When Pierre Gahungu thinks about the small farm in the Burundian hills where he grew up and started a family, he remembers the soil—rich and red, perfect for growing beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas. He used to bend over and scoop up a handful of the earth just to savor its moist feel. To Gahungu, now in his 70s, the farm was everything: his home, his livelihood, and his hope. After he was gone, he had always believed, the land would sustain his eventual heirs.
But then, in an instant, his dreams were thrown into jeopardy. On a dusky evening in 1984, Gahungu was walking home when he heard a noise behind him. He turned and found himself face to face with Alphonse, the son of a cousin. For months, Alphonse had been begging Gahungu, whom he called “uncle,” for a portion of the farm. Alphonse’s polygamous father had many sons—more than 20, Gahungu says—which meant each one would get just a tiny plot of his land. (In Burundi, generally only men may inherit property.) Alphonse wanted more space, a rapidly shrinking commodity, on which to build a house and a life. Gahungu had a much smaller family—ultimately, he and his wife would have three children, but only one boy, named Lionel—so he had plenty of land to share, Alphonse reasoned. Why shouldn’t he get a piece of it? Gahungu, however, had refused repeatedly. When he saw Alphonse that night on the road, he assumed they were in for another round of the same exhausting refrain.
Alphonse, however, had not come to talk. Without saying a word, he raised a machete and brought it down onto his uncle’s skull. Gahungu remembers feeling a flash of pain and hearing a bone crunch before everything went black.
“I was terrified,” Gahungu says through an interpreter. He woke up wounded and later saw a doctor. He began recovering from his injury, but he feared that his farm would never be safe in his hands. Gahungu decided that if Alphonse couldn’t kill him, the land’s legal owner, his son’s inheritance would be safe. So he left his family behind and moved alone to the nearby city of Muramvya, where he worked at a tailoring shop downtown.
Before long, more problems arose, but not with Alphonse (who, Gahungu says, died in a car accident). One of Alphonse’s brothers built two houses on Gahungu’s land without his uncle’s permission. In 1991, on the eve of a brutal, 12-year civil war that pitted Burundi’s two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, against one another, Gahungu took the man to a local court, which ruled in the owner’s favor. But winning the legal battle did nothing to change Gahungu’s situation: To this day, he says, Alphonse’s brother, the brother’s family, and the two houses illegally occupy his farm.
Gahungu has tried to go back to Burundi’s backlogged courts for help, but he doesn’t have the money to pay for a case. Tragedy, too, has continued to follow him: Lionel died at just 19. As his own life draws toward an inevitable end, Gahungu lives alone in Muramvya. He now fears he will die before ever getting his beloved land back. “It was the perfect farm because it was my farm,” Gahungu recalls. “It was my whole life.”
Gahungu’s experience mirrors other stories familiar to Burundi for decades—stories that are multiplying and worsening as the country copes with a veritable explosion of people. At 10,745 square miles, Burundi is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland, but it holds nearly twice as many people: about 10 million, according to the UN Development Program, or roughly 40 percent more than a decade ago. The population growth rate is 2.5 percent per year, more than twice the average global pace, and the average Burundian woman has 6.3 children, nearly triple the international fertility rate. Moreover, roughly half a million refugees who fled the country’s 1993-2005 civil war or previous ethnic violence had come back as of late 2014. Another 7,000 are expected to arrive this year.
The vast majority of Burundians rely on subsistence farming, but under the weight of a booming population and in the long-standing absence of coherent policies governing land ownership, many people barely have enough earth to sustain themselves. Steve McDonald, who has worked on a reconciliation project in Burundi with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, estimates that in 1970 the average farm was probably between nine and twelve acres. Today, that number has shrunk to just over one acre. The consequence is remarkable scarcity: In the 2013 Global Hunger Index, Burundi had the severest hunger and malnourishment rates of all 120 countries ranked. “As the land gets chopped into smaller and smaller pieces,” McDonald says, “the pressure intensifies.”
