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Ivory Coast Land Issues Divide Populations, Politicians

One of the main sticking points of the stalled peace deal in Ivory Coast relates to changing nationality laws which would allow more immigrants to become landowners. The question divides both populations in the forested interior of the country and in the southern commercial capital, Abidjan.

Burkinabe farmers, forced out of their villages, are now clearing land outside their relief camp in the western city of Guiglo, trying to start over.

Pro-government militias chased cocoa planter Laurent Ouedraogo from the town of Blolequin last year, accusing him of being a rebel.

He says the militias destroyed his home, took over his plantation and threatened to kill him if he came back. He adds even though he supports the rebels who are fighting for more rights for northerners and immigrants, he says he has nothing to do with the insurgency.

Further south near the town of Gagnoa, a local ethnic Bete, Thierry Koudou Bertrand, is working on land inside his own village.

Mr. Bertrand says he's too afraid to go to his rice plantation several kilometers away, because he says armed northerners who hide in the bush will kill him.

Over the past several decades, northern migrant farmers turned dense forestland in central and western Ivory Coast into profitable cocoa, coffee and palm oil plantations.

But a 1998 law stipulated that only Ivorians can be landowners. Since then, village chiefs with the support of security forces have started taking over land, which they say is rightfully theirs.

Speaking in Bete, village chief Jean Moise Wanyou says foreigners and northerners now spread terror with nighttime attacks in Bete villages because they want to regain control of their plantations.

He says this small-scale war started months before the beginning of the all-out northern rebel insurgency.

Togolese national Innocent Amega, who heads an association trying to improve ties between foreigners and locals, says unfortunately there never were formal agreements on the immigrants' exploitation of forest land.

He says they bought forested areas when they arrived, but he says that doesn't mean they own the land, and usually there are no clear contracts.

The Ivorian peace deal calls for nationality requirements to be eased, allowing up to three million foreigners to become Ivorians - meaning they could also become landowners.

The former agriculture minister and current reconciliation minister, Dano Dje Dje, says many Ivorians fear the change could spark more instability.

In his own home central village, Mr. Dje Dje, an ethnic Bete, has led efforts for chased out foreigners and immigrants to return if they start paying rent. This model is now being repeated elsewhere, but he says if naturalized Ivorians start laying claim to land, it could derail the fragile process.

An opposition lawmaker, Celestin Youde, who comes from the west, disagrees, saying the change could be done in what he calls a "harmonious legal spirit."

Mr. Youde says a five-to-10 year transition period could be established to sort out paperwork and transactions.

He says those who have contributed to the country's agricultural strength should be given a chance to become Ivorian landowners.

The power-sharing peace accord was defended at a summit of West African leaders last month. It calls on parliament to swiftly change the nationality law. However, lawmakers from Laurent Gbagbo's party have so far managed to prevent it being passed, fearing it would mean a loss of economic power for indigenous Ivory Coast farmers.