Land and ethnic tension

I haven’t flown over the Ituri forest in Congo since I was a child over thirty years ago; Google Earth tells me that it is still there but shrinking.  In my recent travels to the US, I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing far more trees and forests than I see in fertile Kenya (I have the same recollection of my time in more densly populated Europe—though Africa is supposed to surpass Europe in population density this year.). In my recent flight from Lilongwe and over Tanzania to Nairobi, I looked out over a vast patchwork of farms. Boundaries of a national forests and game parks were clearly demarcated;  they are practically the only uncultivated land anywhere.

In several conversations with my Kenyan friends about the ethnic violence they experience after the last election, I’ve taken out a napkin and sketched out a big square: “This was your grandfather’s plot of land. Let’s say he had eight sons. [“twelve,”—or more—I’m occasionally corrected. I divide the plot up into equal subplots]. Now lets say that each of your uncles had four sons. [I further sub-divide each subplot.] Given the serious Kenyan cultural value of owning your own plot of land (contrasted with West African communal ownership), how do you think you and your cousins are going to feel about each other—not to mention the people from a different ethnic group that arrived generations ago when there was plenty of land to go around?” The imagery is striking.  At independence, Kenya had approximately six million citizens; today (less than 50 years later) it’s pushing forty million! (We are still awaiting the results of last year’s census.)

The following article describes some of the complexities of land, population growth, and ethnicity throughout Africa.

Africa’s continental divide: land disputes

Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2010

…Land, at the very heart of security and survival, looms behind most of the African conflicts we’ve all heard of and dozens of others we have not. The Rwandan genocide, some argue, was as much about the dwindling land availability in Africa’s most densely populated country as it was about enmity between ethnic groups. The wars recounted in the movie “Blood Diamond” in Sierra Leone and Liberia saw land grabs by warlords eager to exploit commodities like diamonds and timber. The violence following Kenya’s 2007 election reflected generations of dissatisfaction with land policy that favored different ethnic groups over time. Beneath the genocide in Darfur is a broken land tenure system, full of fights over soil that climate change is making increasingly unproductive. Somalia’s infamous pirates gain cover for plundering from political chaos in the country, whose warring clans fight not only for power but primacy on disputed lands, full of resources to fuel ongoing violence. And beneath last week’s Muslim-Christian riots, which killed at least 260 people in Jos, Nigeria, are decades-old grievances about political rights and the land they are tied to.

Africa’s most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn’t sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent [this last phrase made me uncomfortable; local solutions would probably be better]. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa’s other ills will be easier to treat.

In communities across the continent, that hypothesis is bearing out…

The end of land conflict might just mark the ascent of Africa.

It’s too much to say that land is the cause of all of Africa’s wars. But…

…The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.

“Some people must make sacrifices. …

Read more.

For Christian leaders, this might highlight how attention to these root (economic) causes (systemic justice) might be far more effective than focusing on individual attitudes about ethnicity—though these are important too.

Thanks for the heads-up: Texas in Africa. Her regular “this & that” posts are probably my best source of good articles on Africa.

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