Causes of Land/Boundary Disputes Analytical Essay


According to the primeval Greek folklores, land was communal. There were no cases of land or boundary disputes since resources were shared equally. Communities coexisted peacefully, and everyone was free to settle at any location.However, the peaceful coexistence did not last for long. The emergence of the Iron Age led to people subdividing communal land into numerous pieces and privatising it. Land privatisation resulted in conflicts1.Today, land disputes are indeed extensive phenomena and can arise in any country at any time. The disputes arise due to both demand and greed. Besides, rise in land worth and paucity escalate the problem further. In most cases, disputes arise if people are likely to acquire land for free.The majority of inheritance conflicts emanate from land issues. Lack of proper land management systems paves the way for influential people to grab private and unutilised land. Moreover, it leads to the poor losing their land to affluent individuals2.In African states, where land is gradually gaining value, people use all means to amass property. Land disputes are not only experienced in African countries, but also in European states. In the European states, local people lose their properties to the privileged and mining companies.This paper will discuss the causes of land disputes, particularly in Africa.

Nature of Land Dispute

Land/boundary disputes are manifested in different forms. Some conflicts involve single parties like boundary dispute between neighbours while others involve families. Cases of land inheritance disagreements are common in African states. Additionally, communities disagree over the use of public land3.Such conflicts are not difficult to resolve. Other land/boundary disputes involve numerous parties like group incursions and expulsions of whole settlements. Such differences take time to resolve, and at times, they degenerate to public strife.The most intricate land disputes are those that comprise fraudulent land management and state capture. In most cases, land/boundary disputes affect the aboriginals. Indigenous people are ever on the verge of losing their ancestral land because states do not recognise them or communities do not understand their rights to ancestral property.In other instances, states invalidate or privatise ancestral land leading to conflicts. For example, in Guatemala, the government declared all unoccupied land neglected and assigned it to coffee growers. Since then, the country always experience land disputes that degenerate to violent conflicts4.In Kenya, the Ndung’u report showed that influential people in the government were the primary recipients of unlawful allotments of public land. Land grabbing in Kenya is prevalent such that it is even echoed in present-day art.Inducement, nepotism, scam, and clientelism in land management and national land control are familiar phenomena and result in increase in cases of land disputes worldwide.

Causes of Land/Boundary Disputes

In the majority of developing states, land management systems have numerous loopholes. Property rights are frequently embodied by conflicting or disjointed laws or legal pluralism.Therefore, it is difficult to establish the legal owner of any particular land in the event of a complaint. Besides, land demarcation is weak, and this results in boundary disputes among the citizens5.Land administration authority lacks qualified staff, relevant plan and infrastructure to manage and allocate land accordingly. In addition, administrative services are in most cases centralised and immature with duties not being precisely assigned or contradicting each other.Therefore, it is hard for land management officers to work together and consolidate their data. The available data is always incomplete and unreliable. Apart from inadequate data, the majority of land administration authorities are prone to corruption6.Therefore, they do little to mitigate or avoid cases of land disputes. The authorities do not put into practice established land policies. Additionally, many of the land systems are incongruous and hard to implement. Thus, poor land policies and flawed organic land market organisations contribute to land disputes.Dysfunctional bodies serve as avenues to land/boundary disputes. People should understand that shortfalls of land institutions are not the primary cause of land disputes; they only stimulate conflicts.

Numerous individuals in property institutions take advantage of inadequate and unclear legislations to make money by grabbing land and selling it to private developers7.In addition, they manipulate land policies to their benefit. The majority of staff members in the land sector are paid poorly. Therefore, they result in corruption as a way to supplement their salaries.Most land disputes arise due to disagreements between family members. At times, family members or relatives fail to agree on how to share or use family land. For instance, they fail to agree on demarcation procedures and members to benefit from a property, especially for the case of a polygamous family.Besides, land disputes may arise due to encroachment by neighbouring families8. In Uganda, cases of land conflicts associated with family members are prevalent. Economic factors also contribute to land disputes in Uganda and other African states. Most African communities regard land as a vital economic asset.Africans trust that one cannot survive without land. Therefore, disagreements arise when people battle to share in a single piece of land. The disagreements are aggravated by the view that it is hard to acquire land because of population growth. Most youths do not want to engage in agricultural activities.However, they need money to meet their needs. Hence, they at times sell families’ lands without consulting relatives and keep all the money for personal use. In Acholiland (Uganda), youths sell family lands without consultations leading to disputes9.

