Well-meaning tenure reforms can’t quash land conflicts | Land Portal

When countries revise their land and forest tenure laws, whereby rights are granted to people who depend on forests for their livelihoods, one goal is to reduce disputes over land and resources.

Despite this, conflicts persist, and sometimes new ones arise: why?

In a multi-country study, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) sought to find the answer. In it they compared the views of officials responsible for implementing reforms in Peru, Indonesia, Uganda and Nepal, as well as the opinions of those in communities affected.

Peru topped the table for having the most reported conflicts, as well as the lowest number of reported conflicts having been resolved in the previous year. It also had the lowest number of government officials who said they were responsible for conflict management and the highest percentage who said resolution mechanisms were ineffective. To add, government officials seemed less likely to recognize conflict as a problem in the first place.

“When we compared across countries what government officials and people in communities were saying about the reforms, there seemed to be some striking lessons for Peru,” says CIFOR scientist Anne Larson, who leads a team researching equal opportunities, gender justice and tenure.

Tenure reform itself may even be a cause of conflict, as titled communities were more likely to report conflicts than those that had not received titles.

“Granting title to a community does not necessarily end disputes over land and resources,” Larson says. “The state not only needs to help communities negotiate claims during the titling process, but also defend the property rights it has recognized after the title is issued.”

In the study, which used survey data gathered between 2014 and 2017, government officials involved in implementing tenure reforms were asked about the kinds of conflicts that have arisen, what role they play in conflict management, and whether mechanisms for managing conflicts are effective.

Community representatives in three of the countries- all except Nepal- were asked whether they had been involved in a conflict in the previous year, the nature of the conflict, and how it was resolved.

Different countries confer different rights

Forest tenure policies in the three countries have led to different types of rights to the forest.

In Uganda the project studied reforms including community use of state land through collaborative forest management; community-owned land with community forest; land owned by individuals who belong to an association of private forest owners; and customary lands.

Indonesian forest communities may own land or, through social forestry programs, have community forests or community plantations on state lands designated for use by communities. Some state-owned land is used by companies, which must negotiate land rights with members of local communities.

Peru’s tenure policies establish procedures for titling to different types of communities — native communities, mainly in the Amazon basin; and peasant communities, mainly in the highlands and on the coast, although there are also some in the Amazon.

Of the three countries, only Uganda’s legislation includes a clear, accessible and affordable procedure for conflict resolution, including allowing for disputes to be settled using customary approaches.

Indonesian law gives provincial and district governments a role in conflict resolution, while also allowing for alternative, extra-judicial measures. Peru’s legislation is the vaguest, with no clear guidelines.

About 20 percent of villagers surveyed in Uganda and Peru reported having been involved in a land or forest conflict during the previous year, compared to only 4 percent in Indonesia.

Government officials in the four countries studied had very different perceptions of their role in managing disputes. When asked if it was their responsibility to manage tenure-related conflicts, 93 percent of those in Nepal said yes, compared to 47 percent in Uganda, 36 percent in Indonesia and only 28 percent in Peru.

“Although Peru has one of the highest levels of conflict at the village level, it has the lowest proportion of reform implementers responsible for conflict resolution,” the study’s authors reported.

The multiple causes of conflict

In Peru, government officials responsible for implementing tenure reforms said the most common conflicts were related to weaknesses of government institutions, including lack of funds and specialized staff, and overlapping government responsibilities.

The most common conflicts mentioned by government officials in Uganda, and the second most common in Peru, involved governance by communities or forest management groups. In Indonesia, the main problems were related to land boundary disputes and concessions and activity by private companies. Unclear or overlapping boundaries were also mentioned as an important source of contention in Peru and Uganda.

Villagers had a slightly different perspective. When asked about conflicts in which they were involved, the most common response in all three countries was boundary disputes.

Granting title to a community does not necessarily end disputes over land and resources

 Anne Larson

In Indonesia and Uganda, villagers reported that most conflicts were with other community members or family members.

In Peru, in contrast, the largest proportion of conflicts involved people outside the community. People surveyed in Peru believed the reform itself had caused new conflict- sometimes because of boundary disputes, other times because land traditionally used by communities was given to outsiders, and in other cases because of problems with the governance board established by the community. Evidence of new conflict is not a reason to avoid reforms, of course, but it is a reason to do them better.

Government officials sometimes felt that communities should be responsible for solving their own problems, but that is difficult when the conflicts involve people outside the community, Larson says.

The study points to the need for legislation to address conflict management, giving a leading role to local authorities or customary leaders, but also establishing a clear mandate for government officials, she says.

“The state has the responsibility to defend the community titles it grants,” Larson says.

“It’s not enough just to create a mechanism for conflict management,” she cautions. “It is important to accept that conflict is an inherent part of these processes, and that governments must work with communities to identify the most appropriate mechanisms to be implemented.”

Authorities must also recognize that conflicts may arise not only during the titling process, but after it has been completed, Larson adds.

“It’s very important that communities have the autonomy to address conflict in the way they consider appropriate,” she says, “but when conflicts go beyond their borders, the state needs to accept that granting title is accompanied by the responsibility to defend those rights.”


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