Land is part of our identity and is essential for our livelihood. With a growing world population, available land is growing scarcer, becoming even more sought-after as a commodity. It is not surprising, therefore, that the number of land-related conflicts is increasing. There is growing recognition of the link between land and armed conflict, coupled with concern that land can be a cause or trigger of conflict, a critical factor causing relapse, or a bottleneck on the way to recovery after conflict. Ombretta Tempra, an expert on land and conflict with UN-Habitat based in Nairobi, took time out during a recent visit to New York to explain to Politically Speaking some of the issues around land and conflict, including why it’s important to protect women’s land rights for conflict prevention, mitigation and recovery.
What are some of the main causes for conflict around land?
Ombretta Tempra: All violent conflicts have a land dimension. Not all conflicts have land issues as a root cause, but the majority does and, in almost all cases, conflicts generate displacement, mass land rights violations or land degradation. Land is related to very existential aspects of people’s lives. Land is about livelihood, food security, agriculture, grazing, so it’s very crucial for people living in countries that are highly dependent on land-related incomes. It’s also about money. Large tracts of land are taken over by the extractive industry – minerals and oil – timber trade and large-scale land-based investments, where multinational agricultural enterprises acquire thousands of hectares of land for export and profit-making produces. Land is also about identity, national identities but also specific group identities. And, ultimately, it’s about power. Since ancient times, taking control of land and territories has been a primary occupation of leaders. So, land is very deeply connected with conflict issues and therefore most conflict dynamics have land aspects.
Land conflicts don’t necessarily escalate into violent conflicts. But if the conflictual aspects around land are not properly addressed, violence flares up. Some of the conflicts are related to lack of clarity about who owns and who can make decisions about land. Land registration, i.e. linking a parcel of land to the rights of a specific individual or group of individuals, is not as wide-spread as we may think. Globally, in developing countries, only about 30% of the land is registered. In some countries, as little as 2%. This obviously creates space for disputes over the control of land that may escalate into large violent ones, especially when overlapping with power and exclusion dynamics.
Secondly, in large parts of the world, land was traditionally managed, allocated and its use was controlled by local leaders, chiefs, traditional authorities, including solving arising disputes. Over the centuries, this has been changing in favor of state authorities, but not in a systematic and well-managed manner. In colonized countries, for instance, exogenous land registration and administration systems that were introduced, worked first and foremost to the benefit of the few in power and didn’t serve the interests of most, nor cover the whole country. In the aftermaths of decolonization, some states introduced laws that declared all non-registered land as state land, without states having the resources and capacity to manage it. That move basically erased the rights of many rural, indigenous and pastoralist communities in one go and is showing its effects in many land-related conflicts to this day.
Of course, most countries introduced new policies and laws later on, but still, the actual implementation is a challenge and often land management functions are, in practice, fragmented among various state and non-state actors in the absence of a clear mechanism to bring all the pieces together. This creates conflicts. Additionally, in most countries, land administration is too bureaucratic, costly, slow, and corrupt. An assessment by Transparency International in 2009 found that the land sector was the second most corrupt after the police and the judiciary. This adds to the feeling of exclusion and injustice that underpins most violent conflicts.
In countries in conflict, land appropriation can be used as an instrument of war and ethnic cleansing, to change the demographic composition of a region. Land and land-based resources are also captured to finance warfare. The states’ weaknesses in protecting land rights, which I described earlier, leaves space for armed groups to offer such protection in exchange for contributing to the fighting. This is the case in many recent and ongoing conflicts. As part of a UN Habitat-DPPA collaboration, for instance, we documented how Al-Shabaab in Somalia offers to protect land rights of families from minority groups in exchange for them sending one or two children to fight with the group.
These issues are exacerbated by population growth, climate change and environment-related risks. Land degradation changes the land use patterns of agriculturalists and pastoralists and pushes communities out of their land. Even urbanization can put additional stress on land systems, as cities expand fast into areas where there may not yet be a land administration system able to sustain orderly development.
In what way are women affected differently by or in land-related conflicts?
In many ways, women are affected by conflict and land-related conflict as men are. There are, however, some additional vulnerabilities specific to them. There are two complementary parts to this: the specific vulnerability of women in conflicts and the additional disadvantages in conflicts that are land-related. The first part is more general: Women have less access to resources, income, land tenure security, decision-making and education. When conflict hits, these disadvantages become more penalizing and difficult to overcome, especially as women might have to take up additional responsibilities, such as becoming the only provider for the family, in addition to household work and childcare.
What makes women differently affected in land-related conflicts is the fact that they don’t have much of a say in decisions related to land. They are excluded from the negotiation table; their voices and needs are not heard. And they end up having to put up with deals not suiting their needs and making their lives more difficult. For instance, when negotiations about handing over community land to investors take place, women – who are often those growing the food to sustain their families and whose income directly depends on the land – are not part of the discussion. And it’s certainly not the women who get the cash that comes from this sort of pay-off.