Another primary cause of land dispute is illegal sale of land by traditional chiefs. In Africa, traditional chiefs are entrusted with communal land. The society reveres them and trusts that they are the best custodians of public land.However, they at times engage in illegitimate practices and sell the land they are supposed to protect rendering their subjects landless10. In some cases, they allocate a single piece of land to many people leading to conflicts. The majority of communal lands are not documented.Besides, some countries have numerous ways of acquiring land. Thus, the presence of legal pluralism enables chiefs and other people entrusted with private or public land to sell the property to multiple clients. In Nicaragua, people can acquire land through twelve ways. Therefore, it is possible for corrupt individuals to allocate a single piece of land to many people11.Today, cases of land disputes in Nicaragua are rampant. People have gone to the extent of even selling the land that is reserved for forest. The problem of multiple allocations is also common in Ghana. Plots are sold to many people without their knowledge.They only learn that they were duped when they begin to construct, and other people appear and claim ownership of the same land. Nowadays, cases of property demolition are widespread in Accra due to double or multiple allocations of land.Rural-urban migration is another cause of land/boundary disputes worldwide. Besides, natural population growth also contributes to land disputes. Many people migrate from rural to urban areas in hope for a better life. The majority of the immigrants are from poor backgrounds.

Therefore, they cannot manage to buy food, leave alone to rent houses. In order to survive, such immigrants settle on public land since they know that they are unlikely to be evicted. However, they subject themselves and cities to uncertainties because they do not know when the government will ask them to leave.On the other hand, it becomes hard for cities to develop since it is hard to evict immigrants from public land. Cases of squatter settlements are common in South Africa and Turkey.In Turkey, urbanisation and industrialisation began in 1960s. Since then, numerous slums have emerged around Istanbul and Ankara. The Turkish government has been trying to evict squatters from cities, but the inhabitants always oppose the attempts to expel them.The issue of land dispute in Turkey is an excellent example of authenticity versus legitimacy. Long time ago, only religions had authority over land. People were allowed to use land on short-term basis, and no one had legal authority.

The public depended on local endorsement and local authenticity and did not need arbitration from land officials. However, in 1926, a system was devised by the Roman law that changed land ownership. People were allowed to possess private land, and they had to have documents to show that they are the legal owners of particular properties.The fiercest disputes over boundaries are, however, those that comprise two or more ethnic communities. In Africa, cases of ethnic communities fighting over land are regular. For instance, in 2006, tens of thousands of people were displaced due to tribal clashes in Southern Ethiopia.Two clans claimed ownership of a joint land leading to skirmishes. The Ethiopian government awarded a piece of land that belonged to Borenas to Guhis community. The Borenas did not take the matter lightly. Their determination to get back the land led to clashes that left over one hundred people dead and many others injured.In many cases, ethnic disputes arise due to competition for grazing or arable land. Others are triggered by environmental dilapidation. A study by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) found that land degradation and poor customs are some of the factors that caused land disputes in Darfur12.According to the study, the majority of people in Darfur are either farmers or pastoralists. Thus, Darfur has suffered immense deforestation and overgrazing. Farmers and ranchers compete for the remaining arable and grazing land leading to violent confrontations.The Darfur problem is a classic case of land disputes that emanate from various changes and deteriorate to war. Many land/boundary disputes come as a result of climate change, population growth and economic transformation. Population growth and the environmental dilapidation lead to scarcity of productive land.

In the end, people start to scramble for the available land13. On the other hand, economic transformation leads to privatisation of land. Land privatisation opens room for illegal deals, which deprive innocent people of their land.Lack of legitimate and efficient land management system has led to the privatisation of urban land in Mongolia. Moreover, incidences of double allocations of land are frequent in the country. Rulings of double allocations of land are in most cases biased and favour the wealthy.In Georgia, the second phase of land privatisation triggered disputes. The process was stage-managed leading to some people and groups being left out.While ethnicity is one of the leading causes of land/boundary disputes in Africa, modern-day international border conflicts between countries are as a result of state and fiscal significances and concerns.During pre-colonial and colonial period, some communities fought for exclusive rights to inhabit and benefit from resources found within certain regions. The same happens even in modern days. For instance, in Bamenda (Cameroon), boundaries were established without factoring in sociocultural facts.Consequently, disputes emerged between communities that previously coexisted harmoniously14. Land in Bamenda was subjected to numerous incongruous economic practices that were meant to profit colonial masters.The majority of the economic practices exist until today and are the primary causes of land disputes in the region. Besides, economic-induced countryside conflicts and constant political crises have aroused ethnotribal consciousness in Cameroon.