This pressure has led many people who want land, like Alphonse years ago, to take matters into their own hands—at times violently. The United Nations estimates that roughly 85 percent of disputes pending in Burundian courts pertain to land. Between 2013 and 2014, incidents of arson and attempted murder related to land conflict rose 19 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Violence sometimes occurs within families, but it also can play out between ethnic groups: Most returning refugees are Hutu, but the land they left behind has often been purchased by Tutsis. “The land issue comes into politics when parties say, ‘I promise to return to you what is rightfully yours,’ ” says Thierry Uwamahoro, a Burundian political analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area.
Against this fragile backdrop, the Institute for Security Studies, a South African-based think tank, has warned that “attempts to politicize land management … risks reigniting ethnic tensions” before national elections scheduled for May and June. Many locals, however, fear that an even bigger disaster is looming. “The next civil war in Burundi will absolutely be over land,” says a communications consultant in Bujumbura, the capital, who works for UN agencies and asked not to be named for security reasons. “If there is no new land policy, we won’t last a decade.”
There are no easy solutions to Burundi’s mounting land crisis, but stories like Gahungu’s offer a glimpse of what might happen if this ticking time bomb is not diffused. “In the past, this situation didn’t exist,” Gahungu says, standing outside the tailoring shop where he still works, cleaning and ironing clothes. “There was land for all, but not anymore. I fled because I feared that what happened to me before could happen again. It happens to someone every day now.”
Before European colonizers arrived in Burundi, farmers cultivated the country’s arable hilltops, while less desirable, low-lying swamplands went largely unclaimed. An aristocratic class, known as the Ganwa, technically owned the land, but farmers’ access was administered at the local level by a network of “land chiefs,” many of whom were Hutu. The chiefs also resolved land conflicts, according to Timothy Longman, director of Boston University’s African Studies Center.
Under Belgian rule, which lasted from 1916 to 1962, this all began to change. The king, the head of the Ganwa, kept control of the highlands. (According to scholar Dominik Kohlhagen, the king was seen as the land’s spiritual guardian.) But the state assumed ownership of the lowlands and began to encourage their cultivation. The colonial government also concentrated political power among the Tutsi minority, which comprised about 14 percent of the population, giving the group a near monopoly on Burundi’s government, military, and economy. Among other actions, this consolidation involved gradually stripping the Hutu land chiefs of their authority. More broadly, too, it sowed the seeds of dangerous ethnic polarization.
Under colonialism, official land deeds and titles were few and far between, which meant that Burundians often could not prove that they owned acreage. In the early 1960s, as independence loomed, the government began offering land registration to parties that requested it, which, for the most part, were foreign businesses such as hotels. Families also had the option to register their land, but because the centralized system was inaccessible for most farmers and required a huge tax payment, few did. So land plots quickly fell into two categories: those with boundaries recognized by the state, and those with borders determined by custom—that is to say, residents understood trees, rocks, paths, creeks, and huts to mark de facto property lines.
The Catholic Church was among the institutions that benefited from the colonial approach to land. Missionaries, known as “White Fathers,” began arriving in the late 19th century, and over several decades, the king gave them large tracts of land, which they used to establish churches, schools, hospitals, and farms. After colonialism ended, the self-sufficiency that land provided the church helped it retain influence, even as its relationship with the newly independent government grew fraught. Most notably, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a military leader who in the mid-1970s seized Burundi’s presidency in a bloodless coup, saw the church as an extension of colonial power and a rival to his own, so he limited the hours in which congregations could gather, shut down a Catholic radio station, and used visa non-renewals and expulsions to decrease the number of missionaries in the country. Nevertheless, the church retained millions of Burundian followers, along with plenty of land, though no one, it seems, knew exactly how much.
