Abdul Baqi, aged 45, is involved in a dispute with close relatives over a few fields their ancestors once shared. He recently returned to Paghman, in the western rural district Kabul Province, after over two decades of exile in neighbouring Pakistan, only to find his cousins unwilling to give up claims to his land, which they had cultivated during the years of his absence.
"It's difficult to distinguish between right and wrong in this country, so we have all these disputes over land ownership," Abdul Baqi IRIN. Ever since his return from a refugee camp in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar last summer, the ethnic Pashtun farmer has tried his best to avoid fighting with his cousins, but instead to assert his claims through the country's fledgling government.
"I hope this dispute will be over soon and we are free to concentrate on building our future here," he said, while waiting for his turn to meet the district administrator, who generally mediates in the resolution of such disputes.
A new report by the independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) has found that land-ownership disputes are fuelling local conflicts at a time when stability is needed for reconstruction. "The number-one source of conflict here today is land disputes," the think-tank's director, Andrew Wilder, told IRIN.
He added that factors such as the population growth rate, refugee returns, and competition for access to pasture between settled farming communities and nomads were exacerbating an already fragile situation. "Resolving land conflicts and clarifying property law is a key task of the current administration," the report said.
But the very substance of the land law is a matter of debate. "Land tenure is currently covered by four separate legal systems, ranging from customary traditions to civil law, with vast gaps and loopholes," Wilder observed. AREU said although the current administration had created a special court to hear land claims, it needed to develop proper laws on which courts could base their judgements.
Such views were shared by Paghman's district administrator, Haji Mohammad Musa. "We should have a uniform [land ownership] law covering the whole country," he told IRIN. With a population of around 150,000, hundreds of land disputes in the area were blocking postwar recovery, he added.
"I think this is a very serious issue and deserves more attention," he said. Every day dozens of people were thronging his office hoping to resolve their differences, he noted.
Although the AREU report concentrates on rural Afghanistan, the problem is also growing in the cities. With warlords and their militias controlling large parts of the country, returning refugees often find their costly urban properties already occupied and experience difficulties getting them back under existing laws.
In Afghanistan, 85 percent of the population depends on farming for its livelihood. The AREU report maintained that land relations were central to the country's agrarian economy, and that addressing the issue would also contribute to improved security governance and social cohesion. "Security in land tenure is critical to agriculture, and can promote people to invest in farming," Wilder said.
The report calls on the government to frame a comprehensive set of land-rights policies in the new constitution to be framed by the end of the year. "The outstanding question is whether matters of land security may be tackled before peace and stability are restored. While the theoretical answer may be no, sustained order is unlikely to be achieved without addressing land conflicts," the AREU research concluded.
Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, returning refugees and internally displaced people find themselves entangled in disputes over land ownership as they try to rebuild their shattered lives. "For a significant number of returning refugees, it is one of the most problematic issues," Vicky Tennant, a protection officer with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IRIN in Mazar-e Sharif.
Tennant added that although UNHCR was working with the traditional dispute-settlement mechanisms such as shuras, or village councils, the rule of law remained the only long-term solution to the issue. "This is the primary prerequisite, and we encourage that even now by supporting the courts," she said.