Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Property Rights and Conflict in Rwanda

My former boss, Karol Boudreaux:
Some critics have argued that one of the main driving forces behind Rwanda's 1994 genocide was extensive conflict over land (Jared Diamond is one example, in his book Collapse). Rwanda is extremely densely populated and very poor. As families in Rwanda grew, children had less and less land to farm. Because 90% of the country was involved in agriculture (and still is) this made it exceptionally difficult for people to sustain themselves by farming. So, to put things bluntly, people might have engaged in violence during the genocide in order to get access to scarce land held by their neighbors (I take issue with this interpretation here).

The role land conflict played in the Rwandan genocide is debatable. Less debatable is the importance of property reform after conflicts. In fact, one of the most important policy reforms a post-conflict government can undertake is to try to clarify rights to land: rights to own, use, inherit, and dispose of land. In Rwanda, the government has owned most of the land for the past century (both colonial governments and post-independence governments). Now, the country is trying to move towards a policy of creating clearer, more individualized rights to land. This is a contentious, problematic process generally and will be in Rwanda also given how many people moved around, into, and out of the country between 1959 and 1994.

This week, the Rwandan government launched a program, funded by the British government, to create a database that clarifies who has rights to which land. There are so many metaphorical landmines involved in a project like this but hopefully, it will help accomplish several worthwhile goals: (a) clarify rights (b) encourage the development of a more formalized land market and (c) increase incentives for investment and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, a poorly executed project will entrench elites, limit the ability of women to use and protect land, and exacerbate conflict. Only time will tell.

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