The Catholic Church was also complicit in nurturing Burundi’s ethnic divisions; Catholic schools, for instance, were largely reserved for “elite” children, meaning Tutsis. Intensifying schisms led to various outbreaks of ethnic violence, and in 1972, the Tutsi-dominated military launched a series of pogroms targeting Hutus. More than 300,000 Hutus fled the country in under a year, leaving behind their land. Bujumbura took advantage of some of this newly vacated property and extended agricultural schemes called paysannats (derived from the French word for “peasantry”): The state leased the land to farmers, who would grow cotton, tobacco, and coffee and then sell these crops back to the government, the only legal buyer. Officials in Bujumbura hoped to boost Burundi’s weak economy by reselling the crops on the international market.
But the paysannat system failed miserably due to corruption, inefficient government bureaucracy, and variations in global commodity prices. Seeking bigger profits than they were able to get in Burundi, farmers began to smuggle their harvests over the country’s borders, and state-run agricultural buying programs floundered in the mid-1980s. Paysannats also ignored and often destroyed the physical markers that had defined traditional land boundaries. Along with the pervasive lack of legal documents showing land ownership, this made it impossible for most returning refugees to reclaim their lost acreage. (Today, the Hutus who left in 1972, some of whom have never come home or are only just doing so, are called “old-caseload” refugees.)
The government set up two commissions, in 1977 and 1991, to resolve land disputes, but they proved largely ineffective. Ethnic tensions continued to mount, coming to a head in 1993. That October, Tutsi extremists assassinated Burundi’s first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, and civil war erupted as Hutu peasants responded by murdering Tutsis. In just the first year of conflict, tens of thousands of people were killed; by the time the war ended more than a decade later, some 300,000 Burundians, most of them civilians, had died. The war also produced a new wave of roughly 687,000 refugees.
When the dust settled, the effects of mass death and displacement were exacerbated by widespread poverty, food insecurity, and a host of other post-conflict challenges, all of which persist today. In 2014, the World Bank estimated Burundi’s GDP growth rate at 4.0 percent, below the average of 4.5 percent for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The bank forecasts that this gap will only widen in 2015, with Burundi’s rate declining to 3.7 percent and the region’s climbing slightly. The issue of land, meanwhile, has become a casualty in its own right, thrown into greater flux than ever before.
Today, there are dozens of scenarios under which people claim land, and the same plot, no matter how tiny, is often the subject of competing claims. Some families still say they own acreage because of paysannat leases; seeking to make a profit, tenants have even sold their land over the years, despite the fact that it is technically state-owned. According to the International Crisis Group, some 95 percent of Burundian land still falls under customary law: A family says it purchased its farm from neighbors before the war, but holds no formal deed, while another claims village elders approved the purchase of a few acres after the war, and so on. A centralized registration system does exist, and according to the country’s land code (which was revised in 2011 for the first time since 1986), any person who owns property must hold a land certificate. The bureaucratic system, however, is complicated, and the government has done little in terms of enforcement. According to Kohlhagen, offices that issue certificates exist in only three cities, and as of 2008, only about 1 percent of the country’s surface area was registered.
Complicating matters further is the continuous flow of refugees who return home to find their land occupied by new owners. In some cases, a Hutu farmer who fled the 1972 pogroms may come back to find two other people claiming his property: whoever lived on it up until 1993, and whoever claimed it after the civil war. The last resident may have purchased the land legally, even from the government itself, and may have been paying off mortgages for decades. The question then becomes, who should get to live on the land now—and how should the claimants who can’t have it be compensated?
The government has no clear answer. “It’s tricky to say what land policy is today, because there is not a uniform dispute-resolution strategy,” says Mike Jobbins, a senior program manager at Search for Common Ground, a conflict-prevention NGO that works in Burundi. “Every case is decided on its own merits.”
The Burundian courts and bashingantahe, or traditional panels comprising senior men in villages, are empowered to settle land disputes. But while courts issue legally binding rulings, cases are time-consuming and often prohibitively expensive. The bashingantahe, meanwhile, are free, yet operate according to customary law. A third body would seem to offer a more promising option: The National Commission for Land and Property, known by its French acronym, CNTB, was established in 2006 to resolve arguments over who owns land vacated by refugees. Its 50 members are required to be 60-percent Hutu and 40-percent Tutsi, and since its creation, the CNTB has processed nearly 40,000 cases.
