Unlike in much of Sudan, people in the western Darfur region have for centuries owned and distributed land according to their own tribal customs. But a little-known land act, if imposed on Darfur, could have serious consequences for Darfurians displaced by the fighting in western Sudan.
Sudan's 1984 Civil Transaction land act could keep nearly two million people who fled their villages and farms in the wake of atrocities in western Sudan from reclaiming their ancestral homelands. Under the Sudanese law, people who abandon their property for one year forfeit their right to own it. The land can then be occupied by tenants who could claim ownership after living on it for 10 consecutive years.
As hundreds of thousands of Darfurians near their first year away from their villages, United Nations observers and human rights groups are pressuring Sudan's government to suspend the law. Land expropriation, they say, could become one of the most explosive issues in Darfur's 22-month conflict.
Daniel Lewis is head of the post-conflict section for the U.N.'s human settlement program. He has been researching Sudan's land tenure laws, and speaks by telephone from the U.N. regional headquarters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
"Anytime there is displacement, whether it's Darfur or anywhere else, there is rarely a vacuum," said Mr. Lewis. "In other words, when they are displaced, someone else moves in and asserts a certain amount of control over the property that's been, in their minds, abandoned. The more prolonged the displacement, the deeper entrenched are the new occupants. Therefore, the more difficult and potentially volatile the process of reacquisition or reoccupation of land and property."
In Darfur's case, it is mainly Arab herders who are poised to take over land traditionally owned by black African tribes, including that of the Fur, the region's largest tribe and the tribe for which this dar, or homeland, is named. Some analysts say Arab tribes, driven southward in recent decades by the creep of the Saharan Desert and increasingly prolonged droughts, have the backing of Sudan's government and its allied Arab militias who, to help put down a rebel uprising, have carried out a campaign of violence that has claimed the lives of up to 70,000 people.
So far, Sudan's top officials differ on whether to implement the controversial land law in Darfur or temporarily suspend it so people displaced by the conflict can return home, especially now with the prospect of a peace deal in coming weeks between the Khartoum government and Darfur's two rebel groups.
Hussain Ibrahim Karshoum, a lawyer who heads the government's Humanitarian Affairs Commission in Nyala, where he oversees some of the region's largest refugee camps, says the longer families from Darfur stay in the camps, the more difficult it will be for them to return to their homelands.
"It's true. But the Sudanese laws are very flexible, they adopt the customs and traditions of the people," he said. "I just suggest that they have to make a very special enactment for the region - concerning the land. They need it so."
Several U.N. agencies and aid groups have called for a meeting on this issue later this month, partly to discuss ways to educate Darfurians in the refugee camps on this land act, which most of them have never heard of.