Additionally, the majority of politicians support preferred ethnic groups when it comes to land allocations. Hence, they spur conflicts among ethnic groups.According to Cambodian ancient customary laws, land was a preserve of the royal family. The king had control over land, and people were allowed to cultivate without restrictions15. Hence, cases of land/boundary disputes were rare in the country. However, colonial masters abolished the system and introduced private ownership.Privatisation led to surfacing of land disputes16. Today, cases of land dispute are very rampant in Cambodia due to vagueness of land rights. Lately, the value of land has gone up leading to conflicts over ownership among the communities.Currently, most land conflicts in Cambodia involve government officials. Government officials evict people from public and unregistered land and allocate it to private investors.A report by the Non-Governmental Organisation Forum on Cambodia claimed that the country was plagued by serious land conflicts. According to the report, over 188 families were involved in land disputes in 200817. The majority of Cambodians do not have land ownership documents.Consequently, they are evicted anytime the government decides to privatise public land. Besides, the government does not acknowledge customary laws. Hence, no one can use customary laws to claim that s/he is the legal owner of any land.Many land disputes involve one person claiming ownership based on the duration that s/he has possessed the land and the other person arguing based on possession of legal documents.Thus, it is hard to arbitrate such disputes. The person in possession of legal documents ends up winning the case because it does not matter how one obtains the documents.

Poor governance is a primary cause of land/boundary disputes in Africa. Many African countries rely on agriculture. Therefore, land is a valuable asset. Every citizen craves to have a piece of land. African leaders know the importance of land. Hence, they use it to either appreciate or discipline those who do not support their policies.For instance, in Kenya, the government uses land to lure people to support its manifesto18. Additionally, it uses land to discipline those opposed to its agenda. The majority of Kenyans depend on agriculture for income generation. Many families cannot thrive without land.In Kenya, there have been cases of successive regimes appreciating their followers by settling them in public and ancestral lands. The government does not consider why some land stays unused for long. Allocation of ancestral land to private investors and government supporters triggers disputes among communities.Incidents of indigenous land owners clashing with alien occupants are extensive in Kenya19. The incidents occur mostly after every presidential election. One major problem in Kenya is that an individual bearing a second title may contend for land.Thus, influential people identify productive properties, apply for titles without considering if the properties are occupied and use their powers to evict the legal owners. Today, the country is strewn with squatter settlements in Mombasa, the Central Province, and around Nairobi.Kenya has land laws, which aim to ensure that every citizen has the right to land ownership. However, the people given the responsibility to enforce the laws are corrupt. The majority of land conflicts in Kenya arise due to poor execution of land legislations. The authorities construe title from an absolutist’s perspective20.According to the authorities, for one to own land, s/he only requires to be registered and given the title. The procedure used to acquire title does not matter. Hence, as long one has a title, s/he owns the land.

Kenyans have occasionally blamed the government for misusing its powers to allocate land to its allies. In fact, land disputes fuel the majority of ethnic clashes in Kenya.The United Kingdom has created laws that oblige families to relinquish their land for infrastructural developments21. The major limitation of the laws is that property owners are poorly compensated. The laws aim to reduce government expenditure.Many people argue that the laws are not supposed to be applied since private companies run the majority of infrastructural projects22. Private companies profit from the laws at the expense of landowners.The companies purchase properties at low cost since the public is obliged to sell. In addition, the laws do not consider challenges that accompany constructions like interference with wildlife and noise.The United Kingdom encounters bitter confrontations as land owners seek better compensations. Currently, England is planning to initiate over 200 road projects23. Besides, water and energy companies intend to lay down their infrastructures.These projects will require many rural landowners to relinquish their land. The intrinsic inequality of land laws in England leads to bitter confrontations between landowners and private companies. The country will continue to experience land disputes unless the laws are revised.


Incidences of land disputes are numerous worldwide. All land disputes have adverse impacts on both a country and society. Numerous households across the globe have lost their land either to the government, alien occupants or private investors.In Africa, many homes lose their land to affluent people who allege to own the properties. Besides, cases of double allotments have led to households losing land. In Latin America, poor families lose their properties to plantation farmers.Land disputes result in people incurring economic losses. In other instances, people end up becoming squatters. The disputes deprive farmers of their sole source of income and render them poor. However, that is not the only consequence.Where there are numerous land disputes, social cohesion in the community is disturbed, since the disputes damage trust and amplify panic and doubt. They make it difficult for families to coexist peacefully. Land disputes have shocking impacts on individuals who feel vulnerable.For people who have experienced land disputes, they live in fear of the incidents reoccurring. Thus, they fear to develop their properties because they can lose them at any time.Improper management of land not only leads to disputes, but also adversely affects a country’s budget. It leads to social segregation and environmental degradation that are detrimental to a country. Moreover, land disputes result in improper and amorphous land use.Therefore, it is difficult for a country to provide the requisite infrastructure. Land dispute is not an African problem, but a global menace that slows down development. Unlike other disputes, land conflict is complicated and challenging to arbitrate.Therefore, the only way to solve land disputes is to identify the visible interests. Land disputes can be resolved if interest and rights of the conflicting parties are addressed. For instance, conflicts between farmers and pastoralists can be dealt with by looking for ways that the parties can share available resources.In most cases, land conflicts arise due to fear and suspicion. Individuals feel insecure and fear to lose their property. Thus, they become combative and intolerant to the idea that they can relinquish their land even if it is for the sake of the entire society.Apart from considering people’s interests, it is imperative to have reliable and workable land laws. Moreover, land authorities should shun corruption and abide by established legislations.Shunning corruption will make the public have confidence in the authorities, thus turning to them for assistance instead of using barbaric ways to resolve land issues.