But the CNTB has struggled to adopt a consistent approach to its judgments. At first, its preference was to divide land between valid claimants, both past and current owners. Since 2011, however, it has begun returning land to its original owners, usually Hutu refugees displaced in 1972. In some cases, it has even revised decisions on previously closed disputes. This has led to angry claims that the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu, is trying to curry support from Burundi’s predominantly Hutu electorate.
The government did nothing to quiet these concerns when, in December 2013, it expanded the CNTB’s mandate to review cases that predate even 1972, made it a criminal offense to obstruct the commission’s actions, and allowed rulings to be appealed to a new “land court” that can issue binding decisions. This move to boost the CNTB’s power created suspicion among critics of the government that the commission’s biases would only become more firmly entrenched. “Far from uniting Burundians or reconciling them, this new law on the CNTB will divide them,” Charles Nditije, then leader of an opposition political party, told the media at the time.
Other criticisms surround the government’s failure to establish a compensation fund for people who do not win land disputes. The 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, which outlined a plan for the country’s postwar peace process, guaranteed compensation, but according to Thierry Vircoulon, the International Crisis Group’s project director for central Africa, the state seems to have “completely ignored” this detail. Some government detractors say this is a deliberate, ethnically driven decision by Nkurunziza’s administration, because many people eligible for compensation would be Tutsi.
Murky, controversial land policies have at times led to interethnic violence. In 2013, riots broke out in Bujumbura when the police tried to evict a Tutsi family from the house it had owned for 40 years in order to give the house back to its previous Hutu residents. “We are here to oppose injustice, to oppose the CNTB, which is undermining reconciliation in Burundi society,” a protester was quoted by Agence France-Presse as shouting. Over a six-hour standoff, more than a dozen people were reportedly hurt, and 20 were arrested.
Ethnic tensions, however, are only part of the puzzle in Burundi’s land crisis. Poor farming families are straining the country’s limited ground space. About two-thirds of Burundians live in poverty, and families often have several male heirs who are forced to share plots of earth that barely fit a home and a few rows of crops. As a result, according to research conducted by land-rights consultant Kelsey Jones-Casey, “[T]he most destructive conflicts experienced by rural people in Burundi are intra-family disputes, most of which manifest over the issue of inheritance.” Violence sometimes occurs within polygamous families, with sons born by different mothers fighting for finite land. In Muramvya, people speak in low voices about a woman who slit her husband’s throat to accelerate a land inheritance for her son.
Violence over land is roiling a country that already clings to an uneasy peace. Nkurunziza’s government has been accused of ordering convictions, murders, and disappearances of political adversaries, among other abuses. In January, the state claimed to have killed nearly 100 rebels who had crossed the border between Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the intention of destabilizing the country and the upcoming national elections, in which Nkurunziza is expected to seek a third term despite a constitutional limit of two. Vital Nshimirimana of the Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society in Burundi told Voice of America that officials had suggested the country’s political opposition supported the rebels: “This is what leads us to think that it might be a fake explanation to actually take advantage of the same to arrest opposition leaders or some civil society [members],” he said. A few days later, youth leader Patrick Nkurunziza (no relation to the president) was arrested for his alleged connections to the rebels; at the same time, the government sentenced opposition leader and former Vice President Frédéric Bamvuginyumvira to five years in prison for bribery.
Many Burundians fear that land could be the detail that pushes swelling political tension into something far worse. “Land is the blood and the flesh of any human being,” says Placide Hakizimana, a judge in Muramvya, who notes that 80 percent of the cases he adjudicates pertain to property disputes. “Without land, we are condemned to death. No one will accept that. [Families] will fight. We prefer to die rather than live without land.”
Policy reform may be a dead end or, at least, one that is too rife with corruption and partisan battles to ever solve the land crisis. This thinking is driving some people to focus on restricting population growth. “Family planning is the only exit point to the land problem,” says Norbert Ndihokubwayo, a member of Burundi’s parliament and president of a legislative commission on social and health issues. “No other solution is possible.”
