GOMA, DRC - Small-farmer organizations in the Democratic Republic of Congo are welcoming a new law they say should improve local communities' access to land. They are urging peasants to mobilize to take advantage of the new legislation.
One of the most significant outcomes introduced by the new Congo law is that all agricultural land disputes must be submitted for mediation before they can be taken to court.
The DRC government is to set up a large number of so-called consultative councils to mediate the disputes.
Central and local governments are to choose council members and include representatives from peasant organizations. But details such as how many council seats the peasants will be given, still have to be worked out.
These organizations want to be well represented, as Vea Kaghoma, the coordinator of a womens' farmers group, made clear at a recent meeting in Goma.
She said participants had agreed unanimously to make the representation of peasants on the consultative councils the main focus of a lobbying campaign they would mount in support of the law.
Lawyer and land law consultant in Goma, Thierry Musole, says peasant communities who are in dispute with big landowners are likely to get a more favorable hearing from the new councils than they would from the courts.
"You know the courts are said to be corrupted, and overwhelmed, and the courts are very far from the beneficiaries, and the advantage of the consultative council is that they don't cost too much to the state, and the persons who will be part of those structures, they will have other jobs and will be working in the consultative councils as volunteers."
Land disputes in the DRC, and particularly in North Kivu, can be a highly political issue and are often said to be one of the main causes of the armed conflicts in the region.
But Musole says he does not think there is a great risk of the councils becoming politicized or discriminating against minority groups. He stressed disputes can still be taken to court if the councils fail to mediate a settlement.
Another key question about these councils is whether they too could be corrupted.
A journalist working for a peasant organization, Jean Baptiste Musabyimana, says he thinks there is not a great risk of the councils being corrupted because civil society, including small-farmer groups, will be represented on the panels.
He said that civil society in the Congo is not very corrupt, and that in general when you look at what is being done to improve the situation in the country it is civil society that is pushing for good governance.