Huge challenges in solving land crisis

A fledgling commission appointed by the government of Burundi faces the daunting task of sorting out a land crisis that continues to deepen as thousands of refugees return home.

"We are responsible for solving land and property issues of all victims of war; the displaced, returnees and people who lost homes as a result of the war," said Father Aster Kana, president of the commission. "The problem of land in Burundi is very serious, but we hope to mediate and bring a solution to the crisis through peaceful means."

Burundi is emerging from 13 years of civil strife that saw hundreds of thousands of people flee the country; the current government was elected in August 2005 and has begun the task of re-building the country and dealing with huge humanitarian issues of landlessness, poverty and food insecurity.

With 271 people per sq km - the second-highest population density in Africa - Burundi is facing severe land pressure. The country's skyrocketing population growth rate of 3.4 percent means its population of almost eight million could double in the next 20 years.

Burundi experienced a mass exodus in 1972, sparked by animosity between the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu communities, and later, in 1993, when civil war broke out after the assassination of the country's first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye.

The country's last active rebel group, the Forces nationales de libération, has agreed a ceasefire with the government and is in talks that could end the country's civil war, bringing hope of a return home to an estimated 400,000 refugees who fled ethnic violence.

No home for returnees

In a bid to avert a land crisis that could potentially plunge the country back into civil war, the government set up the Commission Nationale des Terres et Autre Bien (CNTB) in July to deal with land and property issues resulting from the years of upheaval.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, about 319,000 refugees have been repatriated to Burundi since the agency started assisting their return in 2002. Neighbouring Tanzania, host to most of the refugees, has begun expelling them.

The return of refugees from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo has already led to serious disagreements between the returnees and the current occupiers of the land.

Barabirakazakubandi Rukanos fled the violence in 1972. When his family returned in 2006, they found another family had occupied their palm oil field in the commune of Rumonge in the southern Bururi province. The rich palm oil fields of Rumonge produce nuts from which thick, red edible oil is extracted, generating tidy profits for the farmers; as a result, the region is one of the areas experiencing the most serious conflicts over land.

Although a court ruling found in favour of Rukanos's family, the occupier has refused to leave the property. The occupier even injured Rukanos when he tried to insist on moving on to the land.

In solving land disputes, Burundians rely on a mixture of customary law and legislation, but few people are aware of their legal rights and most are too poor to pay for legal representation.

According to Burundi land law, legal title reverts to whoever occupies land for at least 30 years if no claims are made within three years of this period. This law has been applied in the cases of some 1972 returnees, many of whom have been in exile for 34 years. The refugees argue, however, that they did not leave their land of their own accord and have been unable to return until now, and therefore should not be subject to the law.

"The 1972 refugees would ordinarily be subject to that law, but given the difficult circumstances we will be dealing with the returnees on a case by case basis," Kana said. "In some cases we will apply the law, and in others we will not; it depends on the merits of each individual case."

Path towards mediation

Since its inception in July, the commission has been meeting the 1972 refugees, the occupiers of the land, and refugees in Tanzania to get a sense of each group's grievances and find a path toward mediation. However, several thousand returnees are homeless and relying on the kindness of friends and relatives - for these, the CNTB has no solution.

"Many of those who have returned are on the streets; UNHCR is providing rations but many are essentially homeless until we begin mediating," Kana said.

The Rukanos family is sheltering under plastic sheeting; their father remains in hospital with amnesia after being beaten by the occupants of the land he considers home.

Kana noted that although the commission had been given a three-year period to find solutions to the land and property problems in the country, he could not predict how long it would take to deal with all the current cases as well as those that could arise during that period.

"If a previous government gave the current occupants the legal title and they have a deed, we cannot expel them; but sometimes the returnees are emotionally attached to the land and refuse to be relocated to a different place," he added. "The length of time it takes to find a solution depends on the complexity of the problem."

Kana's commission is the fourth of its kind in the history of post-independence Burundi; his predecessors failed to bring a lasting solution to the land problem, but he remains positive about the CNTB's chances. "We are optimistic, and because the tactic we have chosen is dialogue and mediation rather than force, we know all the people of Burundi are behind us," he said.

kr/jos/cb/mw