In 2011, the government approved a national development strategy called “Vision Burundi 2025” with ambitious demographic goals: to reduce national growth from its current rate, which would cause the population to double every 28 years, to 2 percent over the next decade, and to slash the birthrate in half. To hit these numbers, the government said it would partner with civil society to “stress … information and education on family planning and reproductive health.” Ndihokubwayo says the government is also “absolutely” considering a law that would limit the number of children each family can have.
Many international donors are helping to expand access to family-planning services. The Netherlands chose Burundi in 2011 as one of 15 “partner countries” in which to emphasize programs that promote peace and stability, and according to Jolke Oppewal, the Dutch ambassador to Burundi, his country now donates 8 million euros annually to programs promoting sexual and reproductive health, among other human rights. In a 2005-2013 contract, the German government-owned development bank KfW dedicated more than 1.4 million euros to “strengthening and reorganizing [Burundi’s] reproductive health and family planning services.”
Some medical professionals are keenly aware of the role they are meant to play in keeping population growth in check. Christine Nimbona is a nurse at a secondary health clinic in Kayanza province, which, with nearly 1,500 inhabitants per square mile, is one of Burundi’s most overpopulated regions. One day in August, several women waiting outside the clinic where Nimbona works nursed babies; dozens of children played nearby. Nimbona says that of the roughly 30 patients she sees each week, “almost all” cite fears about land resources and potential inheritance conflicts as their reasons for seeking family planning. “I know that by what I am doing, I am fighting the escalation of violence in my country,” Nimbona says.
It’s an uphill battle, littered with enormous, deep-seated obstacles. According to the United Nations, modern contraceptive use among females between the ages of 15 and 49 was just 18.9 percent in 2010. In Burundi’s male-dominated society, women are often powerless to convince their husbands to use birth control. Then there is the Catholic Church: In addition to claiming an estimated 60 percent of Burundians as followers, the church has affiliations with roughly 30 percent of national health clinics, which are forbidden from distributing or discussing condoms, the pill, and other medical contraceptives. “Catholic teachings against birth control are very resonant with Burundian culture, which says that children are wealth,” explains Longman, of Boston University. “Because the Catholic Church is so powerful and controls so much of the health sector, it creates a huge stumbling block for family-planning practice.”
Bujumbura insists that the Catholic Church is a collaborative partner on land issues. The president even appointed a Catholic bishop, Sérapion Bambonanire, as head of the CNTB in 2011. But cracks do exist between church and state. In 2012, the Ministry of Public Health launched a series of “secondary health posts,” which offer medical contraceptives; sometimes these clinics, including Nimbona’s, are built right next door to existing Catholic ones.
There is also tension over a variable with unknown dimensions: how much of the land the Catholic Church held onto after colonialism it still owns today. “The Catholic Church can’t keep owning all the land while Christians are starving,” says a regional government employee in Kayanza, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety. According to him, in 2013 the government quietly launched a mapping program to determine, among other things, how much land the church controls. “National politics don’t allow us to focus on the Catholic Church,” he says, referring to the fact that the church’s followers are also voters. “So the government thinks this indirect method is best.”
Ndihokubwayo says a land-mapping program does exist, but won’t confirm or deny whether it was created specifically to find out how much property the Catholic Church possesses. “This is a very delicate issue,” he explains. “I’m not sure whether we’ll ever find out how much land the church owns, but we’ll keep trying.” (Cara Jones, an assistant professor at Mary Baldwin College who studies Burundi, pointed out that the program would also give President Nkurunziza’s ruling party information about how much land its political opponents own.)
