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Updated on 19 September 2023

Land means fundamentally different things to different people, which is the broader source of land conflicts. For rural people land provides soil to farm, pastures to graze and a wide range of natural resources (timber, medicinal plants, fruits, honey and game) to harvest and manage, which are essential for their livelihoods. Access to land cannot be separated from access to water. Rural communities recognise nested rights in land. Some, like the rights to land for a homestead and fields to cultivate may vest in individuals, households and lineages; while other resources are derived through access to common property by recognised members of the community. But land represents much more than a source of livelihood. Land symbolises continuity and is an important source of cultural and spiritual identity. At the same time, land provides a platform for investment and production, often at industrial scale; a resource on which cash crops can be grown for export, from which minerals and water can be extracted, or timber logged for profit. For governments and political elites, control over land is the basis for state identity, authority and political control. In some countries land can also be an important source of tax revenue and the way in which land is distributed reflects social relations of power. For conservationists forests, rangelands, catchments, wildlife and natural resources are something to be protected, often to the exclusion of indigenous people and prior rights holders. 

However, there are indications that this exclusionary approach is changing with increasing recognition of the importance of indigenous knowledge for sustainable natural resource management.1 Similarly, for some, land in urban areas has an identity primarily as property, an investment and source of wealth. For others living in slums, informal settlements and favelas on marginal and unserviced land, this foothold in the city provides access to social services, livelihoods, employment opportunities and cultural opportunities. The rights of landholders and the landless frequently come into conflict, pitting the right to possess and derive monetary value from private property against the “right to the city” 2 for the urban poor. Given the vastly different, and sometimes irreconcilable meanings and values attached to land, it is not surprising that land and access to natural resources are key drivers of conflict. The UN recently predicted that over the coming decades “competition and conflict over land is likely to intensify with the growing pressures of climate change, population growth, increased food insecurity, migration and urbanisation”.3 However, it is also important to distinguish between violent conflict over land and the varied non-violent day to day disputes within families and between neighbouring communities. 


Triggers for land and resource conflict

Land conflicts can be triggered by a wide variety of interlinked factors. Arbitrary actions by actors in the state, investors and powerful individuals that restrict or remove access to land and resources are frequently at the heart of conflict situations. These may include:

  • Long histories of colonial occupation and dispossession that underpin contemporary discriminatory social systems and which entrench ethnic difference as a means to divide and rule
  • Systemic poverty and inequality within society whereby large numbers of people are marginalised through structural violence (see below) and lack of secure rights to land in rural and urban settings
  • Gendered and generational inequalities and inheritance practices that restrict access to land and natural resources 
  • Land degradation, biodiversity loss, crop failure, livestock losses and forced migration accelerated by the impacts of climate change and the increased incidence of droughts, heat waves, fires, floods, and other extreme weather events
  • Mounting pressure on land as a consequence of rapid urbanisation
  • Large scale infrastructure development
  • Diminishing size of agricultural landholdings as a result of a rapidly growing population A picture containing grass, outdoor, tree, rural area
  • Competition over land uses between: livestock herders and crop farmers; investors in the export-oriented mining, forestry and agribusiness sectors and local land users; state institutions and international agencies seeking to impose ‘fortress’ conservation policies to protect wildlife, biodiversity and forest resources through the exclusion of indigenous peoples and long-standing land rights holders, as well as the dismissal of indigenous knowledge systems
  • Conflicting and overlapping rights in land, initially as the result of displacement and forced removals due to discriminatory social policies, civil and border wars
  • Weak land governance and administrative systems and poorly harmonised legal systems Overall, the prevalence of land-related conflict is often an indicator of unsustainable levels of inequality and vulnerability in society. In addition to the examples above, there are also high levels of intra-familial conflict over land or neighbor/neighbour community-level conflict. This reflects disputes over land allocations, boundary encroachment, land use impacts and inheritance. Such examples comprise the bulk of the case load burden in courts dealing with land issues.
Internally displaced woman due to armed conflict in North Kivu, DRC. United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Internally displaced woman due to armed conflict in North Kivu, DRC. United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Key concepts and terms

