

Having worked on land and conflict issues in a range of countries over many years I am all too well aware that the issues are complex, and there are no hard and fast solutions applicable across contexts. What is important is that those engaged in dealing with these issues have a good sense of the range of options, some sense of issues raised by each, and an awareness that process is as important as objectives.  Our hope is that this handbook provides a useful principled and pragmatic framework for practical application in specific situations where tensions over land potentially threaten the peace.

One response to “Avoiding conflict through early and effective management of land disputes

  1. John Bruce recently wrote a land and conflict brief for USAID that draws on the IQd handbook:


    Although the brief broadens the scope from prevention to response, it once again highlights the need to bridge the gap between relief and development approaches:

    “This brief first examines the causes of land-related conflict, then examines how the issues and opportunities change through the conflict cycle: before, during and after violent conflict. This approach gives less attention to staples of the post-conflict land literature such as restitution and dispute management, but provides a more robust understanding of the longer-term challenges that are typically addressed by development rather than relief agencies.”

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