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Uncharted territory: land, conflict and humanitarian action

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30

Dr. Sara Pantuliano
- Programme Leader, Humanitarian Policy group, ODI
Dr. Liz Alden Wily - International Land Reform Expert
Paul Harvey - Partner, Humanitarian Outcomes and Research Associate, ODI
Nick Roseveare - Chief Executive, BOND

Nick Rosevere opened the discussion by stating the importance of this launch for the humanitarian sector. He stated that the book brought out many issues that he and many others in the field had paid very little attention to, and said that this launch and the subsequent discussion would greatly contribute to enhance the ability of analysts and practitioners to do their job better.  

Sara Pantuliano opened her presentation by saying that she has always been struck by how significant land issues are, particularly in protracted crises, and by the extent to which they are ignored in humanitarian responses.This provided the impetus for putting the research which led to the book. She argued that humanitarians seldom attempt to deal with land issues, as they tend to consider them too complicated, politically sensitive, or the job of development actors. This has changed slightly in the past few years, but the majority of land related initiatives in the humanitarian sector have focused on returning land and property to refugees and IDPs.

Research on land, conflict and humanitarian action by HPG began in 2006. Several case studies were commissioned or conducted in-house, including Afghanistan, Angola, Colombia, East Timor, Rwanda and Sudan. The book explores the nexus between land issues, conflict and humanitarian action. In the first chapter, Alex de Waal powerfully analyses how land issues are often the underlying cause of conflict, and are therefore central to understanding how complex emergencies function and how humanitarian agencies should respond. Land is both a territory and a resource; belligerents attempt to control it, which often leads to local insurrection. Additionally, land is very often used for the personal enrichment of belligerents and as a strategy to extend patronage. However, land is very rarely the sole cause of conflict, and thus it is important to look at the interaction of land with other causes of conflict. Analyses that emphasize the idea that land scarcity or inequality lead to conflictoften fail to understand how these issues relate to other factors, such as governance and identity. Violent conflict is often accompanied by a change in the distribution of property rights and land relations. Conflict leads to secondary occupation of land, and a trend towards urbanisation. The case of Juba (Sudan) demonstrates this well. Conflict is a prime moment for the extralegal capture of land by elites, displacedpopulations and business interests. Land issues often frustrate the successful(re)integration of refugees and IDPs, due to overlapping legal structures which confuse property ownership, as is so widely the case in Afghanistan. At the end of a conflict, it isimperative to negotiate land claims. If they are left unaddressed, then these issues escalate and threaten the usually fragile stability of a post-conflicttransition.

In this context, humanitarian organisations are important because they are often the first on the ground, as many would have been present during the conflict. At best, humanitarian inaction regarding land issues results in a missed opportunity, at worst, it can fuel further conflict. Many sectors ofintervention in a humanitarian response touch directly or indirectly on anarray of land and property issues. This includes food security, protection,shelter and camp management amongst others. Seeds and tools are invariably distributed without any understanding of people’s access to farming land and of how access patterns change during conflict. Protection is a sector whichen compasses the full range of property related rights. Interestingly, research in the book in Burundi and Darfur revealed how there is great awareness of protection issues arising from land and property rights amongst national staff in humanitarian organisations, whilst this awareness is usually lacking amongst internationals. With regard tocamp management, a lack of awareness of land issues can inadvertently help reshape the ethnic geography of aconflict area, which in turn has profound effects on the distribution of land, as has been thecase in Darfur.

In post-conflict settings, humanitarian efforts tend to focus on activities that aim to restore the pre-war status quo, especially with regard to return and reintegration of IDPs and refugees. We must ask ourselves if return to the status quo of land relations, as return is often conceptualised, is indeed the best strategy as it fails to tackle the tensions that arose from those land relations. This is not to say that restitution rights are not important, but are just one of many land related issues. In many cases, refugees and IDPs may have never had access to land in the first place.

