Wars often involve land, said Jon Unruh, Associate Professor of Human Geography and International Development at McGill University. In fact, according to the United Nations War-torn Societies Project, in 40 percent of postconflict countries clashes eventually resume, and land is the leading cause.
There are numerous reasons for land-related conflicts. Groups may struggle for control of lands with high-value resources, such as diamonds, timber, minerals, or cash crops. The identity of individuals, tribes, or factions may be attached to land. Wars may involve forced dislocation, land confiscations, or legalized evictions. Deeply held grievances that are not resolved by a peace accord may be related to land issues. Displaced people may return to areas that are occupied by others, endangered by land mines, or agriculturally damaged. Returnees may have little ability to prove their claims to land, and opportunists may make claims with little justification.
Land tenure in crisis situations is very different than in stable settings, Unruh said, as are solutions. What may work well in stable, peaceful settings can be very difficult to implement and enforce in societies recovering from war. People may lack fair access to courts or knowledge of the law and their legal options. People may pursue their land rights in aggressive or confrontational ways. These and other factors can lead to a buildup of competition, inequity, grievance, resentment, animosity, and violence.
Informal and Formal Legal Systems
A major problem, said Unruh, is that countries beset by conflict often do not have legitimate and fair ways of managing disputes through their legal systems. After a war, the state may not be trusted because it took one side during the conflict. Institutions may have collapsed, including the judicial system. Deeds, titles, and records are vulnerable to destruction, disorganization, looting, and fraud.
In such cases, informal or customary land rights may conflict with other forms of land tenure. Without a way to be legally validated, the customary tenure may degrade, collapse, or be abusively manipulated in a crisis situation. It then becomes a major challenge to establish, reestablish, secure, defend, prove, or confront claims to property, land, or territory, often in parallel with the splintering of society into postwar communities bound by factors such as dislocation, identity, ethnicity, or religion.