Uncharted territory

1 September 2010

‘This is a very timely and excellent contribution on disputes over land and property as major sources of armed conflict’
Gunnar M. Sørbø, Director, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

Humanitarian agencies often underestimate the importance of land issues in sparking conflict, and the importance of what happens to land once a conflict ends. Land issues can undermine hard-won peace agreements and keep tensions simmering year after year.

In 2009, ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) published the book Uncharted Territory to support better engagement of the humanitarian community with these issues. Launched in Kenya, Colombia, the UK, the US and Switzerland, it builds on three years of intensive research on the links between land, conflict and humanitarian action. The research was grounded in six country case studies: Afghanistan, Angola, Colombia, Timor-Leste, Rwanda and Sudan.

The study confirmed the difficulties of land restitution after a conflict – the usual response by humanitarian organisations. Restitution was possible, to some extent, after the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, given the relative brevity of the conflict and the existing documentation of land ownership. But it works less well in such countries as Afghanistan
or Sudan, where land records may not exist, and where people may have been uprooted for decades. To support durable solutions in such countries, restitution must be backed by wider community and policy processes.

The research revealed good practice. In Colombia, for example, one government-backed project has international agencies monitoring abandoned land and, in Darfur, GPS technology is being used for the same purpose. The study has identified those who can actually make a difference: community organisations with local knowledge and the ability to intervene directly to smooth the path to reconciliation.

The research has also highlighted the lack of experts with knowledge of both land tenure and humanitarian responses and has helped to bridge this divide. In Rwanda, for example, HPG worked with a leading land tenure expert who had retired from the World Bank. The case study was enhanced by his knowledge, and his knowledge was expanded, in turn, by contributions from humanitarian colleagues.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has used the research to develop a framework for its work on land issues in crises, and the UN Cluster Group on Early Recovery has used it to develop guidelines for humanitarian workers and the broader land tenure community. The case studies shaped the first conference to bring together land tenure experts and humanitarian actors. A roster of land tenure and humanitarian response experts has been created and is being managed by Displacement Solutions, while land conflict guidelines emerging from the research have been developed by UN-Habitat with support from HPG. Finally, specific guidelines for humanitarian workers have been developed to move land issues up the humanitarian agenda.