by Rhodri C. Williams
In trying to keep track of even a fraction of the local and regional flare-ups over land rights these days, I keep thinking back to times when I was working in Bosnia and a particularly infected property dispute would come up in the course of the restitution process. My colleague Charles P (one of the unsung geniuses behind the famous ‘PLIP‘) would shake his head wearily and mutter the climactic phrases of a classic quote from Gone with the Wind:
Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for. Worth fighting for, worth dying for. Because it’s the only thing that lasts.
It has long been understood that land is fundamental to the material needs and identity of just about anyone not yet caught up in the great wave of urbanization that characterizes our time (as well as many of those who have). The Endorois decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also represents the latest in a long line of affirmations that recognition of the rights of those with longstanding claims to land through use and attribution is a precondition for them to participate in the life of the state on equitable terms.
It has also long been axiomatic that states retain the final word on land use, and that even where formal nationalization never took place, post-colonial states often inherited – and maintained – laws that held all land not formally owned in a state of inchoate expropriation. Shaun Williams writes on the ongoing challenges presented by ‘state land’ administration in post-colonial urban settings in a recent TN guest-posting, while Liz Alden Wily describes the rural consequences of the ‘public land’ problem in a pithy contribution to ODI’s 2009 research on land and conflict issues.
After the Cold War, the notion that individual and community rights to land might come to be seen as on a par with the state claims to eminent domain were buoyed on the rising tides of human rights and human security. Even if few dared to go as far as to posit a general right to land, there was a sense that policy was pointing in a protective direction. The rise of the post-conflict restitution discourse as symbolized by the Pinheiro Principles has been one example. Another has been the tendency for development standards and instruments to give property rights greater prominence. For instance, The Atlantic recently inferred a paradigm shift in international views on property rights from the post-Cold War proliferation of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) incorporating protections of private property rights:
While the specifics often differ, many BIT provisions protecting foreign investments have become near universal. Both the Turkey-Turkmenistan and U.S.-El Salvador agreements protect foreign investments from direct or indirect expropriation, nationalization, or similar measures “except for a public purpose, in a non-discriminatory manner, upon payment of prompt, adequate and effective compensation, and in accordance with due process of law.” Some countries’ more recent BITs also contain provisions designed to protect environment, labor, public health, and other public policy concerns in addition to the property rights of foreign investors.
However, the Atlantic’s declaration of a post-Cold War “worldwide revolution in how we think about international law and private property” seems premature, precisely because the line between “private” and “public” property remains so heavily contested. Meanwhile, a host of new factors have pushed many states from simply maintaining the status quo (e.g. allowing their populations to continue using ‘state land’ largely unmolested but without the prospect of genuine tenure security) to active predation. The combination of a general economic downturn, rising food and commodity prices, and new forms of state-backed investment have led many states to put their hand in the cookie jar, allocating nationalized and public land to domestic and international investors at a handsome (and typically highly untransparent) profit.
However, the basic dependence and attachment of families and communities to land they consider their own remains, leading to what must be an unprecedented proliferation of sharp and often violent confrontations between states (particularly less representative ones where governments may stand for ethnic or economic elites) and their own citizens over territory. The problem is not limited to states that have nationalized their land or ‘inherited’ public land from prior colonial regimes. However, it seems particularly acute in such settings precisely because the ordinary devices for protecting property from state intrusion assume the prior grant or recognition of rights in such property. Where such rights were ostensibly extinguished by nationalizations or colonial declarations of public land, legality is shifted to the side of the state and communities with every possible equitable right to their land are implausibly – but legally – reframed as squatters.