BURUNDI: Fighting for land

Monday, October 6, 2008

Thousands of Burundians have returned home after years of refugee life in Tanzania, but finding shelter and enough land to farm remains a challenge.

"Fifteen percent of long-term returnees repatriated this year are landless," said Léon Ndikunkiko, spokesman for the Ministry of National Solidarity, National Reconstruction, Human Rights and Gender.

In mid-August, some 1,200 returnees were stranded in Makamba Province, waiting to be resettled. By October, only 200 had been resettled in Gitara by the government, while the others were still waiting in temporary sites, according to Ndikunkiko.

About 450,000 Burundians have been repatriated from Tanzania with the help of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), since 2002. This year, the numbers increased after the Tanzanian government decided to close the camps by December.

By mid-September, some 75,000 had returned to Burundi, including 17,392 long-term refugees. While some had been away since 1972, others had never seen their homeland, having been born in exile or left as children.

Many, however, have come back to find their houses destroyed or occupied by other people.

"Local administration officials have been instructed to allocate [returnees] a 50m x 50m space to build a house regardless of the availability of his [or her] land," Ndikunkiko. "However, this is not always the case since those who stayed on the land sometimes refuse."

Finding land to resettle the returnees is a big concern for the government. "The Ministry of Land Management has to identify the land and puts it at the disposal of the Ministry of National Solidarity," he explained. "It is a long process which takes time and this delays the resettlement of returnees."

A survey conducted by the National Land Commission in December to identify available land or land belonging to the state in the hands of individuals, found that just 4,500 people, mostly returnees, had been resettled.

In situations where they have somewhere to go, the returnees are being offered building materials - although there are often delays depending on the period of repatriation. For example, returnees arriving in October have to wait until June to benefit from the shelter project.

As they wait, the returnees rely on relatives. Others are supported by UNHCR, which constructs temporary shelters for them.

Land disputes

While efforts are being made to address the problem of shelter, land remains a crucial challenge. "Even those who have their land are not resettled immediately," Ndikunkiko said. Land, he added, had become too scarce to accommodate Burundi's increasing population.

Frequent land disputes were now the reason for crime. Local radio stations reported on 23 August that a man blasted a grenade at a wedding ceremony, killing 15 people and injuring more than 60.

On 29 September, a grenade was thrown through a window of a house in the northern Ngozi Province, killing a man and his wife, leaving a baby. Preliminary investigations blamed land disputes.
Michel Nintije, a sociologist who was part of a team that conducted a study on land tenure and alternative solutions in September, has suggested that Burundi prepare a nationwide programme of sensitisation on the land issue.

Nestor Niyonkuru, information officer at the national commission on land and other properties (CNTB), said many of the disputes involved returnees and current occupants of the land.

CNTB was set up in 2006 to assist returnees and other landless people recover their land or other lost properties. As at 4 October, it had registered 11,200 land disputes and solved 2,279.

The government, in an attempt to cater for landless returnees, internally displaced persons and other vulnerable people, has also embarked on building villages in some provinces, each housing 250 families.

However, much more needs to be done. According to UNHCR, 80 percent of returnees have no access to land. Worse still, most of them come from the provinces of Makamba, Rutana and Bururi where pressure on land is high.

For its part, the government pleads inadequate resources for full resettlement and reintegration of the returnees.

"If you resettle the returnees and they have no water, no health-centre nearby, it is not viable," Ndikunkiko said.