Conflict definitions

Understandings of conflict have diverse roots. Some concepts originate in social and economic theory, others in conflict and peace studies. There has been a longstanding debate about the primary drivers of civil conflict. Some argue that it is economic interests – or ‘greed’ which are at the root of most conflicts. Others identify social and political grievances as the main conflict drivers.4 In practice, these theoretical distinctions are often blurred. Land and resource related conflicts are context specific and are usually triggered by a mix of factors - political, institutional, socio-economic and resource related.5 They involve contestation over access to land and resources, changing land use and security of land tenure rights and unequal distribution of land and resource benefits.6 Many conflicts, irrespective of their origins, impact on land and resource rights. Intra- state conflicts – civil wars within a state – have a tendency to be self-perpetuating. When conflicts turn violent, they lead to the creation of militia. The maintenance of these private armies and their control over territory requires large amounts of money. This is often generated through illicit trade in commodities – minerals, timber and drugs.7 This creates conflict economies, which once entrenched create “disincentives for peace”8 where the parties see no benefit in finding solutions.

The framing of conflict

The different ways in which land conflicts are ‘framed’ reflect how those issues that contribute to the conflict are interpreted.9 A frame can be understood as a way of seeing, filtered by a central organising or explanatory idea.10 Land and resource related conflict may be variously framed to provide explanations, attribute causes and promote solutions. Take for example a much publicised human-wildlife conflict that took place in the Serengeti reserve in East Africa in 2018. The conflict emerged after three lions had been poisoned by indigenous communities, provoking an international outcry in conservation circles. An ‘Expert perspective’ at the time would provide the names of the individual lions while omitting any account of the communities of herders that lived in the area. The same perspective would point to the complexity of dealing with such a conflict, acknowledging the history of dispossession of the herder communities by a colonialist government. Nevertheless, there was no mention of the policies of the post-colonial governments in the region and the type of conservation models which they have employed, often in partnership with global agencies. The voices, viewpoints and livelihoods of the indigenous communities remained unheard and invisible. Where such contradictory perspectives cannot be aligned, the potential for ongoing conflict is high.

In addition to the example above, there are numerous other contexts in which the framing of land and resource related conflict is relevant. For example, one of the common drivers of land related conflict is urban planning and infrastructure development. Here the imperative for economic growth and development frequently comes into conflict with the land, occupation and livelihood rights of people who will be displaced by the proposed development. The framing selected varies according to the perspective of the actors involved. Governments and private developers may choose to focus on what they regard as the unintended, yet inevitable consequences of growth and modernisation. Corporate and state narratives may frame local land users as ‘ignorant’ and ‘backwards’, retarding national ‘progress’. Community activists and human rights organisations emphasise the infringement of the rights of economically and socially marginal populations and the inequalities which will deepen. These framings explore how vulnerable communities and land defenders organise to protect their rights to land and resources. Likewise, conflicts related to the recognition of women’s rights to land may invoke cultural or religious norms to justify continued discrimination. Whatever the context, we need to recognise how conflicts are framed by different actors as this provides important insights into the forces which drive them.

Land grabbing

‘Land grabbing’ 11 is associated with corporate deals to expand plantation, export-oriented agriculture, mining and urban property portfolios. These land deals frequently displace customary and indigenous land rights holders and resource users, without their prior and informed consent. Land grabs are often enabled by political and institutional reforms that seek to open up land and mineral resources for foreign capital investment. Such policies can encourage predatory behaviour by domestic elites and political fixers who may broker these deals and claim hefty deal origination fees. Land deals which fail to meaningfully engage with local land users provoke conflicts, as local communities resist displacement and the appropriation of resources essential for their livelihoods.

Key practices of dispossession include eviction, enclosure, extraction, exclusion and erasure.12 People may be physically removed from land they had occupied and their access to resources cut off. Subsequently these resources are depleted through extractivism and land use change. Land and resource grabbing can erase social histories and render cultures invisible.