There is a definite lack of appropriate capacity in the sector to deal with land issues. Very few individuals have expertise with both land tenure and humanitarian issues. Even where this expertise exists within a humanitarian agency, thesepeople are usually not the first to deploy in a humanitarian emergency or inthe immediate post-conflict phase. At the same time, land tenure specialists have been unable to translate concepts into practice for the humanitarian community. Donors need to understand the importance and relevance of these issues by making funding more flexible and long-term. The emphasis must shift from (statistically) quantifiable results in IDP and refugee return processes to what are the key determinants of sustainable reintegration, of which land and property issues are a cornerstone.

What can humanitarians do to better address land issues in their responses? Areas of interventions include: 1) Advocacy to include land issues in peace negotiations, and for mechanisms to protect long term and temporary occupancy (e.g. freezing new logging, mining or agribusiness concessions until procedures to protect customary interests are properly in place); 2) Support the development of interim titles, particularly in urban contexts, with temporary housing permits and leases while there is time to reform the broader land issues; 3) Advocacy with hostgovernments with regard to vulnerable households; 4) Provision of legal aid, especially to protect customary tenure.

Liz Alden Wily opened her presentation by arguing forgreater awareness in the humanitarian community of land tenure issues, as ultimately it is this group which has to ‘clean up’ when conflict starts, to deal withdisplacement and hunger. Land and property issues are now better placed on the agenda, but progress is too slow. Progress is most needed to help more than 1.5billion rural poor secure their traditional rights to lands which have proven most vulnerable to appropriation by their own governments, and which is now beginning to be sold off to foreign state backed enterprise to meet Northernfood security needs. It is no coincidence that of the 70 or so conflicts existing in 2008, only 11 were not in agrarian economies, and 48% were inAfrica. Three-quarters of these conflicts had land issues at their source. Reformsbegan to get underway in the 1990s but are now threatened by the new ‘globalland grab’. Already 40 million hectares of people’s land has been leased by their governments without their consent, 20 million of this in Africa. At leastone government has been overturned partly on this basis (Madagascar). There isrising tension around the issue in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Cameroon and Sudan, as people face or fear eviction or land loss to make way for Chinese and especially Middle Eastern enterprise, and which may or may not involve local populations even as labour.

Meanwhile even in countries where civil warraged for years, the temptation to deprive people of their land rights lives on. The North-South civil war in Sudan was partly triggered by stateland-grabbing of some millions of hectares of unregistered lands and theirhandover for commercial farming to non-local elites and Middle Eastern investors. Although President al-Bashir agreed to give more respect tocustomary rights in the Peace Agreement of 2005, he has since begun to leaseout lands again, to the tune of an estimated five million ha to mainly Gulf States. Needless to say, local militia are said to be forming in affectedareas. In Afghanistan, post-conflict failure to tackle unfair land relationsbetween Pashtun and non-Pashtun tribes, and again closely tied up withgovernment claims to land (and to whom it then allocates these), has opened upan whole new front to the war against insurgents. Taliban now openly arm fellow Pashtun nomads in their land claims in central Afghanistan, rousing theprospect of Iranian support for fellow agro-pastoral Shia Hazara. Through failure to properly address the issue in new policy and practice, Afghanistanhas handed the Taliban a new powerful social agenda – much in the same way as failure to tackle unreformed feudal land relations in the Swat Valley in Pakistan led many landless tillers to support the insurgents there.

Aside from the major inter-state wars of the last century, a great deal of intra-state conflict occurred. Much of this had its genesis in unjust property relations. Peasants in at least 50 countries battled with governments and allied elites over the feudal ownership off armlands which they had tilled for generations. Rebellions, revolutions, andconflicts abounded. This century, the focus has of necessity already shifted away from farmlands onto the ownership status of the valuable collective estates of communities, the commons, which are so at risk of wilful reallocationby governments and for highly uncertain returns to all but a handful of localactors. The signs are that the political will for reform which began topermeate Africa, Latin America, and Asia from the 1990s can be easily stoppedin its tracks by ill-thought through and rent-seeking global pressures. Conflict is unlikely to be avoided. Humanitarian agencies need to do more than ‘be prepared’; they need to be sufficiently aware of the issues to contributepressure for preventative action to limit war.

