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Africa's continental divide: land disputes

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Certainly fixing Africa's broken land system means the most to the farming families who depend on the soil for their survival. But with land security comes stability, and with stability, Africa has the potential to ease poverty, grow economically, and exploit its unmatched natural resources – from oil off the western coast to minerals in the central mountains.

The end of land conflict might just mark the ascent of Africa.

It's too much to say that land is the cause of all of Africa's wars. But on a continent where villages are impoverished and cities are strained, "it's at the core of almost everything," says Robin Nielsen, a lawyer with the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute (RDI). "Land is the means for livelihood. It's power; it's status; it's security. It's the most powerful asset people have."

Or, as the district council of rural Kailahun Province in Sierra Leone puts it, "The soil is our bank."

A good way to understand the roots of Africa's land dilemma is to drive through rural Sierra Leone or Liberia. Cratered dirt roads cut through what feels like limitless, untouched land: Stately palm trees and skinny rubber trees sway over miles of tall, tangled grasses. Along the road, people walk with the day's laundry or firewood on their heads – moving, one assumes, from the cluster of mud huts that make up the village just behind to the cluster just ahead. But to the left and right of the road is what the colonists called "virgin forest."

It isn't, of course. And even a stranger should know better: A husky, sharp scent wafts over the road, like burning buttery popcorn: someone deep in the forest is making palm-kernel oil. Or, just a 100-foot trudge off the road, through shoulder-high elephant grass, the sounds of what's hidden can be heard: Rice farmers splash through swampland as they harvest; cassava growers sing to themselves as they slash through last year's tangled weeds readying the ground for this year's crop. Deep in the woods that seem wild and untouched to outsiders, people live and work as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years.

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