Accumulation by dispossession

Some social theorists argue that accumulation by dispossession (ABD) is a defining feature of neoliberal capitalism. With respect to land and natural resources ABD can take different forms. These include:

  • The commodification and privatisation of land and the expulsion of customary rights holders;
  • The suppression of rights to the commons; 
  • The commodification of nature and culture.

ABD is said to result in “escalating depletion of the global environmental commons (land, air, water)” through food and farming systems that “preclude anything but capital-intensive modes of agricultural production”.13

It is argued that these systems depend on the commodification of nature including the “patenting and licensing of genetic material, seed plasma . . . [and] privatising the indigenous knowledge of “populations whose [age-old] practices had played a crucial role in the development of those materials.”14

While this analysis has its critics,15 it can be argued that it offers deeper systemic insights into processes of dispossession than the narrower, yet more popular conceptualisation of land grabbing discussed above.

Conflict and the natural ‘resource curse’

There are conflicting views about whether an abundance of natural resources of many countries in the global South are inevitably associated with conflict and underdevelopment.16 The origins of the so-called ‘resource curse’ stem from analysis of poverty levels and conflicts in oil and mineral rich countries.

For example, in post-colonial Angola rival political formations drew on petro-dollars from offshore oil wells and illegal diamond mining to finance the protracted civil war of 1975-2002. Back in 2006, UNDP noted that Nigeria’s vast oil wealth had “barely touched people’s lives.”17 Today Nigeria ranks among the highest oil producing countries in the world and faces insurgencies and violent conflicts in its oil rich delta region.18

There are long held arguments by political economists that resource wealth contributes to systems of political control by powerful elites, who use the economic benefits to invest in repressive security apparatus and who preside over a political order based on patronage.19 However, other research suggests that resource wealth does not have to be a curse, and if used appropriately can be transformed from “a peace liability to a peace asset”. 20

Overall, mineral resources are more likely to become a curse when political and other social/economic institutions are not structured in ways that create accountability and which fail to deliver tangible social benefits which are (reasonably) equitably distributed.

Injustice as structural violence

Recent research explores how the nature and extent of socio-economic inequality, absence of justice and ‘structural violence’ in a given society “influence whether land conflicts arise and become manifest”21.

Almost all social conflict has land and resource related dimensions. This suggests we need to better understand how a range of factors – including how localised histories of dispossession, the impacts of colonial and post-colonial conflicts which may have served to ethnicise difference; relations of power and the changing role of policies and institutions – all come to influence contemporary land governance in ways that either drive up or help prevent and mitigate conflict.

Land and resource related conflicts emerge at different scales – within local communities; between local communities and neighbours/outsiders, as well as at regional or cross-border extent. These conflicts reveal the relative security/insecurity of the underlying land tenure and governance regimes. They also highlight the functioning of the institutions responsible for land allocation and conflict management and the extent to which they operate effectively.22

Conflict and displacement

Conflicts displace people who are defined either as Internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees.

According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, IDPs are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence (…) to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border”.23

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, defines a refugee as a person who, "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence …is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”24

Globally, the ripple effects of the forced migration of refugees and displaced people are increasingly regarded as factors driving up social division and conflict risk.25 Migrants frequently face discrimination and xenophobic violence in the countries where they are forced to settle.26

Renewed conflict may also follow the mass return of refugees and IDPs to their homes when a conflict ends, only to find that their homes and land have been claimed by others, including those that may have perpetrated violent acts against them.27 Reintegration requires delicate processes at local, national and regional levels which combine reconciliation with restitution.

