A popular idiom in Western culture is that possession is 9 / 10ths of the law. While this may hold true for disputing civil or domestic suits about who gets to keep the kettle in divorce proceedings, there is one notable exception: land. In every country across the globe, throughout all of history, issues of land rights have been discussed, questioned, disputed, protested and have typically ended in either a settlement or war. Few topics are as universally inadvisable to bring up in a community discussion as who owns disputed territory, a testament to our similarities across geographical and cultural boundaries. If only we had more in common than wanting to kill each other over bits of grass and dirt.

The fate of humanity has been tied to the land since we first established settlements. Land is used for agriculture, to build houses and resources grown from it or buried within it are extracted and used to build or develop – without the ability to nurture the land, we would quite literally not have evolved past roving groups of nomads. As our societies grew more complex, so did our numbers and our demands – land that was once freely available began to have greater value due to resource richness, proximity to other regions, or size. Societies all offered a similar recourse for remediating disputes over which land was owned by whom – land contested could be ascribed under the guardianship or ownership of a particular individual, group or community, with the idea being that the stewards of that land would then tend to it and they alone would be able to exploit whatever resources lay within their set geographical boundary.

Earlier cultures were less focused on drawing specific  or arbitrary territorial lines upon maps, but groups across the globe (religious, cultural, familial) typically found themselves operating in set territories or regions, and any interaction between groups resulted in rough boundaries needing to be defined to prevent competition for resources and potential escalation into conflict. As societies evolved, and distinct cultures began to interact in greater, more violent ways, land was often taken by force, and the land use rules of whatever culture was victorious were implemented. A typical example of this is the imposition of land rights and land use agreements upon aboriginal cultures throughout the world by Western colonials, wherein treaties and agreements were typically signed and agreed upon without a firm understanding of shared vs individual ownership. Cultures in North America, Australia and Africa all tell similar stories of “placelessness”, wherein they were removed from their traditional territories and forced into environments with different cultures and customs. Some were able to stay on their original lands, often at the expense of safety or freedom. Many of these tales end with the sad stories of assimilation, slavery or extinction.

Today, the issue of land rights has only gotten more complex. Central governance has simplified the codification of land rights into law, but the same issues that plagued original communities exist today, echoes of the flawed systems installed in eras past. Compounding the problem, there are more humans than ever before, and land is growing to become a scarcer and more valuable resource. Agriculture, urban development, construction and industry all require resources and land, painting a picture where we are currently inhabiting upon or using 90% of the world’s land. This resource limitation has lead to increased conflicts, often between the same structures as before: centralized authority (governments) and communities. Specifically, land rights have arisen time and time again in issues of development in countries that bear scars given by recent conflicts.

Take Vietnam and Kenya. Vietnam’s Communist government operates under a system where the government ascribes land-usage rights, but maintains that all land remains property of the state. Vietnam’s current economic growth rate is around 6%, and cities and urban areas are growing rapidly, eating into surrounding farmland in order to satisfy increasing demand. As a central government hoping to avoid conflict, Vietnam must offer recompense to farmers who have lost their land, must host consultations to discuss land-use plans with the public, must offer avenues for legal recourse if civil disputes arise, and need to ensure all land is maintained in a registry to be sure all of this can be tracked and maintained. Protesting farming communities have offered much feedback on this – specifically, that recompense is not matching the value of land, that consultations are often ignored and civil suits dismissed, and that land registries are poorly maintained by corrupt officials, meaning any issues brought up cannot even agree upon who owns what land in the first place. All of this risks disrupting economic momentum and fostering discontent within the populace, seemingly creating the exact problem it set out to avoid.

In Kenya, each of these same issues arise, with an added dimension of dealing with the land claims of indigenous groups who have traditionally occupied territories. More than two thirds of Africa’s land is still rooted in communities and not written down or legally recognized, meaning governments and communities repeatedly clash when the issue arises (one is viewed as conquerors, the other as squatters). Kenya’s government has attempted to address this issue by undergoing a large-scale titling initiative to ensure those who claimed their land could be entitled to the legal rights of ownership. But even while a third of Kenyans can claim to legally own the land on which they reside, insufficient infrastructure and endemic corruption, as well as cultural issues surrounding the rights of women and minority groups, can pose severe threats to the legal implications of enforceability – the registry may end up just being a long list in a back closet if land owners are not able to take meaningful recourse when their rights are infringed upon.

Even in rich countries, where property rights are secure and land can be used as collateral in financing, land rights issues emerge on the community level. Municipal governments in Canada have grand powers regarding their capacity to expropriate property for “municipal purposes”, and land rights issues of indigenous peoples continue to plague communities faced with poverty and an endemic lack of economic opportunity. Greater steps, including the development of land-use registries accessible to all (Blockchain technologies offer interesting opportunities), the further titling of rural properties to prevent government land grabs, and the greater codifying of the rights of communities into land-use charters, should be taken to ensure transparency and fairness for all involved. If not, the risk of impeding legitimately-needed development while squabbling over patches of dirt grows ever greater. Then it doesn’t matter who possess what – we’ll all be stuck squabbling in the mud.