Aghemelo, A. & Ibhasebhor, S., ‘Colonialism as a source of boundary dispute and conflict among African states: the world court judgment on the Bakassi Peninsula and its implications for Nigeria’, Journal of Social Science, vol. 13, no. 3, 2006, pp. 177-181.

Blanchard, J., ‘Economics and Asia-Pacific region territorial and maritime disputes: understanding the political limits to economic solutions’, Asian Politics & Policy, vol. 1, no. 4, 2009, pp. 682-708.

Bugri, J.T., ‘The dynamics of tenure security, agricultural production and environmental degradation in Africa: evidence from stakeholders in north-east Ghana’, Land Use Policy, vol. 25, no. 2, 2008, pp. 271-285.

Fonmanu, K.R., Ting, L. & Williamson, I., ‘Dispute resolution for customary lands: some lessons from Fiji’, Survey Review, vol. 37, no. 289, 2003, pp. 177-189.

Henkin, L., ‘Protecting indigenous rights in international adjudication’, The American Journal of International Law, vol. 89, no. 2, 1995, pp. 350-364.

Mandel, R., ‘Roots of the modern interstate border disputes’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 24, no. 3, 2001, pp. 427-454.

Mbah, E.M., ‘Disruptive colonial boundaries and attempts to resolve land/boundary disputes in the grasslands of Bamenda, Cameroon’, African Journal on Conflict Resolution, vol. 9, no. 3, 2009, pp. 11-32.

Ratner, S., ‘Land feuds and their solutions: finding international law beyond the tribunal chamber’, The American Journal of International Law, vol. 100, no. 4, 2006, pp. 808-821.

Schofield, C.H. & Schofield, R.N., The middle east and north Africa world boundaries, vol. 1, Routledge, New York, 2002.

Schofield, C.H., Global boundaries: world boundaries, vol. 1, Routledge, London, 2001.


1 A. Aghemelo & S. Ibhasebhor, ‘Colonialism as a source of boundary dispute and conflict among African states: the world court judgment on the Bakassi Peninsula and its implications for Nigeria’, Journal of Social Science, vol. 13, no. 3, 2006, p. 177.

2 ibid., p. 179.

3J.T. Bugri, ‘The dynamics of tenure security, agricultural production and environmental degradation in Africa: evidence from stakeholders in north-east Ghana’, Land Use Policy, vol. 25, no. 2, 2008, p. 271.

4 ibid., p. 273.

5 L. Henkin, ‘Protecting indigenous rights in international adjudication’, The American Journal of International Law, vol. 89, no. 2, 1995, p. 350.

6 ibid.

7ibid., p. 354.

8R. Mandel, ‘Roots of the modern interstate border disputes’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 24, no. 3, 2001, p. 427.

9 ibid., p. 431.

10ibid., p. 435.

11 E.M. Mbah, ‘Disruptive colonial boundaries and attempts to resolve land/boundary disputes in the grasslands of Bamenda, Cameroon’, African Journal on Conflict Resolution, vol. 9, no. 3, 2009, p. 11.

12 S. Ratner, ‘Land feuds and their solutions: finding international law beyond the tribunal chamber’, The American Journal of International Law, vol. 100, no. 4, 2006, p. 808.

13 ibid., p. 811.

14Mbah, op. Cit., p. 21.

15K.R. Fonmanu, L. Ting & I. Williamson, ‘Dispute resolution for customary lands: some lessons from Fiji’, Survey Review, vol. 37, no. 289, 2003, p. 177.

16 Ratner, op. Cit., p. 813.

17 ibid., p. 179.

18C.H. Schofield & R.N Schofield, The middle east and north Africa world boundaries, vol. 1, Routledge, New York, 2002, p. 45.

19 ibid., p. 47.

20 C.H. Schofield, Global boundaries: world boundaries, vol. 1, Routledge, London, 2001, p. 78.

21ibid., p. 79.

22 J. Blanchard, ‘Economics and Asia-Pacific region territorial and maritime disputes: understanding the political limits to economic solutions’, Asian Politics & Policy, vol. 1, no. 4, 2009, p. 682.

23ibid., p. 689.

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