Addressing land conflict and developing land governance in urban eastern DRC

Below is an excerpt of a working paper based on our research project, Sharing the Land.

In 1885, King Leopold of Belgium declared all “vacant land” in DR Congo as the property of the Congo Free State without considering the complex ways Congolese used and conceptualized land at that time.[1] In so doing, Kind Leopold catalyzed two systems of land management in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): one system administered by the colonial authorities and the other established through the practices of local authorities, usually mediated through customary chiefs. Additionally, between 1928 and 1956, the Belgians forcefully relocated Rwandans to North Kivu in order to provide labor for European-owned projects.[2] These two colonial land interventions set the foundation for land conflict in modern DRC.

Since the 1930s land has been an important source of antagonisms, violence and insecurity, as well as an impediment for commerce in eastern DRC. Today, according to Koen Vlassenroot, land conflict in eastern Congo remains complex with multiple causes: the persistence of different (and sometimes competing) legal and governance systems for dealing with land; feeble land laws; competition over land between indigenous and migrant communities; the lack of fertile land for agriculture and animal husbandry in densely populated areas; the ineffective performance of governmental and judicial systems in negotiating existing land conflicts; the dynamic of displacement and return among vulnerable populations due to violence; the proliferation of artisanal mining; and growing competition and consolidation of land holdings by elites.[3]

In Beni, according to the mayor’s office and local lawyers association, it’s estimated that 80% of court cases concern conflicts over land. Additionally, as of April 2015, Civil Society claims that there are 120 cases of land conflict in Beni town. Based on our focus-group research, community leaders believe that agents of the specialized land management services of the state—the cadastral service and the Registration of Land Titles office (CTI in French)—are the primary drivers of land conflict in Beni.

Our research found 29 instances of land conflict in Masiani neighborhood, one of Beni’s thirty neighborhoods: 10 cases involved parcels of land being sold to multiple buyers; 9 concerned unlawful increases of the purchase price of land and illegal land seizures by powerful local elites; 5 conflicts related to boundary disputes; 4 cases concerned inheritance laws and 1 claimed to be unlawfully evicted.

These conflicts also resulted in social strife, vandalism and violence. According to 115 landowners, tenants and squatters living in Masiani, 27% claim they experienced the deterioration of social relations; 11% of respondents report experiencing property damage; 9% reported killings related to the land conflict; 4% reported abductions related to land dispute; 3% of people say they were physically injured in a land dispute; 2% reported theft of goods related to the land conflict and 2% violent eviction.

And our research anticipates future land conflict as only 3.5% of households surveyed possessed all the documents needed to fully prove land ownership. While 22% of respondents had a bill of sale for their plot, only 6% of all respondents had registration certificates granted by the CTI and 1% had the appropriate receipts provided at the commune level. Moreover, our surveys demonstrate that most respondents could not correctly identify all of the different steps required to obtain all of the paperwork issued by the DRC government and secure their land.

Some scholars have wrongly argued that DRC is a failed state or non-state. Instead, DRC represents a weak, defective state, as Jason Stearns argues: DRC is “a state that is everywhere and oppressive but that is defunct and dysfunctional.”[4] This is an apt description of DRC’s land administration in Beni as well. Our focus-group research exposed several factors driving land conflict in Beni: weak land law and poor sensitization of the public about inheritance laws; corruption by state and customary land authorities; deficient expertise in land administration and ineffective training for technicians and land surveyors. What’s more, Beni’s specialized land services are mired in a bureaucracy marked by lack of accountability and transparency.

Grassroots interventions are essential in addressing DRC’s dysfunctional land management systems and preventing future land conflict in eastern DRC. Bottom-up interventions interrupt the normal practices of debilitated government structures by inviting these offices to integrate new systems to enhance their capacity and legitimacy. After gaining currency at the local level, these interventions have the ability to change the practices and policies of the provincial and central government.

[1] David Van Reybrouck. Congo: the Epic History of a People. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publisher, 2014.

[2] Jason Stearns, “North Kivu: The Background to Conflict in North Kivu Province in eastern Congo.” London: Rift Valley Institute, 2012.

[3] Koen Vlassenroot, “Land, power and identity in the DRC seminar.” Life & Peace Institute. Published: 28 April, 2015. Accessed:

[4] Jasons Stearns. Dancing in the glory of monsters: the collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. Kindle Edition. New York: Public Affairs, 2011, location 2384.

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