Conflicts linked to land in Central and West Africa

Even though these regions do not have to administer a colonial inheritance regarding the allocation of land, small farmers often suffer from a lack of land security.

The situation in this part of Africa is very different from that which prevails in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe and South Africa or in Latin America where there has been heavy land colonisation, forcing small farmers and indigenous people from their land. If we stopped at the classic concept of land reform as the action of redistribution of land to the poorest for agricultural needs following land colonisation, one would say that there is no problem in this domain in Central and West Africa. However there is still plenty of work to do since many other situations exist where land suitable for cultivation is in question.

The following are real cases of conflict, identified on the ground, but which are often found:

1/ Expropriation for "public use"

Everyone is legally dispossessed of their lands by the state to carry out large public investments. This was the case for the construction of the international airport at Yaoundé Nsimalen in Cameroon where the local inhabitants were opposed to the government because the latter did not offer them compensation. In the same country and for the same reason, the people were opposed to the Prime Minister laying the foundation stone for the construction of a paediatric hospital in the suburbs of Yaoundé where they had been expropriated.

2/ The superposition of laws and regulations on land ownership

In every country, several laws co-exist, the traditional and customary, religious laws and modern law based on that of France or England, depending on each country’s history. In principle, in the case of conflict, modern law over-rides that based on religion or custom, but in practice, religious or traditional law often wins. The thinking behind these different laws is not the same and this can cause serious problems in the management of land ownership.

3/ Land sales

The rich are buying land with increasing frequency and then register it, thus dispossessing more and more people. These newly rich business men or politicians invest in agribusiness, buying large tracts of land in rural areas and sometimes transforming the small farmers into agricultural labourers on their own land. For a time, nearly all African governments created or encouraged the creation of industrial agriculture companies to develop certain crops such as sugar cane, hevea, oil palm, etc. These companies were often set up on several thousands of hectares of very fertile agricultural land which belongs to autochthonous populations.

4/ Conflicts between farmers and herdsmen

In all zones where cattle breeding is very well developed, there are frequent conflicts between crop farmers and livestock farmers. The former often complain that their harvests are destroyed by the latter when they come with their herds. In some places there are conflicts which can lead to the loss of human life.

5/ Conflicts between migrants and autochthones

In certain regions of Cameroon, there is overpopulation, whereas in others, the population is small in relation to the available land. Some people therefore leave the former and migrate to the latter. This can result from government action (in this way, the government launched a big operation to create pioneer villages by installing families coming from overpopulated zones into new areas by giving them parcels of land to cultivate and live on. However, it consisted of land belonging to autochthonous people); or from civilian authorities. These intrusions do not always work out well, the original inhabitants usually end up reclaiming their land.

6/ Conflicts concerning protected areas

Defenders and promoters of the environment have created nature reserves to save plant and animal species in danger of extinction. Unfortunately, there are always autochthonous people living on the boundaries of these vast spaces. To start with, the population exploits resources on unprotected land but as they become scarcer, it does not hesitate to enter protected areas to hunt, which often leads to serious conflict with local administrations.

7/Conflicts between foresters and the autochthonous population

The end of the Rio conference sounded the death knell of large-scale timber extraction from forested countries. Governments are trying to implement laws and regulations which are unfortunately not always respected, notably the specifications to be met by the lumber companies. This engenders strong reactions from populations opposed to timber cutting. Unfortunately they do not always win the case because they are badly organised or because the public authorities side with the lumber companies which represent the power of money

8/ Opposition between user’s and owner’s rights

in the old days before the creation of modern states, those who worked the land and exploited it were the legitimate owners. Today, owner rights require registration whose procedures fringe groups are not inclined to adhere to. In some countries, it is a requirement of ownership to enrich ones land by investing in it, or otherwise risk being dispossessed. This is equally true for cases of expropriation for public use, since compensation is largely based on evaluating the investment put into the land to be expropriated.

9/ Urbanisation of towns threatens autochthonous peoples

The rapid expansion of towns takes place by absorbing neighbouring villages, resulting in expropriation of rural communities. In some cases, they are re-housed elsewhere, sometimes they are given compensation in cash, but it does not always work as they wish. On the contrary, there are currently conflicts existing between local populations and the authorities that date back several years.

Strategies put in place by civilian authorities vary from one country to another and even between regions in the same country and depending on who is involved. Certain NGO’s and churches put the accent on education and informing the population of their rights at the same time as trying to organise them. Elsewhere, such as in the river region of Senegal, a group of producers, acting as a federation has obtained large areas within the framework of land reform organised in the context of decentralisation. In certain areas, local collectives, through the rural Council insist on being associated with the management of land initially allocated to large hydro-agricultural concerns to assure the defence of the rights of the smallholder.

In Ghana and Cameroon, NGO’s play the mediation card. In certain cases of conflict between growers and cattle farmers, joint negotiating committees have been set up.


MFOU’OU, Jeanot -  - 2001 03 19


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