DRC: Addressing land disputes through decentralization and mediation (Syfia Grands Lacs, IRIN)

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Land disputes are common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, commonly known as DRC.  Under the 1973 Land Act, the state owns all land. But most land in DRC is allocated by chiefs, who administer it under customary law.

In DRC, the power of traditional chiefs over land is recognized legally. Chiefs have the right to sell land without the consent of the owner. That’s what happened to a farmer in Lubero, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I come from an appearance at the High Court of Butembo. I came to solve the problem of my field that our chief has sold. But the chief simply replied to the judge that he had to leave him alone because he is old and waiting for his death. The judge was left with no choice but to leave my field in the hands of the buyer.” These kinds of disputes arise every week.

In the villages near Butembo in North Kivu province, people hope that the new policy of decentralization will help settle land disputes. Decentralization will mean that chiefs no longer have influence over land.

Mr. Gilbert Kyatsinge is a Legal Adviser in the Ministry of Decentralization and Regional Planning. He says that “… laws will soon clarify the situation. Decentralization will perhaps help us to end this system which is neither customary nor administrative.” He states that decentralization is already underway, but it may be some time before it is effective at the local level.

Chiefs see decentralization as simply a way to steal their land. Jacques Mukosasenge represents the chiefs of Bamat. He says that for them, “Decentralization is an attempt to end their customary courts, which were recognized by the Congolese constitution.” But the new legal status of traditional leaders in relation to the government has yet to be clarified by parliament.

This complex situation awaits the tens of thousands of Congolese Tutsi refugees who are preparing to return to North Kivu.  More than 53,000 refugees have been living in Rwanda for more than a decade.

“Land issues are going to be one of the major hurdles to [their] return,” says Masti Notz, from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in North Kivu. Almost 800,000 people are internally displaced in this province. Continuing ethnic and political tensions further complicate the situation for returning refugees.

Dieudonne Kanyamugengu, from Rutshuru district, came back from Rwanda with his brother and his cows. He says he came in search of “food and peace.” He returned to his village, but fought with his Hutu neighbours over land. “I’m not safe there,” he says. The brothers  returned to a camp for the internally displaced.

Jules Mbokani coordinates a Norwegian Refugee Council project in DRC. He has received many reports of returnees in limbo. “People have been returning since September 2009 but many haven’t arrived back in their original villages, because of conflicts over land and security.”

Analysts say that other mechanisms are needed to  address land disputes. For example, UN-HABITAT, the UN Human Settlements Programme, thinks mobile land mediation teams are one solution. These teams would assist refugees and internally displaced persons. Since September 2009, a team of six mediators has dealt with 450 cases in North Kivu alone – about 20 per cent of which have been resolved. Camilla Olson works with the organization Refugees International. She says, “If we can be proactive, we can set the stage for positive returns.”