Paul Harvey opened his presentation by asking whether the mainstreaming of land is possible inhumanitarian organisations.  National organisations tend to take landissues more seriously, why don’t humanitarians? He agreed with Pantulianothat humanitarian organisations often see this as complicated, politically sensitive and presume it to be someone else’s job. This gets at the heart of the humanitarian system’s core failing—its lack of localembeddedness, which results in a tendency at times to treat core principles of neutrality and independence as a reason to disengage. There needs to be a more constructive attitude aimed at better engagement. In the last few years awareness around land and property issues has increased amongst humanitarian organisations. For instance, the Norwegian RefugeeCouncil (NRC) has made great strides. However, there is no leadership over these issues to ensure that they are incorporated intoresponses locally. The book talks about the need for a housing and land protection directorate in UN missions and also suggests the possibility of UN-Habitatproviding a lead in responses, though UN Habitat are often not on the ground, sothere is a danger that these issues will continue to go unnoticed.


The role of humanitarians in dealing with land issues

Some in the audience felt that humanitarians were engaging with land issues at the village level, and that no more mainstreaming was possible. It was countered that it was not necessarily about mainstreaming, but rather about being informed about the particular land issues in the field and designing programming that would not exacerbate conflict by beingin sensitive to local land relations. The role of humanitarian advocacy to guarantee communal rights to landwas also emphasized.

It was also observed that there is often a false dichotomy between humanitarian and development action. In many cases agencies are multi-mandated and work on both sides of the divide. What is needed is a continuityof analysis.

The fragility of community land governance structures
It was mentioned that community leadership and governance structuresthat control communal access to land are often fragile and predatory, and that humanitarians must also work to build capacity among the leadership so that communal land can be managed in a transparent and fair manner. Further, the importance of these structures, often damaged by years of war, was emphasized, making it necessary to not only restore land rights, but also the strength of these institutions, which perhaps is more the remit ofdevelopment actors than humanitarian agencies. In many different contexts, in Afghanistan and post-Tsunami Sri Lanka and Aceh in particular,community organisations brought land issues to light and aided internationalorganisations in managing them. In other contexts, such as Sudan, this has notbeen the case.There is really a need to support localnetworks to better articulate their needs to local and internationalpowerholders and help local actors havea better understanding of legal issues around land.

The linkages between urban and ruralland issues
The deep linkages between rural land issues (dispossession, loss ofcommunal land rights) and urban land issues (lack of durable and secure tenure)were emphasized. The former drives urbanisation, while the latter is itsconsequence. In Kenya there are extraordinaryconnections between urban squatter populations and rural populations; the dichotomy is really nuanced.

Next steps
The importance of bringing land experts and humanitarian practitioners together was made very clear. The book provides a stimulus for organisations to reflect on the extent to which land issues have been thought about about in programming a humanitarian response, and whether problems which have been identified should be referred to appropriate external expertise. The important thing is that these issues are not forgotten.


Land issues, particularly its access, ownership and use, are often central to understanding the dynamics of conflict and post-conflict settings, particularly in contexts of large scale displacement. The issues affect both the choice to return and the prospects for recovery, yet an understanding of these issues is minimal amongst the humanitarian community. Although there is a growing recognition of the importance of addressing land issues, assistance and programming rarely incorporate sufficient analysis of local land relations, instead focussing on the return and restitution despite the fact that these interventions are often inappropriate for the type of land issues involved.

Through the expertise of longstanding academics and practitioners, this edited volume by the Humanitarian Policy Group attempts to bridge the humanitarian and land tenure divide to highlight their mutually important relationship and instigate a process that seeks to understand how Housing, Land and Property (HLP) issues can and should be practically incorporated into humanitarian responses in conflict and post-conflict situations. The book is divided into three parts: it explores the theoretical nexus between land, conflict and humanitarianism, discusses the architectural challenges for a more integrated response and presents the findings from selected case studies undertaken during the research project. These include Angola, Colombia, the Great Lakes Region, Rwanda and Sudan.

The book was launched by the editor of the volume, Dr. Sara Pantuliano (Overseas Development Institute). Dr. Liz Alden Wily, an international expert on state-people land relations and author of one of the book chapters, then gave concrete examples from Afghanistan and other war-torn states to show how failure to address land issues in post-conflict contexts can help restart or extend war.