The road that snakes past stalls piled with bananas, charcoal and dried fish through Fengolo village in western Côte d’Ivoire looks peaceful.
But it marks an invisible front-line in battles over land, ethnicity and origin that tore this West African state apart during a short but divisive 2002 to 2003 civil war.
As the world’s top cocoa grower moves falteringly towards presidential elections, scheduled for November 30 but likely to be delayed, old wounds over land disputes still fester, especially in the western reaches near the border with Liberia.
Elders from Fengolo’s rival communities — the local Guere and ”outsiders” both foreign and Ivorian who live on opposite sides of the red-earth road — talk to visitors about living in harmony in the spirit of a 2007 peace deal between President Laurent Gbagbo and his erstwhile northern rebel foes.
But fear, mistrust and memories of violence are still raw.
”We are not living in calm,” said Victor Kponde, the chief of Fengolo’s Guere people, who come from the west of the former French colony. ”They have taken our land by force for coffee and cocoa. Our people cannot go to the fields.”
The ”they” Kponde speaks of are his neighbours, known as ”allogenes” [outsiders], a French term used in Côte d’Ivoire to describe foreigners and Ivorians who are not from the area.
Kponde says the allogenes seized the land when his people fled during the war and have farmed it since.
The question of land ownership in Africa has become more pertinent as foreign investors tap a global need for food and energy security by investing in land and agricultural or biofuel projects in the developing world.
Côte d’Ivoire is growing oil-rich jatropha plants and plans to make biofuels at home. Some cocoa and coffee farmers are growing jatropha on previously unused land, selling the seeds to Indian and Chinese buyers.
This new investment scramble could be hampered by land disputes, especially in places where deeds and proofs of tenure may have been destroyed or simply never existed.
Such disputes can quickly escalate when injected with politics, as seen in Kenya this year where post-election violence aggravated long-standing land rivalries.
Who owns what?
For decades, migrant workers flocked to Côte d’Ivoire from poor, landlocked neighbours like Burkina Faso and Mali. They worked peacefully alongside their Ivorian hosts, transforming the fertile land into a booming agriculture-based economy.
Trouble started in the late 1980s, when the price of commodities plummeted and triggered a recession. This created tensions as politicians attempted to discriminate between Ivorians and perceived ”outsiders” by restricting the latter’s rights to vote or to possess or have access to land.
These tensions finally exploded in civil war.
In the ethnically mixed tinderbox of west Côte d’Ivoire, a key cocoa-producing region, places like Fengolo saw some of the worst violence: houses were burnt, people were butchered in the bush and thousands were forced from their homes.
Despite the peace deal, sensitivity over land is still high, and people fear the hidden presence of pro-government militiamen who have yet to be disarmed.
”If they don’t touch our farms, there won’t be any problems,” said Issa Ouattara, a spokesperson for the ”allogenes”, squatting outside his hut across the road from the Guere homes.
He denies his people pose any threat to the Guere, but warns: ”We will resist. We will stay on our plantations. The next generation will not be pushed out”.
As many of an estimated 700 000 Ivorians displaced by war gradually return home, analysts warn of the risk of more conflict.
A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said some Ivorian politicians were taking advantage of the administrative chaos to grab huge tracts of land once farmed by immigrants from Burkina Faso for commercial operations like rubber plantations.
”If the problem of the land is not resolved, there will always be conflict between the populations, not just with the foreigners but also between Ivorians,” said Martin Adanke, the Catholic bishop of Duekoue, just a few km from Fengolo.
Adanke says proving ownership could help, not least by preventing people from selling land several times over.
In September, the government launched a new drive to demarcate rural land and ensure that those who owned or rented land could be provided with the necessary documents.
Several World Bank- and European Union-funded projects costing millions of dollars each have so far managed to demarcate just 1% of village land — land that is in or near a village and farmed by people from that village.
With just 26 experts involved, marking out the remaining 23-million hectares will take some time.
Côte d’Ivoire’s land issues took centre stage during the civil war but there had already been decades of low-level conflict.
President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the country’s first head of state after independence in 1960, owed much of his success in building the ”Ivorian [economic] miracle” to liberal policies that gave land ownership to ”those who worked it”.
These structures crumbled after his death in 1993 and during the economic slump of that decade.
Subsequent leaders introduced a divisive concept of ”Ivoirite”, which decreed that true Ivorian citizens had to be born of Ivorian parents from the country’s indigenous, ethnic groups.
In part used to exclude political opponents, ”Ivoirite” gave rise to widespread persecution of Ivorians of foreign origin and, in the west, was used to drive people off the land.
The land initiative is meant to help resolve some of the bitterness resulting from these years of political turmoil.
But in Fengolo, few have heard of the government project.
And some, like Kevin Klao, a Guere who recently returned to Fengolo after his father died, are taking matters into their own hands, saying they can strike win-win deals with the allogenes.
Rather than sell the land, like previous generations, Klao has made a deal with a farmer from Burkina Faso who will work his land for four years, keeping half of the proceeds.
When the contract runs out, the land returns to the Ivorian and they can start again, says Klao.
Not all are convinced such pragmatism will prevail, especially given tensions surrounding the November vote, which is threatened by chronic delays in crucial pre-poll programmes to disarm northern rebels and pro-government militia.
”If we head towards elections in these conditions, the government that comes in will have trouble ensuring peace because the problem will not have been resolved and the conflicts will remain,” Bishop Adanke said. – Reuters