Land disputes and the limits of off-the-shelf data in the DRC

Recently I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing a paper on subnational variation in land disputes in the DRC (on the basis of a suggestion from Leo Arriola).  There’s obviously been a great deal written about how tensions over land in eastern DRC have contributed to the civil war there, but it’s surprisingly hard to find much recent work on land disputes or land tenure regimes in the rest of the country.  As Cathy Boone points out, disagreements over land are ubiquitous in rural Africa, but most of them stay at the level of the community and don’t scale up into organized rebellion against the government.  What might patterns of land disputes look like outside of eastern DRC?

As a first cut at this question, I searched the SCAD and ACLED datasets for any observations of protests, riots or battles that were explicitly connected to land.  (For instance, ACLED has an observation from 6 August 2011 which notes, “Lendu Communal Militia attacked the nearby village of Kpachu following a land dispute.”  This is the red dot in Orientale Province.)  This produced 41 unique observations from 1993 – 2013.  A good number of them are in the east, as one might have expected, but there’s also an interesting cluster around Mbuji-Mayi and a handful in Equateur Province as well.


I’d hoped to study the conflicts outside of the east in greater depth, but when I looked at the underlying data again, I had to pause.  It turns out that the data is really uneven in its geographic and temporal coverage.  SCAD covers the period from 1990 – 2013, sources its data from LexisNexis (which in turn sources largely from the AP and AFP), and finds 16 land disputes turned violent between 1993 and 2010.  ACLED covers the period from 1997 – 2013, relies on a wider range of data sources (including local newspapers and NGO reports), and finds 25 violent land disputes – but only between 2011 and 2013.  There’s no overlap in their observations, which makes me wonder if either of them individually, or both together, are really reliable sources for data on this particular question.

There might be two things at play here.  First, the two datasets might actually have observed similar events during the 1997 – 2013 period that they both cover, but included different levels of detail about the motivation for a particular dispute, meaning that one of them shows up in a search for “land” and the other doesn’t.  (This could be evaluated by identifying observations with approximately the same dates and locations and comparing the notes on their motivations, which I haven’t done yet.)  Second, the underlying data sources might matter a great deal, and the two datasets might not be observing the same things at all.  In SCAD’s case, I wonder why the large cluster of conflicts that ACLED finds around Mbuji-Mayi from 2011 – 2013 didn’t show up in any of their news reports; in ACLED’s, I wonder why they only began identifying any conflicts as land-related after 2010.  I don’t question the validity of the observations they did include, but the degree to which each dataset appears to be either missing data or coding it in conflicting ways seems to be significant.

I wanted to share this here not to snipe at SCAD and ACLED – which are providing a huge service in collecting all of this data and making it freely available to anyone who’d like to use it – but to emphasize the importance of ground-truthing your data, even when it’s from a well-known dataset.  As Jay Ufelder has written about at length, translating complex political events such as battles and protests into an easily comparable quantitative format is a huge challenge, and the process by which events are chosen and coded for inclusion isn’t always uniform.  As for me, I’m glad I got to explore this data, but out of concern for its representativeness I think I’m going back to the drawing board for the paper.

6 thoughts on “Land disputes and the limits of off-the-shelf data in the DRC

  1. Hi, Rachel – this may already be part of your plan (apologies if so), but it might also be interesting to look at the role of traditional authorities (or lack thereof) in these various areas. For example, when the wars started in the mid 90s, the traditional authority system (bami) was still very strong in South Kivu and most inter-ethnic group conflicts were being resolved using the traditional justice system. This was weakened over time, with divisions being widened by outside interests. I don’t know much about how/if traditional authority systems function in other areas of DRC, but I wonder if this might be a factor in how/whether land disputes escalate to violence in different parts of the country. Good luck with the research!


    1. Hi Linda – all great points! I’m definitely going to be looking at the role of traditional authorities in allocating access to land in my dissertation – probably with a focus on how that role might change as cities grow into previously rural areas where chiefs hold sway.


  2. Hi Rachel, thanks for your post, and interesting what you are trying to do. It would also be interesting to know when a ‘conflict’ is considered a conflict. Is it the level of violence? Does the number of people involved counts? Does there need to be a recognizable ‘armed group’ to be involved in order to speak of a conflict? I think in order to understand how land disputes contribute to conflict we need to look beyond only those land disputes that entail clearly visible forms of armed violence. Equating land disputes with conflict seems a bit dangerous to me.


    1. I meant ‘equating land disputes with land conflict’ or the other way around seems a bit dangerous to me.


    2. Hi Gillian! You’re totally right on all counts. I mostly wanted to see what types of quantitative data on land disputes already existed, and highlight how even data from a reliable source might not be worthwhile – which doesn’t even touch on the fact that even if the data were good, this would still be a very partial way of looking at the much broader category of “land-related disputes.” I started drafting an email to you ages ago about this and then didn’t finish it, but I’ll send it later today – there’s much I’d love to talk about, precisely along the lines of getting away from this very high-level conceptualization of “dispute = violence.” Thanks for writing!


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