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Africa's continental divide: land disputes

African land reform, plot by plot, may be the foundation for solving so much else – from famine to poverty to genocide.

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Pastureland encroaches on farm plots in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo where cattle herders have fought farmers in land disputes.

Julien Harneis

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The specialists know the warning signs. Analysts and scientists and field officers and academics spend years writing white papers, issuing reports and holding conferences, trying to provoke interest in issues that often seem arcane. Please, they have urged governments and the United Nations and activists, think about something that sounds boring – land disputes – before it turns into something that is not – war.

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.

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