International law, policies and frameworks

Land and resource related conflicts predominantly take place within a country’s borders. But they range widely in scale from individual disputes between neighbours, or adjacent communities, through to international disputes, which frequently relate to the use of transboundary water resources. Research conducted in 2009 concluded that “40–60% of civil wars over the past 60 years have been triggered, funded or sustained by natural resources”.28

For example, bloody conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan originated as a dispute between pastoralist herders and farmers over livestock migration routes and waterpoints. This was overlaid by cultural, ethnic and religious differences and escalated into a civil war with three distinct dimensions:

  •  Local level clashes between Arab, Muslim pastoralists and African, Christian and animist farmers, for whom land, grazing and water were central to their livelihoods.
  • A national-level conflict between major rebel factions and the national government in which the Sudanese government enlisted armed militia known as the Janjaweed to conduct a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
  •  An internationalized conflict influenced by regional political rivalries.

There is a perception that human rights abuses within a country, perpetrated in the context of a civil war, lie beyond the reach of international law. While practically this may often be the case, the Geneva Conventions adopted in 1949 created the possibility that “acts committed in violation of the laws of war” could be prosecuted.

This assumed that any such trials would be organised by the governments of the countries in which the abuses took place. It was not until 1993 and 1994 that International Criminal Tribunals were constituted by the UN to prosecute violations of international humanitarian law in former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda. These tribunals sought to convict leaders responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity.29

It was only in 1998 that the International Criminal Court was established as a permanent judicial body in terms of the Rome Statute – a treaty supported by 120 countries. The ICC’s mandate is to act as “a court of last resort”30 which prosecutes offences, where national courts fail to act. However, the ICC has had limited reach, particularly as the United States, Russia and China are not signatories to the treaty. Similarly, very few countries in Asia or the Middle East recognise the treaty.

While there is a perception that the focus of the ICC deal with war crimes and genocide, it has also been called on to investigate land grabs and forced dispossession. In 2014 a group of Cambodian villagers lodged a case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) against powerful members of Cambodian society (referred to as the “ruling elite”). This alleged that between 2002 and October 2014, this elite undertook “widespread and systematic” land grabbing, through threats, violence and forcible relocation. It claims that the land grabbing has affected 770,000 people and that 145,000 have been forcibly displaced from Phnom Penh, to make way for rubber and sugar plantations or logging operations.31 In March 2021, three NGOs (FIDH, Global Witness and Climate Counsel) followed up with a letter to the ICC urging it to prosecute land grabbing crimes in Cambodia.

Other applicable legal frameworks and policies primarily relate to the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons. These include the International UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees originally passed in 1951, which was subsequently amended by article 1(2) of the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967.

The box below contains links to a range of relevant policies and declarations.

The UN’s 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement set out the overarching framework of international human rights, and humanitarian law applicable to internally displaced people. More specifically the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights ratified in 2011, provides an important framework with the potential for conflict preemption where land and mineral related investments are concerned. These principles note that “some of the worst human rights abuses involving business, occur amid conflict over the control of territory, resources or a government itself, where the human rights regime cannot be expected to function as intended”.32 The most recent international initiative relating to refugees is the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016, which includes a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). 33 Lessons drawn from the application of the CRRF helped to inform the Global Refugee Compact, which was affirmed by all UN Member States in December 2018.34 The introduction to this declaration includes a subsection on the prevention and addressing of the root causes of conflict. This calls for improved cooperation among political, humanitarian, development and peace actors. Currently however, the UN entity, which is responsible to respond to forced displacement, lacks any mandate to prevent the conflicts which drive this. On the African continent, members of the African Union adopted The Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa in 2009. In 2019 the AU Commission held a roundtable on addressing the root causes of forced displacement, acknowledging that the solutions to conflicts and other causes of displacement are fundamentally political. In 2017 the AU adopted a strategic document known as the AU Master Roadmap (AUMR) of Practical Steps to Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020. This was revisited by the AU as its theme of the year in 2020. 35

Data sources for tracking land conflicts

It is often difficult to draw a clear distinction between social and political conflicts and land and resource related conflicts. While land issues may not always be the primary driver of conflicts, as noted above almost all violent conflicts impact on people’s relationship to land to a greater or lesser extent.

