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Swapping land for peace in war-torn Ivory Coast

Efforts to resolve conflicts over land are taking root in the country’s west, serving as a bellwether of Ivory Coast’s larger recovery from violence.

ZIAGLO, Ivory Coast — The village of Ziaglo in western Ivory Coast is about as quaint as a town comes.

Lazy dirt trails wind their way through thickets of tall unkempt grass. The deputy chief rides around on a blue bicycle in flowing blue and white striped pajamas.

But if you look a little closer, signs of Ziaglo’s tortured past are just below the surface: cinder block houses are still riddled with bullets. Anything less sturdy was completely destroyed.

Two years ago, post-election violence claimed more than 3,000 lives in this West African country, including in Ziaglo, more than 300 miles from the commercial capital of Abidjan.

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Longstanding land disputes here inflamed ethnic tensions brought to the fore by then incumbent Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat in the 2010 presidential election to contender Alassane Ouattara. 

Now, as efforts to address land conflict take root in the country’s west, the area is serving as a bellwether of Ivory Coast’s larger recovery. But the foundation these initiatives are building, through local peace committees, is a fragile one.

“You can’t spend your life fighting your neighbor for half a hectare of land,” said Rinaldo Depagne, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for West Africa. “So at some point they have to start to find a solution.”

Ivory Coast was a rare post-colonial success story in West Africa, securing independence fromFrance in 1960 and achieving relative political stability and economic prosperity.

More from GlobalPost: Young and restless in Ivory Coast 

The western region’s fertile soils, the cradle of the country’s famed cocoa and coffee industries, powered the so-called Ivorian miracle.

But in recent decades, competition for choice land has fueled bitter tensions and violent conflict.

The battles have frequently pitted an indigenous, mostly Guéré-speaking population in towns like Ziaglo against a migrant, mostly Dioula-speaking one that tends to live on the outskirts of town.

Guéré leaders in the area accuse the Dioula of taking the land by force, a charge the migrant population denies.

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A decade of on-and-off civil strife — culminating in the ruinous violence that followed the 2010 election — made a bad situation worse.

The flare-ups caused mass displacement, and now refugees are returning home to reclaim their land. But the land system is based on customary or informal rights, with little if any written contracts.

Many suspect that ongoing disputes over land are to blame for a series of raids on villages near the Liberian border by unknown assailants earlier this year.

In the absence of a credible national framework to address the issue, local actors have established peace committees to field and resolve the disputes — and hopefully temper the violence.

They normally make up a rough patchwork of village chiefs, local government officials and NGOs.

In May, at a hotel in Duékoué, also in the country’s west and that suffered the single biggest massacre of the 2011 conflict, six local leaders representing the area’s major ethnic groups meet in a small conference hall.

“Before the war, the problem existed, but not like today,” said Francois Batafoui, a Guéré chief on the committee.

Moustapha Bamba, a Dioula, says he bought his 10-acre plot in Fangolo, 4 miles down the road from Duékoué, from a Guéré owner in 2000 for 395,000 West African CFA francs ($780).

But in the persistent confusion and lawlessness that followed the conflict, he returned one day to his land last year to find another Guéré resident claiming it as his own.

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Bamba sought the mediation of the peace committee. After weighing the evidence on either side, the council returned the land to Bamba. A potential flashpoint for further localized conflict was averted.   

Similar local efforts are underway throughout the region. And Stève Ndikumwenayo, project manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian organization that helps mediate land disputes in the region, says he’s encouraged by an increased willingness to compromise among the parties.

More from GlobalPost: Ivory Coast: Refugees still fear returning home 

He chalks much of that up to sheer fatigue after so many years of conflict here.

But of even greater concern is the deep and lingering mistrust between Guéré and Dioula, and how that might fuel further violence.

Even as he hails the successes of the peace committee, Batafoui, the Guéré chief, lays full blame for ongoing tensions at the feet of the migrants.

Before, he says, new arrivals would politely request land from the village chief. Now, they don’t ask permission from anyone and take the land by force if necessary.

About 4 miles down the road in the town of Fangolo, Dieku Issa Ouattara, a spokesperson for the local migrant populations, is equally uncompromising.

He calls the Guéré “liars” for their accusations against the migrant communities and lambasts human rights organizations for focusing so heavily on human rights violations by pro-Ouattara forces.

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“The [pro-Gbagbo] militias destroyed this country during the crisis. No one speaks about that,” he said.

For now, a tenuous calm prevails in the west.

“I think [local actors] need a lot more support from the government in Abidjan to give them the means they need to do this,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“While there has been some progress in that part of the country,” he said. “Land still remains the bomb that could explode at any moment.”