In Côte d’Ivoire land disputes – fuelled by the 2002 rebellion and subsequent fighting – have yet to be resolved legislatively, leaving communities to seek their own solutions.
Conflict forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, among them Ivorian citizens and immigrant farmers who fled plantations in the west where many of them had held customary land access rights.
Many of the displaced who have recently tried to return to their farms have found their land occupied by others, according to officials in Man, 450km west of the capital, Abidjan.
Now access to cocoa and coffee plantations – long a source of inter-ethnic tensions in the country – is at the heart of unrest in the west, particularly as more people return, say workers with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has an office in Man.
A 1998 law that might have helped resolve disputes – vetoing verbal land agreements, converting customary rights to formal deeds and providing a conflict resolution framework – is little-known and little-used, experts say.
Most residents in the west have never heard of the law or have no idea how to apply it, Man magistrate Kroman Lahassani told IRIN.
Fewer than half of adults in Côte d’Ivoire can read and write so cannot read the document, he noted.
“It [the law] is still applicable and it abrogates other laws, but so far no one has come forward with a case,” he said.
Instead, land agreements are still predominantly verbal or noted down with the help of a village chief, or people enter into temporary pacts, according to UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General in Côte d’Ivoire, Georg Charpentier.
Civil society activists say the law is not yet effective on a practical level so they are helping villagers resolve land disputes in other ways.
IRC runs peace-building committees in 65 villages in the 18 Montagnes region.
Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
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One such village is Baibly, which was split in two in 2002, with immigrants forced to live on one side and native Ivorians on the other.
Since 2004 a peace committee has been set up, its members going house-to-house to resolve land tenure disputes, implement joint building projects and discuss human rights. Not a single member has heard of the 1998 land law.
“People from everywhere live here now,” said Burkinabe resident Daouda Coulibaly. “Ivorians, Burkinabe, Guineans, Malians, we all live together.”
Tensions persist between natives and immigrants and land conflicts are still villagers’ main worry, but since the committee formed these disputes have abated, said committee member Nguessan Allissialine.
Peace committee members said they remain concerned about a trend in which youths sell land without their parents’ knowledge.
When disputes in such cases arise, the committee will mediate, along with the village chief and, if need be, the gendarmerie, Coulibaly told IRIN.
Such efforts, though on a small scale, are vital to keep the peace, said Charpentier.
“Though [land tenure is] a mini-problem in comparison to say, Somalia – with just a few thousand people involved – it is very complex and will have to be solved,” he said.
The government could soon begin to educate the population about the existing law. While administrative and security tasks in the west are still split between former rebels and the state, the Justice Ministry was reinstated in Man in late 2009 and is building up its team of magistrates, Lahassani told IRIN.
Given deadlines set in the 1998 law, it is important to educate the public now, he said. “If people don’t officially administer land sales with a magistrate and get a decree, then the land will pass over to government in several years’ time – few [people] know this,” Lahassani said.
Charpentier noted that much-needed land reform can be effective and sustainable only once a new government is in power and state administration is in place across Côte d’Ivoire.
Presidential elections have been scheduled then canceled several times since the 2007 signing of the Ouagadougou peace accord.