In 2021 protracted conflicts in numerous countries including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and Nigeria pushed the number of forcibly displaced people – both refugees and IDPs to 90 million worldwide. This figure swelled to a record 100 million in 2022, as eight million people were displaced due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.36

There are a number of global conflict trackers. Each of these records conflict in particular ways.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project. ACLED collects information on the dates, actors, locations, fatalities, and types of all reported political violence and protest events around the world. Originally initiated as a component of a PhD project, ACLED was established as a non-profit in 2014. From 2022 ACLED began to provide global coverage. Data coded by ACLED does not specify land related conflict, being more focused on specific conflict events. However, the data provide important context for researchers examining land related conflicts. ACLED’s 2023 Conflict watchlist provides fine-grained analysis of a series of complex conflicts including Ukraine, South Caucasus and Central Asia, the Sahel, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and more.

The International Crisis Group is an independent organisation formed in 1995 in response to violence and genocide in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Its stated mission is to work to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world. It maps and tracks conflict globally.

The Global Conflict Tracker is maintained by the Center for Preventative Action (CPA), a program developed by the United States Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Data capture is framed by analysis of how a conflict impacts on U.S. interests. Conflicts are ranked according to three categories: critical, significant, limited.

Countries experiencing land and resource conflicts

According to UN Habitat, since 1990 at least 17 violent conflicts globally have involved the exploitation of natural resources, while “over the last 60 years at least 40% of all intrastate conflicts have a link to natural resources”.37 Land disputes, resulting from large-scale capital investment in land related to the expansion of industrial export-oriented agriculture and mining, can escalate into open conflict. 38 The bulk of this investment has taken place in the global South. Land disputes also reflect lack of clarity around rights to common lands and conflict over access to land by farmers and pastoralists.

The Land Portal country portfolios provide numerous localised examples of land and resource related conflicts. As the portfolios demonstrate, context is key to developing an understanding of land issues, the management of natural resources and mineral extraction in different settings.


According to a 2016 study, infrastructure projects and investment zones account for almost half of land-related conflicts.39 Land acquisition by the government is a major cause of conflict, involving 60% of cases. Land Conflict Watch tracks and reports land conflicts in India.40 As of January 2022, it reported 781 ongoing conflicts affecting 7.8 million people over 3.9 million hectares of land and involving US$342 billion worth of investment. Competing claims over customary lands have been the source of significant disputes and stalled investments. Land related conflicts are aggravated by the absence of clear policies relating to customary land rights.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Despite enormous mineral and natural resource wealth, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) displays all the features of the so-called ‘resource curse’, where instead of contributing to economic growth, mineral and forest riches have served the interests of rival elites and political formations, fuelling localised and cross-border conflicts. Land disputes also fuel intercommunal violence. Armed clashes over a land dispute between the Yaka and Teke communal groups in the province of Mai-Ndombe is reported to have transformed this formerly peaceful province to become the fifth most violent of 26 provinces in the DRC in 2022.41 Together, these conflicts have contributed to complex patterns of displacement. In 2021 more than a million Congolese have sought asylum elsewhere in Africa and beyond, while there are more than 5 million internally displaced people remaining in the DRC, constituting the largest IDP population in Africa. Simultaneously, the DRC hosts more than half a million refugees from across the Great Lakes region, including from Rwanda and Burundi.42



In 2007 widespread public resistance to plans for a massive land deal triggered a military coup that brought down the government. This land grab (which never materialised) involved the proposed lease of 1.3 million ha of land to a South Korean company for the production of palm oil and corn.43 Much of this land was already occupied and farmed by local producers. Currently, Madagascar is experiencing internal conflicts linked to climate induced migration. The country is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and has been reeling under the impacts of drought and cyclones. In the past few years tens of thousands of people are reported to have fled the drought racked southern region, creating conflicts over land use in host regions and placing protected areas and biodiverse regions under extreme pressure.


