December 19, 2005

Fear of land conflicts rises

Humanitarian workers are increasingly anxious that land conflict in Angola is set to rear its head after more than 600 families were uprooted in a suburb of the capital in November to make way for a new housing scheme. "This is a serious concern, and my worry is that it could potentially be just the tip of the iceberg. Could this be the beginning of large-scale forced removals?" questioned one aid worker. The forced evictions happened in the Cambamba area of Luanda on 24 November when police and private security guards demolished homes to clear the area for the second phase of a housing development.

Luanda is literally bursting at the seams after millions of people fled fighting in the provinces during the 27-year civil war for the relative safety of the capital. A city originally built for half a million people, it is now crowded with a population estimated at between four and six million. As the economy recovers and people seek to rebuild their lives in peacetime, demand for both housing and commercial office space has soared and it seems likely that more situations like Cambamba will appear in the future. "Most of the city is in the same situation. There's a lot of commercial growth going on, particularly in the south of the capital, so I can envisage situations like this happening again and again," said another humanitarian worker.
In the capital's musseques, or shanty towns, many people live in make-shift accommodation cobbled together out of tin sheets. Others, however, have invested their life savings in making small improvements, replacing the sheets with bricks or adding a simple roof. "In the Cambamba case, the typical value of a house was $1,500 to $2,000 - this is a family's life savings, their insurance, the basis for their social and economic existence - all completely destroyed," said another NGO official.

Yet across the country as a whole, very few people have formal, legal title to their property and land. A new law which aimed to address this shortcoming was approved by parliament in August 2004, opening the door to those with informally-held land to legalise their titles.
But the regulations and by-laws of the new legislation have not been published or even publicly discussed, and there exists a lot of confusion about what constitutes a legal title capable of standing up in a court of law.

"Under Angola's civil code, even if the owners of the land who are without title, they are believed to occupy it in good faith and have rights. These rights were ignored," Human rights defender and head of the housing rights NGO SOS Habitat, Luis Araujo, added.
But humanitarian workers familiar with the land issue argue that the uncertainty surrounding the land law is giving people false hope. "I'm sure that many of these people [in Cambamba] had received permission from lower levels of government, saying they could build on the area, but these permissions are not protecting people," said one. "Many have been told they could settle there and occupied the land in good faith," he added. "It is possible that some people went to the area to try to qualify for land or housing or some form of compensation," the NGO official acknowledged, adding that until there was clarity surrounding the land law and its implementation, this kind of speculative behaviour was likely to continue. On top of that, the possibility of elections in 2006 had kept a lid on land conflict, with the government allegedly concentrating on winning votes and avoiding bad publicity. "You could feel during the last year or so that the political interests were keeping the economic interests at bay," said the NGO official. "But as it becomes more and more unlikely that elections will be held next year, investors want to make money and are not willing to wait until 2007 for this to happen," she added. (IRIN)

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