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Africa's continental divide: land disputes

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Africa's most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn't sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa's other ills will be easier to treat.

In communities across the continent, that hypothesis is bearing out. Rwanda is giving women the right to hold property. Botswana is experimenting with community-based land negotiations. Malawi is brokering a delicate land redistribution.

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