Since 1936 Colombia has had three major attempts at agrarian reform, all of which are reported to have failed. Struggles to control and defend land have been central to a history of conflict which lasted for almost 50 years, pitting left wing guerrilla groupings against right wing paramilitaries, protecting the interests of large landowners and the drug trade.

Post conflict reintegration in Colombia.Photo by UN Women via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Post conflict reintegration in Colombia.Photo by UN Women via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This conflict has yet to be effectively resolved, despite a peace agreement being reached in 2016. Between 1985 and 2010 land related conflicts resulted in the forced displacement of 5.2 million persons. In 2019 almost eight million people were registered as internally displaced in Colombia. In 2011, the Commission to Monitor Public Policies on Forced Displacement stated that between 1980 and July 2010, 6.6 million hectares of land had been abandoned or seized as a consequence of this conflict. Acción Social, a government body, estimated that people have been forced to abandon 6.8 million hectares, while the National Movement of Victims against State Crime (MOVICE) put the figure at around 10 million hectares.44 A more recent estimate suggests some 8.3 million hectares of land were forcibly expropriated or abandoned in the course of the long running conflict.45 This situation paralyzed the formal land market and affected land use, reducing food production. Business, political elites and narco traffickers seized and converted illegally appropriated land for agro-industry, including the ecologically destructive establishment of palm oil plantations and massive cattle ranches. In 2016, a national peace agreement included a commitment to agrarian reform, with land restitution as one of the fundamental pillars. The land reform programme envisaged the massive formalization of small and medium rural property rights to prevent dispossession. There are some donor programmes in support of formalisation46 but overall, these reforms have yet to materialise at scale. Colombia remains one of the most extreme cases of land inequality where according to data analysed in 2017, just 1% of landowners held over 80% of the agricultural land, with the largest landowners controlling over 50,000 hectares each.47 At the same time a growing progressive movement for agrarian justice is increasing its efforts to make claims to land.


Cambodia has seen radical political changes throughout its history, with each regime introducing new land tenure regimes. After independence from France in 1953, Cambodia’s monarchy recognized private property rights. In contrast, the radical Maoist Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) abolished private property in favour of state ownership over land. Agriculture was forcibly collectivized under direct state control. Hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers from the capital Phnom Penh and other areas were deported to rural areas to cultivate the land. In the process the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of at least 1.7 million people who “were executed, starved, overworked or died of untreated diseases and other abuses”. 48 The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the complete decimation of the country’s technical and professional class.

Women victims of the Khmer Rouge. Photo by George Olcott vai Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (1)
The Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979) was marked by immense human rights abuses which have had a lasting impact on Cambodia. Women victims of the Khmer Rouge. Photo by George Olcott via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, following the intervention of the Vietnamese, and the installation of a new government, policies slowly began shifting toward a market economy. Farmland which had been collectivised was redistributed to returnees, former soldiers, and poor households. Facing significant socio-economic transformations, including refugee repatriation, waves of in-country migration, urbanization, economic and population growth, the country has experienced rising inequality. Despite a lack of reliable data, numbers suggest that (near) landlessness had risen from about 3 % in 1993 to between 25% and 45 % within two decades alone.49 The case brought to the ICC noted above provides evidence of land dispossession aggravating high levels of landlessness.


Territorial disputes you may not have heard of

While there are high profile and well documented land disputes and conflicts, there are also territorial disputes which do not attract much public attention. A recent Land Portal What to read digest features three territorial disputes – the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Dispute, the High Himalayan dispute between China and India and a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.50

Community, customary, and indigenous land rights

How community and customary land rights are defined, managed and legally protected determines the extent to which they become a site of conflict. In many post-colonial states, the place of customary law and the role of ‘traditional leaders’ in land allocation, administration and dispute resolution has remained deeply contested.51 Different pathways have been trod. For example, in Southern Africa, some newly independent states like Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Zimbabwe initially withdrew all recognition from chieftainships, which they regarded as colonially distorted institutions. Others, like South Africa, gave constitutional recognition to chiefly regimes. This has been subsequently bolstered by legislation, which is widely regarded as rendering 20 million rural South Africans as second-class citizens. New powers over communal land have enabled elites to conclude lucrative mining deals and find other opportunities for enrichment at the expense of local land rights holders. Community resistance to elite capture has been countered by death threats and assassinations.52

