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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.

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