Land conflict and food security in the Liberian-Ivorian border region

Land conflict and food security in the Liberian-Ivorian border region

In the fall of 2010, Ivoirians went to the polls to elect a new president, to end years of political stalemate, and to unify a geographically divided country.  Disputes over the election results instead led to a violent post-election crisis.  The New Forces (FN) armed group, later renamed Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), marched from the northern zone of the country that they controlled since 2004, through the west of Côte d’Ivoire to Abidjan. With international support, they deposed President Laurent Gbagbo and brought President-elect Alassane Ouattarra to power.

Prior to the post-election crisis, research conducted by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) found that agricultural development policies in 1960s and 1970s conflict created an environment rife with land disputes in western Côte d’Ivoire. In the lead up to conflict that began in 2002, the polarization of ethnic and national identity in Côte d’Ivoire mapped on to ethnic cleavages between self-identified indigenous groups and migrants who came to  the  west  as  result  of  these  agricultural  policies. Inter-group  tensions  manifested  themselves  in  disputes  over  land and property.  The passage of a land reform law in 1998, while offering some protection of customary land ownership,  did  not resolve  existing  land  disputes  or  address  the  multitude  of  informal  holdings  and  extra-legal  transactions.  The  IDMC  report  found  that  informal  agreements  used  to  define  access  to  and  ownership  of  land  stood in violation of both customary and statutory law and exacerbated politically sensitive disputes over land. As a result, between 2002-2011 land disputes plagued western Côte d’Ivoire.

What  is  the  impact  of  the  2011  post-election  crisis  on  land  disputes  in  conflict-affected  areas  of  western  Côte  d’Ivoire?  In  this  post-crisis  period,  what  are  the  new  opportunities  and  challenges  to  building  a  foundation  for  sustainable development in the regions of Liberia hosting Ivoirian refugees and parts of Côte d’Ivoire most affected by the crisis? In February 2012, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Information, Counseling, and Legal Assistance (ICLA) and Food Security programs in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire conducted a joint assessment on land conflict and food security in the border region.  Conducted simultaneously with a United Nations’ effort to assess food security and early recovery, NRC’s assessment identified the next steps to address land conflict as an underlying cause of instability and displacement in order to create sustainable food security programming.  We visited 14 villages on both sides of the Ivoirian and Liberian border, conducted over 40 focus groups and interviewed 164 individuals including Liberian host community members, Ivoirian refugees in Liberia, and Ivoirians in Côte d’Ivoire.

We find that land disputes remain a major obstacle to building sustainable peace and a potential threat to continued development  and  food  security  in  both  south-eastern  Liberia  and  western  Côte  d’Ivoire.  Disputes  over  land  are  common in all communities visited on both sides of the border.  Among the individuals we interviewed who currently have or recently engaged in land disputes, 89% stated that they feared losing access to their land in Côte d’Ivoire. In Liberia, refugees are in disputes with host communities. In some cases, these disputes lead to wider conflict. In over 50% of land disputes identified on both sides of the border, respondents reported an incident of violence associated with their land dispute.

We  find  that  in  Côte  d’Ivoire  the  post-election  crisis  created  opportunities  for  individuals  from  all  social  groups to  capitalize  on  an  unstable  situation  by  grabbing  land  or  questioning  previously  agreed  contracts.  Informal arrangements,  including  selling  land,  allocating  it  to  individuals  outside  the  community,  or  allocating  the  land  of  other  communities  are  ongoing  under  flexible  or  unclear  terms.    Part  of  the  problem  remains  the  challenges  individuals,  communities  and  authorities  face  in  implementing  the  1998  law. In  addition  to  a  lack  of  available  resources  necessary  for  implementation,  key  aspects  of  the  legislation  require  further  clarification,  including  the  definition of terms such as “continuous and peaceful occupation” that determine individual’s rights under the law.

In Liberia, Ivoirian refugees report that land disputes and land occupation in their communities of origin is a major reason they are reluctant to return to Côte d’Ivoire.  While host communities offer generous support to refugees (many  of  whom  identify  as  members  of  the  same  ethnic  groups),  the  lack  of  a  land  administration  framework  in  Liberia  means  that  land  transactions  suffer  from  the  same  potential  underlying  weakness  as  the  transactions  ongoing  in  western  Côte  d’Ivoire.    In  both  countries,  the  instability  in  land  administration  weakens  food  security  because the most important agricultural input necessary, land, is violently contested.

This  report  proceeds  as  follows.    In  the  first  section,  we  summarize  the  history  of  land  administration  and  land  conflict in the regions included in the study. In the second section, we report our findings, with particular attention to future programming priorities in food security and peace building.   In the third section, we conclude. In the final section,  we  provide  recommendations  to  government  actors,  civil  society  and  the  donor  community  and  in  the  annex we present our data collection methodology.

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