House of traditional leaders
The National House of Traditional Leaders in session. Photo by GovernmentZA via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In most instances (with the notable exception of Tanzania) roles for traditional leadership in different forms have been reinstituted across the continent, albeit with very different outcomes. Globally, indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources remain limited or unrecognized. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has highlighted a range of factors including “resource extraction, logging, land for renewable energy sources and agribusiness; conflict between indigenous pastoralists, nomadic herders and farmers over shrinking grazing lands due to war, and the effects of climate change as well as the establishment of conservation areas”53 as key sources of conflict. Even where legal support is available to protect the rights of indigenous people, this is seldom sufficient to address the skewed power relations between customary rights holders and those corporations and individuals who would encroach on their land rights.

Conflict and women’s land rights

UN-Habitat notes that “many customary systems of land governance do not support women’s inheritance, and women often face difficulties in accessing justice or dispute-resolution mechanisms”.54 Likewise many formal legal systems still do not effectively implement women’s rights in law.

In conflict situations, the land rights of women, often already precarious, are among the most vulnerable. “In fragile, conflict and violence affected contexts, armed conflicts, forced displacement, and land grabbing generally exacerbate gender gaps regarding property and land tenure rights.”55 However, it has recently been argued citing evidence from Liberia, Palestine and Columbia that improving women’s access to land and protecting their rights can be an important stabilising factor in conflict situations.56

Conflict and urbanisation

Currently the fastest rate of urbanisation is in the global South. Since 2015 more than 75% of the world’s urban population lives in the global South, with rural urban migration swelling the cities and expanding the urban periphery. Currently of the world’s 33 megacities, 27 are in the global South.57

Overall, “the transformative power of violent conflict (…) is strongly reflected in the process of urbanisation and rural-urban transformation in the Global South”.58 This trend is most evident in Sub Saharan Africa where the “protracted dynamics of violent conflict and (forced) displacements are often closely intertwined with the fast and unplanned urbanisation of formerly rural societies.”59

“In countries like Uganda, South Sudan or the DRC, there is …a direct correlation between urban growth and waves of regional forced displacement”.60

The civil war in Angola was a major factor turning Angola into “one of Africa’s most urbanised countries with 62% of its population living in cities” by 2014.61 Once in the city to escape conflict in rural areas, most people are forced to live in informal settlements, often in precarious conditions. Currently “over two-thirds of Luanda’s residents continue to live in shelters that are self-built with people’s own resources and savings, often with a lack of adequate and affordable basic public services, and on land for which they do not have formal titles.”62

This gives rise to the question as to what needs to be in place to enable a smoother urban transition. The World Bank has long argued that inefficient urban land markets with informal tenure systems and poor basic services obstruct the development of functional urban systems and development. The Bank has gone further to single out informality as being a brake on both land and economic development as it “curbs government revenues, constraining governments’ ability to provide services … service debt, or implement crisis-response measures”. In urban settings, weak governance structures, limited financial resources and institutional and planning capacity combine to prevent effective land management and development.

However, from a human settlements perspective there are others who argue that “informal settlements perform a crucial function as gateways or stepping stones to urban labour and housing markets. Hence, it is vital for government policies to treat these areas sympathetically rather than to demolish them”.63 At the same time it is acknowledged that conflicting requirements for land are difficult to manage. “Fair and reasonable systems of planning and regulation need to be in place to strike a proper balance between economic, social and environmental considerations”.64 From this perspective priority should be given to “investment in transport systems, power generation, water treatment, sanitation systems and serviced land [as these] will determine whether cities become more efficient or encounter serious social and ecological limits to growth”.65 Where such systems and investment are absent or deficient rapid urbanisation may become a flashpoint for conflict.