Some religious leaders are on board with the push for family planning. Pastor André Florian, a priest in Burundi’s Anglican Church, which has an estimated 900,000 followers, says he used to be part of the problem. From the pulpit of his small stone church in Kayanza, he once railed against the evils of contraception. Family planning, he told his congregation, was best left to God. Yet Florian watched with grave concern as members of his flock struggled to feed their babies. One day, he looked at a child with dull orange hair, a clear sign of advanced malnutrition, and asked himself: Was this really God’s plan? Shaken, Florian isolated himself for three months, studying scripture and praying. “When I returned from my research, I realized that I had done wrong,” Florian says. “If nothing happens, if we just keep doing what we’re doing, tomorrow is not certain. We will see families killing each other. We will see chaos in the country. The day after tomorrow will disappear.”
Other Burundians, however, fear that support for family planning is too little too late. Joaquim Sinzobatohana, a father of four in Ngozi province, says he first learned about vasectomies on a radio program. (Eighty percent of Burundians have a radio, and UN-funded songs and soap operas now dramatize stories of families that have suffered the burden of many pregnancies but are saved by family planning.) He decided to get the operation, a simple outpatient procedure, because he and his wife, Clautilde, are “very scared” that their small plot will provoke conflict among their children, and more offspring would only increase the chances of violence. But Sinzobatohana admits that even a demographic freeze might not save his family, or his neighbors. The numbers just don’t add up: Already, too many people are squeezed onto too little land.
“It’s unfortunate that these contraceptive programs came after we already had too many kids,” Sinzobatohana says. “The damage has been done. Now we wait.”
International experts say a comprehensive approach to Burundi’s land crisis is necessary—one that combines policy reform, better dispute-resolution options, family planning, and new economic opportunities that will ensure fewer Burundians rely solely on the earth for survival. “People need to have economic opportunities besides agriculture, to incorporate people into other kinds of jobs and trades, so that not everyone is dependent on farming for their livelihoods,” says Jobbins of Search for Common Ground. “Without some prospect for economic growth within the context of the region and the East African community, land scarcity will continue to be a stressor.”
But the land problem is infinitely complex, with roots that run deep into Burundi’s history. The resources and political will to deal with it are scarce. And whether in a new law or a family’s decades-long story, there will always be critical details that go overlooked—details that could become matters of life and death.
In 1999, Emmanuel Hatungimana, an elderly farmer in northern Ngozi, could feel his body slipping away. Death was very close. So he gathered his family—two wives and 14 children—around his bedside. It was time to divide his farm.
At 37.5 acres, Hatungimana’s lush plot of land was a decent size. An equitable division would have left his eight sons with roughly 4.7 acres each. The eldest sons of Hatungimana’s two wives stepped up to represent his part of the family: Pascal Hatungimana for the four sons of the first wife, and Prudence Ndikuryayo for the four sons of the second wife. Hatungimana gave exactly half of his land to Pascal and his brothers, and the other half to Prudence and his brothers. The patriarch was satisfied, according to Pascal; his family’s future was secure. A few days later, he died at peace.
But no one had considered the road.
One side of Hatungimana’s land runs alongside a paved road, a very desirable quality because access to that lane makes it significantly easier to bring supplies in and out of the property. In dividing his land right down the middle, however, Hatungimana had ensured that only four of his sons could claim the road as a border.
Today, more than 15 years after Hatungimana’s death, his family teeters on the brink of violence. Prudence says it’s unfair that Pascal and his brothers have the better land, and that he is willing to fight to get what he deserves. But Pascal doesn’t want to give up anything. So they’ve brought their case to a local bashingantahe. If the panel can’t resolve the dispute, both brothers say they don’t know what will happen.
Standing on the land outside his brother’s house, Prudence looks left, over his shoulder, at Pascal, who listens nearby with his arms crossed. A dark expression falls over Prudence’s face. “Around Burundi, brothers are killing brothers. Sons are killing fathers. And it’s all for land,” he says. “Hopefully our family won’t reach that stage. But if something doesn’t happen, everything will fall apart.”
Jillian Keenan (@JillianKeenan) is a writer based in New York. She is working on a book about Shakespeare and global sexuality. A grant from the United Nations Population Fund supported research for this article.