It’s important to address women’s land rights, first of all, because it has been a gap, and women’s equal access to land is a human rights issue. There is no consolidated and gender-disaggregated data on land tenure security yet, but estimates indicate that women own less than 20% of the world’s land. Increased women’s land tenure security leads to improved livelihoods, food security, realisation of other human rights, women empowerment and increased participation. In conflict situations, there are additional reasons why this must be a priority. If women have access to land rights, a secure place to be, they are less exposed to physical violence, gender-based violence, other health hazards, and risky behavior to pay for basic needs. Women’s land tenure security, when they have a safe place to stay, even if on a temporary basis, helps the society overall to move out of humanitarian vulnerability and towards recovery and self-reliance. It’s basically the first step towards normalization.
How are or how should land issues be included in broader peace negotiations and agreements?
Overall, land issues have been increasingly appearing in peace agreements and peace negotiations. This is one of the reasons why at UN-Habitat and with the Global Land Tool Network started to work on how to address the nexus between land and conflict more systematically and why the UN Secretary General commissioned, and later endorsed, the Secretary-General’s Guidance Note “The United Nations and Land and Conflict”, developed by a core group of UN agencies, under the leadership of UN-Habitat.
Land rights and land issues are, however, not always adequately incorporated in peace agreements, which may very well be the cause of the failure to implement some of them. Land issues, because they are related to power, sovereignty and identity, are always very sensitive and difficult to discuss and negotiate. They are often deemed either too political to be taken up by the technical people or too technical to be taken up by the political people. But they cannot be ignored any longer, also as evidence shows that conflicts fought over land tend to be more prolonged, difficult to negotiate, and more likely to recur than conflicts related to other reasons.
The Secretary-General’s Note proposes to better incorporate the overall land perspective, with its gender dimension, into conflict prevention, resolution and recovery. The Note stresses that land issues cut across the mandate of the UN and appear across the conflict cycle. There is therefore a need to better understand and to establish partnerships – internally and externally – around land and conflict. Land issues need to be more consistently included in conflict analysis and translated into programming, taking into consideration the specificities related to the way women access and deal with land-related processes differently than men. Currently, we are working on implementing the framework for action defined in the Guidance Note through joint programming with different UN organizations. We are also developing key messages on why and how to address women, land and conflict issues effectively, with both development and humanitarian agencies.
Partners at global, regional, country and grassroots-level are key, because they are the main agents for change on the ground. The UN provides recommendations, gathers and shares knowledge, builds visibility of the agenda, and helps governments adapting their policies and frameworks. Countries need to take forward this work with their own constituencies. It’s something that can only be implemented through a multi-partner approach.
What are some of the measures that have proven effective in safeguarding women’s land rights?
Global Land Tool Network’s partners have done quite a lot of research and field work on women’s land tenure security and protection of land rights. This is not a new area of work, but the change we want to see hasn’t been happening yet at the right pace. That has led us to look closer at what actually worked to give women better access to land, particularly in conflicts.
A disproportionate amount of effort is being put into giving full ownership rights to land at the individual or household level, which, as I was saying before, a very limited number of women have the privilege of having. This is certainly important. But a lot more should be done to increase women’s user rights in the short term. We need to work on what we call the ‘continuum of land rights’, all the land tenure options that are available and that can be significantly improved with limited resources in a short time frame. This is particularly crucial in conflict affected contexts. To give one example, there are programmes from international NGOs like the Norwegian Refugee Council to support women in having stronger and better rental contracts, either individually or in groups. In the countries affected by the displacement caused by the Syrian crisis, many people either squat or have informal agreements with landowners. If such agreements are written down, both parties are clearer on what their duties and obligations are, disputes reduce and the overall tenure security increases, with the positive effects described above. Support and information centers for displaced women are also really important, as oftentimes women are not aware of their rights or need direct and practical support with navigating logistical or bureaucratic barriers to land tenure security.
Creating partnerships to ensure that women have civil documents is also necessary. It is difficult to access land or services if you don’t have an ID or a birth certificate. As women often get access to land, housing or property through their male relatives, marriage certificates are important, particularly if – as in some countries – the certificate records the type of land and property arrangements between spouses. Death certificates are needed, if the widows are to inherit from their late husbands. Inheritance is crucial to protect women’s land and property rights, as it remains the key avenue through which they can own land. If a woman owns land, she is very likely to have inherited it, especially in rural areas. Civil documentation is needed for this. And, in case of conflict, it’s important to support women with the retrieval of land documents that they may have had, as they often get lost or destroyed during a conflict.
In many developing countries, especially in rural areas and particularly in war when the state institutions break down, land is administered and land disputes are resolved by traditional authorities, religious or community leaders. Developing the capacity of these actors to deal with land laws addressing land issues in a gender responsive manner is crucial. Legal pluralism is a reality that is likely to remain in place for many years to come. It’s therefore important that those who make decisions about land can understand the co-existing laws and practices and be better able to take decisions that do not discriminate against women.
Lastly, there is a correlation between lack of education, poverty, disempowerment, lack of access to land rights. And while improved access to land and housing rights is a key enabler of the rest, they are all important parts of moving women towards equality, both in peace and in conflict.
Title picture: A woman from Forika camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) farms the land during the rainy season. Gereida, Sudan. UN Photo/Albert González Farran