Mathijs van Leeuwen wegkijkend
Mathijs van Leeuwen wegkijkend

Development organisations in peacebuilding: don't stare blindly at land registration

He worked for several development organisations in East Africa and Latin America, conducted PhD research in Sudan, Burundi, and Guatemala, and lived and worked in Uganda. Mathijs van Leeuwen is a professor of conflict and peacebuilding at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM) and researches the role of land conflict and land reform in developing countries during peacebuilding. ‘Be careful with expectations of land registration as the key to peacebuilding. Keep an eye on the deeper roots of violent conflicts.’

You are a development sociologist specialising in conflict and peacebuilding in developing countries. So what exactly do you do?

‘I do research on the dynamics of conflict and peacebuilding, particularly around farmland in the African Great Lakes region. I examine how local conflicts are linked to larger political conflicts, and in what ways peacebuilding - measures to prevent a country from entering, remaining in, or regressing from a conflict situation - affects the relationship between citizens and local governments. In doing so, I regularly look at underlying assumptions that humanitarian, peace, and development organizations have in their interventions in conflict zones.’

Your research regularly focuses on land registration as one such intervention by development agencies. What exactly does land registration entail?

‘Land registration is literally registering pieces of land. Here in the Netherlands, we have a professional working system for that; the Land Registry. Things are different in African countries, where many people were once granted land by customary law by local rulers. Most of this land is therefore not registered with the government. The idea is often that a lack of recognition of rights by the government is a major source of uncertainty about the ownership of a piece of land, and that you can solve this by registering land.’

Portret Mathijs van Leeuwen

How important is it for people to have security of land ownership?

‘You have to imagine that for many people in a country like Burundi or eastern Congo, the only way to earn an income is to put a shovel in the ground and try to harvest crops. For sub-Saharan residents, having a piece of land is the main source of livelihood and therefore a big part of their identity. Land touches directly on their livelihood security and is therefore incredibly important.’

In your research on sustainable peace in Congo and Burundi, you say development workers are too focused on land registration as a successful intervention for peace and security. How is that?

‘What we see is that policymakers and development workers have come to see land registration as crucial for security over agricultural land and thus as a key dimension for peace and security. Knowing exactly who owns which piece of land would lead to more investment, land security, less conflict, and more rights for women and minorities. My research shows that this is not self-evident. The moment you register land in a conflict-affected society, land conflicts increase; by formalizing informal agreements on land use, underlying ambiguities and conflicts resurface. Besides: land registration is difficult anyway because in practice it is often used by many different people. How do you register that fairly? Straightforward procedures and systems for land registration are often devised, but practice is more difficult. So we say clearly to development practitioners: be careful with assumptions about land registration. The high expectations out there are only realized in a very limited number of cases.’

You call for more attention to the deeper roots of violent conflict. What do you mean by that?

‘Many countries I research have a long history of war and conflict. In 1972, there was a massive flow of refugees from Burundi to Tanzania. People did not dare to go back for a long time. Thirty years later, there was a peace agreement; refugees were invited back to Burundi. Meanwhile, the government had redistributed the land among the population left behind. This raised difficult issues. What to do with all those returnees? And with the people who are now lawfully on their land? In Burundi, popular protests about the returnees contributed to the civil war. So land and land registration is complex and not just a technical matter, but touches on the causes of large-scale violent conflict. Development workers must keep asking themselves how to look at conflict and try to understand the perspective of others in it. A message I also give my students here in the Netherlands, by the way: be careful not to see 'conflict' as something exotic, which mainly affects countries in the so-called 'global south'. Every society has to deal with conflict and has to find ways to deal with it peacefully, and that is not always easy, not even in the Netherlands.’

On Friday 8 December 2023, Professor of Conflict and Peacebuilding Mathijs van Leeuwen delivered his inaugural address. In it, he addressed, among other things, the so-called 'local turn' in peacebuilding. Read his in augural address here:

Photos: Duncan de Fey

Text: Annette Zonnenberg

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International, Politics