Land, power and identity: Roots of violent conflict in eastern DRC

This study examines access to, use of and management of land and its links with the root causes of conflict in the two Kivu provinces and Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The study’s aim is to identify key gaps in the international community’s understanding of land issues in eastern DRC, as well as gaps in the kinds of interventions that are being conducted at the current time (2009-2010).

In the DRC, as in other countries, customary, informal and statutory land-tenure systems ‘overlap’ geographically, in the sense that a certain parcel of land might be claimed by different actors under different systems. Individuals and sometimes communities may claim land through a variety of systems simultaneously, resulting in confusion and dispute.

Eastern DRC encompasses a vast area and huge diversity in terms of geography, forms of local governance, ethnic composition and other aspects. However, while acknowledging this diversity, it is useful to identify two sets of dichotomies, or ‘opposites’, which are of great significance across much of eastern DRC: the dual system of land access (customary and statutory) and the conceptual contrast between ethnic groups which are ‘local’ or ‘indigenous’ to a particular area, and those which are seen as ‘migrants’ or ‘foreigners’.

The weakness of the statutory land law, as well as widespread corruption, has led to massive alienation of land held under custom. Customary leaders, who traditionally held the land ‘in the name of their community’, have essentially privatised community properties, pocketing the proceeds from alienated land which has been sold to wealthy and powerful individuals or foreign and Congolese companies.

In the DRC, political representation at the local level is linked directly to ‘ethnic territories’. There is therefore a structural link between claims to land ownership by ethnic communities, and claims to political autonomy and power. Communities that have lacked local representation have long made claims to land ownership in order to have their own chiefs, and these claims have often been resisted by neighbouring communities. The result in many areas, particularly the east, has been violence.