(Abidjan) – At least hundreds of people who fled violence in western Côte d’Ivoire during the country’s 2010-2011 post-election crisis have returned to find that their land has been illegally taken over, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many people throughout western Côte d’Ivoire have been unable to access their land – on which they grow food and cash crops like cocoa and coffee – for more than two years, leading to rising communal tensions and humanitarian concerns.
The 111-page report, “‘That Land Is My Family’s Wealth’: Addressing Land Dispossession after Côte d’Ivoire’s Post-Election Conflict,” details the grave economic consequences of land dispossession and the resulting risk for inter-communal violence in western Côte d’Ivoire. The report calls on the Ivorian government to take swift and effective action to resolve fairly all claims of land dispossession and to help people register their property.
“Land conflict is at the heart of Côte d’Ivoire’s decade of grave human rights abuses,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the Ivorian government is serious about ending the recurring violence in the western part of the country, getting people back on their land should be a top priority.”
The report is based primarily on research in February and June 2013 in 49 villages in western Côte d’Ivoire, covering the administrative regions of Guémon, Cavally, and Tonkpi. In December 2012, Human Rights Watch also conducted research among Ivorian refugees in Liberia. Human Rights Watch conducted more than 230 interviews, including 117 with victims of displacement-related land dispossession.
When former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down despite internationally recognized results proclaiming his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, the victor in the November 2010 elections, it sparked almost six months of violence. At least 3,000 people were killed. Some of the worst atrocities committed by armed forces on both sides were in the western part of the country.
Members of the Guéré ethnic group, which is considered native to much of far western Côte d’Ivoire and tended to support Gbagbo, fled their villages as pro-Ouattara forces advanced toward Abidjan. After returning home from months or even years of displacement, many Guérés found that their land had been overrun by people from ethnic or immigrant groups who are considered not native to the region and typically support the current government.
The victims described the devastating consequences that land dispossession has on their livelihoods, access to food, and even identity. Land that people used before the crisis to grow food or cash crops has been taken over, leading to a “poverty that we don’t even know how to describe,” in the words of one Guéré victim. Illegal occupants are chopping down virgin forest that people planned to leave to future generations, posing an existential threat in the eyes of many dispossessed people.
A Guéré who has struggled for 18 months to recover land sold illegally before he was able to return said: “What’s happening angers us a lot, as the land is our inheritance…. For now, we’re avoiding making war against the [illegal sellers and buyers]. But if we lose our inheritance, what are we going to eat, how will we stay in the village? Things could quickly fall apart.”
Most cases of land dispossession Human Rights Watch documented were rooted in illegal land sales. When Guérés were displaced during the conflict, other Guérés from neighboring villages or even the same family pretended they were the owners and sold the land, most often to migrants from neighboring Burkina Faso. While some Burkinabé buyers purchased in good faith, others were complicit – clandestinely buying large parcels of land from young Guérés whose ownership claim would be questioned by any reasonable person.
In a minority of cases, land dispossession has been more hostile. Some non-natives refuse to honor previous rent agreements, no longer splitting profits from a cocoa or coffee harvest with the Guéré landowner. Other non-natives enlarged their landholdings while Guéré owners were displaced, extending past what they had purchased, at times even onto a neighbor’s land. Finally, near the Goin-Débé protected forest south of Bloléquin, Human Rights Watch documented four cases in which groups of Burkinabés seized by force large areas of a landowner’s forest, claiming, all four victims said, to have been former pro-Ouattara fighters.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a government policy supporting land dispossession after the crisis, nor evidence – despite allegations from Gbagbo supporters – that the Ivorian military is implicated in the dispossession of village land. However, the Ouattara government has not met its responsibilities under international law to protect property rights. People who have been displaced also have the right to restitution for “any housing, land and/or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived,” as outlined under the UN Pinheiro Principles.
Human Rights Watch documented direct links between several cross-border attacks from Liberia and land dispossession associated with the crisis. Assailants killed at least nine civilians during two attacks on border villages in March, targeting individuals and groups associated with allegedly illegal land sales. Ivorian refugees and humanitarian officials in Liberia also cited land dispossession as one of the main reasons why 58,000 Ivorians remain in Liberia.
The chief of a village between Guiglo and Bloléquin told Human Rights Watch that about 40 percent of his village’s Guéré population remained in Liberia: “There are [refugees] in Liberia who when they return, there won’t even be a single hectare of their land left to cultivate. They’ll find their forest completely occupied, and they won’t be able to eat. That’s how violence starts.”
Land dispossession after the post-election crisis should be seen within the broader context of land conflict in western Côte d’Ivoire. During the country’s 2002-2003 armed conflict, pro-Gbagbo forces and some Guérés forcibly displaced non-native populations, targeting Burkinabé and Malian immigrants in particular. Many of these non-natives – who had often lived and worked in western Côte d’Ivoire for decades, if not their entire lives – were unable to return to their land for up to five years. Some Guérés refused to give back all the land that non-natives had previously purchased or been ceded, or demanded payment to return the land. Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which, after the post-election crisis, Burkinabés took back land that a Guéré had wrongfully seized after the 2002-2003 conflict.
The failure of the Gbagbo government to protect property rights after the 2002-2003 conflict helped lay the foundation for the heinous violence during the post-election crisis. The Ouattara government should not repeat the same mistakes, Human Rights Watch said.
Village and administrative authorities in western Côte d’Ivoire are inundated with land disputes, including at least hundreds associated with the post-election crisis. These authorities told Human Rights Watch that they had received no financial assistance from the national government, crippling their ability to resolve restitution claims effectively and in a timely manner. As a result, some of the local authorities demand exorbitant costs to accept complaints or to investigate claims. Many people whose homes were burned during the crisis and who have returned to find their land, the main source of income, occupied have been unable to pay these fees.
Another problem is the lack of village and individual property boundary lines in Côte d’Ivoire. Successive Ivorian governments have made almost no progress in demarcating village boundaries, making it easier for people to sell land in a neighboring village fraudulently.
The Ivorian government should ensure the prompt and fair resolution of land restitution claims, including with improved support to enable administrative and judicial authorities to respond quickly, effectively, and independently.
The government should also, as a matter of priority, establish village and individual boundary lines. Donor governments could play a crucial role in assisting the Ouattara government both financially and technically in its efforts to draw village boundaries and to reduce costs associated with registering individual property, Human Rights Watch said.
In a letter response to Human Rights Watch’s findings, the Ivorian government said it “shared with [Human Rights Watch] the concern for ensuring restitution for those who were unjustly deprived of their land as a result of their displacement or any other cause.” The government also promised to financially support village and sub-prefectural land committees involved in resolving land disputes and to soon start the process of demarcating village boundaries.
In August, the Ivorian government passed minor reforms to the country’s nationality and rural land laws, recognizing that the two issues have been deeply linked to the country’s decade-long descent into serious human rights abuses.
“The Ouattara government has made important commitments and taken preliminary steps toward addressing problems related to rural land ownership,” Wells said. “It needs to follow through quickly and resolutely. These efforts will help determine whether land remains a spark for conflict or becomes a source of local development that alleviates inter-communal tensions.”