Climate change and conflict

Generally, people in lower and lower middle-income countries are at a much greater risk of being displaced by extreme weather events. Currently the bulk of the population who are displaced and forced to migrate due to climate change live in Asia. This region is densely populated accounting for some 60% of global population with very high levels of people living in extreme poverty. Extreme weather events have displaced millions of people in Bangladesh and India, together with the Philippines and China.66

The Horn of Africa, which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, is also a climate change hotspot. Conflict over scarce natural resources, droughts and floods play a significant role in the escalation of social and political conflict in the region. As climate change shrinks the natural resource base, so forced migration has escalated across the region. Where people lose access to land and water due to climate change linked resource degradation, they must find access to land, water and livelihoods elsewhere. This may involve encroaching on the land rights and natural resource stocks of others, and in turn create new conflict settings. In Somalia, recent FAO research singled out the main migration push factors as drought, flood, food insecurity, human insecurity, lack of income, lack of pasture/livestock feed due to drought conditions, as well as conflict. “Notably, concerning conflict, 79.3% of the conflict measured was in fact over natural resources, such as land, water and/or pasture”.67

Land governance innovations to address conflict risk

Peace building practitioners suggest that land governance interventions in conflict and post-conflict situations need to be modest, flexible and fit for purpose, with potential for incremental improvement. It is also crucial that such approaches are participatory and inclusive.

At local scale community level dialogues help to better understand context/concerns and power dynamics. This provides essential information for the design of incremental interventions related to institutional support, mapping, and rights' awareness raising. Such interventions should closely reflect local demand, institutional capacities and context.

According to UN-Habitat, securing multi-year funding is a pre-requisite for progressively securing rights to land and helping to defuse conflict situations. Investment in good land governance which offers multiple risk mitigation pathways is important. It can be argued that improving land governance systems and capabilities pre-crisis can serve to reduce impacts during and post-crisis.

Overall, the land sector is acknowledged to be “too big and complex for any one organisation to manage on its own”.68

Future scenarios

Globally we are witnessing the rapid enlargement of threats and stressors throughout the environment. The production of vulnerability is being amplified by the climate emergency. This can provide a trigger for long-lasting, complex conflicts where land disputes, climate displacement and extractivism intersect, escalating the potential for inter-communal violence. In these settings improved land governance can help reduce conflict risk and contribute to post-conflict recovery, but will be insufficient on its own to address multiple threats, which require a multisectoral and transdisciplinary response.


This issue page has been researched and written by Rick de Satgé. Initial review was provided by Marie Gagné from the Land Portal research team and final peer review by Karol Boudreaux, Senior Land and Resource Governance Advisor with USAID, Bureau for Development, Democracy & Innovation.69


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[24] Ibid.

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[28] UNEP (2009) in Brown and Keating (2015). P.4

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[57] Smit, W. (2021). Urbanisation in the Global South. The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Global Public Health.

[58] Büscher, K. (2020). African cities and violent conflict: the urban dimension of conflict and post conflict dynamics in Central and Eastern Africa. Urban Africa and Violent Conflict, Routledge: 1-18.

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[62] Ibid. P 183

[63] Turok, I. (2014). Linking urbanisation and development in Africa’s economic revival. Africa's Urban Revolution. S. Parnell and D. Simon. London, African Centre for Cities and Zed Books.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid. P64

[66] Oxfam (2019). Forced from home: Climate fuelled displacement.

[67] Boers, K. and W. Chamberlain-Vander Werf (2022). "Climate-induced migration in Somalia." Land Portal Climate-induced migration in Somalia 2022.

[68] UN-Habitat (2018). Land and conflict: Lessons from the field on conflict sensitive land governance and peace building. Nairobi, UN-Habitat, IIRR and GLTN.

[69] USAID (2022) Land and Conflict. A toolkit for intervention 2.0. Karol Boudreaux and Daniel Abrahams. Retrieved 5 June 2023 from

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