Photo credit: Tinuke Fagborun
Photo credit: Tinuke Fagborun

Finding common ground to resolve land conflicts in Uganda

Disagreements over land have led to violent conflicts within and between communities throughout Uganda for many years. We share two stories of how people have come together to ease long-standing tensions over land through community discussions and action.

Building peace between the Pobira and Pobura clans after years of conflict

After decades of fighting, two clans in Madi Opei sub-county – close to the border with South Sudan – worked together to resolve their disagreements over land and build peace.

The Pobira and Pobura clans live on approximately 3,000 hectares of land, which is prized by farmers for its fertility. There’s also a stream that draws wild animals from the wilderness into hunters’ sights.  

Conflict over the land between the two clans began in the mid-1960s. The Pobura invited the Pobira clan to settle on their land following the marriage of the daughter of a Pobura family to a young Pobira man. In 1964, this Pobira man set a controlled fire to protect his farm from wildfires. His Pobura father-in-law (who disagreed with the practice) reported this to the authorities, who ruled in his favour. Decades of legal disputes – and intensifying animosity – followed this incident, marked by cycles of short-lived peace, physical attacks, and unhelpful interventions from community and government bodies.

During the Lord’s Resistance Army’s insurgency, clan members left the area to settle in camps for internally displaced people. At the time, many elders – who knew how the land should be used – passed away. When the process of resettlement began in 2006, there was confusion over how to manage the land, and, with ongoing intense competition, land conflicts have endured to this day.

Collectively building peace

In September 2021, through a project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to address drivers of conflict in Uganda, parishes from across Madi Opei sub-county selected representatives to join a community action group. The group works to find solutions to challenges including gender-based violence, cross-border conflicts, cattle raids and psychosocial issues, as well as conflicts over land. Group members include traditional chiefs, clan leaders, community leaders (rwodi kweri/okoro), religious leaders, elders, opinion leaders and community members.
Two months later, in December 2021, a member of the group asked the project partners – including Saferworld, Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) and Gulu Women Economic Development and Globalization (GWED-G) – for help to end the Pobura–Pobira land conflict, after tensions erupted into the worst violence in decades. People had accused the Pobira clan of attacking the neighbouring Pobura and destroying buildings and crops. Members of the Pobura clan then fled, taking refuge in the nearby Kwon Cok primary school.
To try to address this problem, the community action group held a five-day training programme on conflict sensitivity, conflict resolution and mental health; Saferworld supported the training through a microgrant. Together, group members helped build consensus among Pobura and Pobira clan members. This created a platform for people to start discussions on how to live and work together.

TPO Uganda brought their mental health expertise to respond to people’s mental health needs and heal past traumas of the war, which can escalate conflict. “Peace is being restored as community members from both Pobira and Pobura are working together in therapeutic groups and they support one another, which was not the case for decade,” said TPO’s Grant Opiyo, Social Worker in Lamwo district.

"I thought I would never share the same group with any Pobura clan member after witnessing what happened between us last year.
This project has helped in telling us the benefit of handling conflict in a non-violent way..."

Two of the group members were Irene, from the Pobura clan, and Christine, from the Pobira. Before the conflict sensitivity training, Christine and Irene would not sit together or talk to one another. But tensions have disappeared since they became members of the community action group. Seeing the difference in Christine and Irene’s behaviour, other people in the two clans have also started to change their attitudes, becoming more open with members of the other clan.  
“I thought I would never share the same group with any Pobura clan member after witnessing what happened between us last year. This project has helped in telling us the benefit of handling conflict in a non-violent way. The peace messages were later taken to the community and people are now not living in fear of being attacked at night or their crops getting destroyed,” said Christine. 

"Upon resolution of our dispute, Saferworld, TPO Uganda and GWED-G also took us through advice and counselling which has restored social relationships between the two clans. I am forever grateful to Saferworld, TPO Uganda and GWED-G for facilitating the team that came and partially resolved the conflict between us,” said Irene.  
Pobura clan members who had taken refuge in Kwon Cok primary school have now resettled in their homes and are once again able to make a living. Today, both communities enjoy relative peace and productive farming of the land they share.   
“We now plan to promote peace messages by organising football games for peace initiatives, organising music, dance and drama, and continuing with mediation and reconciliation,” explained Christine and Irene.  
“The [Pobira–Pobura] conflict that resulted in serious human rights abuses – with people killed and internally displaced – has been partially resolved, with community action group members from the two clans creating opportunities for peace between and among households and the two communities. It is important that the root causes of the conflict are addressed through dialogue with key players.” – Barnabas Otim, Peacebuilding Officer at GWED-G.

Resolving tensions between farmers and cattle keepers in Kasese district

Community discussions in Kasese district – home to the Queen Elizabeth National Park – have helped two villages agree on measures to protect their livelihoods.

Close to each other in Kasese district, south-west Uganda, are two villages with a shared problem. Busunga, a village situated in Lake Katwe sub-county, is reliant on cattle raising, while Kamuruli, a village in Kisinga sub-county, is dependent on agriculture. Both villages have to protect their territories and livelihoods from wildlife incursion: elephants eat or trample over crops, while lions and crocodiles attack people and livestock.

To stop this from happening, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) began building an electric fence along the boundaries of the national park. But this solution was met with some resistance: it was believed that cattle keepers in Busunga wanted to keep the boundaries open to take advantage of grazing pasture in the national park. There were also rumours that, historically, the Kamuruli farming community – as well as other crop farming communities in the area – had collected firewood from the park, as well as illegally hunting game there.

Working with regional partner Rwenzori Information Centres Network (RIC-NET), Saferworld spoke with members of both communities to hear their grievances. Discussions with the Busunga cattle keepers revealed that they were resistant to the electric fence because of where the UWA was planning to place it, claiming that it would encroach on community land. The UWA rejected this claim and brought in their own surveyors to assess and subsequently outline what they believed to be the proper boundaries; the two communities did not object to this and allowed the UWA to put up visible demarcation pillars. However, when it came to actually erecting the electric fence, the UWA dug deeper into community land than had been agreed, leaving the community confused – their question was: “You rejected our original boundary and we kept quiet. You established your new boundary and marked it – we did not object. Why now are you taking more of our land?” 

"Sorry, our cattle keeping brothers. We had the wrong information. We were going to cause violence and possibly bloodshed for nothing. Let’s work together and solve the problem." 

In follow-up discussions organised by Saferworld in Kiburara (close to the border between the two villages), community leaders from both sides met with Kasese district security personnel and the UWA. As the leaders explained their concerns, it emerged that – despite their disagreements – both communities were interested in having the electric fence. It also transpired that people had been spreading false stories to instigate conflict, for their own political ends: representatives of Kamuruli crop farmers noted how unnamed political leaders had informed them that Busunga cattle keepers had deliberately rejected the electric fence so that they could continue to graze their cattle in the national park. Representatives of the cattle keepers said this was false, pointing out that despite being predominantly cattle keepers, they also grow crops to supplement their incomes and therefore they also stand to lose when elephants invade the area.

Heeding the concerns that the electric fence was encroaching on community land, the UWA employed surveyors to work with members of both communities. Busunga will soon welcome its stretch of the fence, and the crop farmers from Kamuruli – who had planned attacks on the cattle keepers – have promised to put a stop to the violence. One farmer had this to say:  “Now, we know where the problem comes from. Sorry, our cattle keeping brothers. We had the wrong information. We were going to cause violence and possibly bloodshed for nothing. Let’s work together and solve the problem."

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