• Kazumi HIRAI

Bujumbura, Burundi–Burundi, a landlocked country in the Great Lakes region, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and 80% of the population relies on agriculture as their primary source of income. This has made access to land an absolute necessity. Rapid population growth, coupled with the massive return of thousands of refugees (an estimated 210,000 returnees since 2017), are putting additional pressure on already scarce resources. 

Burundi is among twenty countries most vulnerable to climate change worldwide and one of the least prepared to grapple with these impacts. Climate-induced emergency events regularly take a toll on many Burundians: between October 2022 and April 2023, 239,321 persons were affected, many of whom lost their land and shelter when fleeing climate-induced emergency events.

In view of this, the Government of the Republic of Burundi (GoB) has committed to act around Housing, Land and Property (HLP) and increase the protection around land access and tenure for its citizens. The land policy letter, issued in 2010, was and remains the first essential tool to regulate the use of land, and the government’s commitment to the issue was most recently reiterated when announcing the country’s developmental Vision 2040-2060 in April this year, which prioritizes the management of natural and land resources, and complements Burundi’s National Development Plan 2018-2027 in these areas.

Jean Niyongabo, a communal land agent who benefited from operational training and equipment in Cibitoke province. © IOM Burundi 2023/Triffin Ntore

Since 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been working with the government to resolve issues related to the restoration and protection of returnee’s, host communities’ and internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) HLP rights. Together with other partners, this work is framed by the Joint Refugee Return and Reintegration Plan for Burundi, and spans the nexus of humanitarian, transitional and development programming. 

To provide an adequate response, the Burundian government have partnered with IOM to work on a multidimensional approach. At the hill level (the smallest administrative unit in Burundi’s local governance framework) local communities and authorities have been sensitized on the importance and procedures of land certification, and the most vulnerable supported with (legal) assistance to directly access land certificates. In addition to securing access to property, the issuance of land certificates also enables access to credit, thereby helping to develop the livelihoods of local populations.

To ensure a more effective response to community registration requests, IOM has also been supporting the Communal Land Services (CLS) through the donation of equipment, enabling them to access communities which are often dispersed across different hills more easily (or at all, since some were too far away or access not possible within the means available to the CLS agents).

Motocycle donation to strengthen capacities of the communal land service in Cibitoke province. © IOM Burundi 2023/Triffin Ntore

With the newly gained ability to reach isolated villages and ensure proper registration, Leonidas Birizanye, the Permanent Executive Secretary of the commune of Ntega, has witnessed a significant decrease in land conflicts and complaints, as highlighted in this video.

The provision of data storage servers to selected CLSs has replaced the handwritten property registers with a computerized system that has no space-limitations for new entries and where data cannot get lost easily as the formally handwritten and paper-based documents. Capacity-building workshops on the rights of the Burundian population and the authorities’ responsibilities as duty-bearers complement these activities. 

Access to land and knowledge around land rights is very often also a protection issue, particularly for the most vulnerable. Upon their return, Burundian returnees and IDPs are often confronted with the informal and unauthorized occupation of their land, and the absence of effective property registration. Land related disputes make up 90 percent of the cases brought before the courts in Burundi. Moreover, households that are unable to access and secure land have limited livelihood opportunities and are at a higher risk of eviction, which in turn leads to exacerbated protection risks such as human trafficking and gender-based violence (GBV). These risks are particularly relevant for IDPs and returnees, with a particular focus on vulnerable members of these groups, such as women-led households. They make up 61 percent of the beneficiaries reached by IOM, thus allowing them to contribute fully to the development of their communities through their direct empowerment via sensitization sessions on their rights.

Zawadi, a woman beneficiary showing off her land certificate in front of her house. © IOM Burundi 2023/Joella Bigirimana

Accordingly, and in line with the three interlinked goals of the Secretary General’s Action Agenda on Internal Displacement, which include durable solutions, better prevention and effective assistance and protection, these joint efforts have born fruits. More than 17,000 land certificates were issued to returnees, IDPs, and members of host communities between January 2021 and March 2023. This means that 43 percent of HLP beneficiaries receive direct assistance to formalize their land ownership right, which is a significant increase in requests for land certifications when compared to the past five years. This shows the importance of direct assistance in ensuring rights for all. Furthermore, in June 2023, the Burundian government, with technical and financial support from IOM, organized a national workshop titled "Contribution of Key actors in the Development of National Land Policy," making a significant step towards the development of a national land policy document, which can pave the path to the HLP sector’s contribution to Burundi’s development and the country’s Vision 2040-2060. 

However, despite this remarkable progress, challenges remain in securing HLP rights for all. From an institutional and policy framework point of view, Ibere Lopes, IOM’s HLP specialist, pointed out the need to scale up systematic land regularization operations, empower communal land agents to manage the registry, and standardize the property management system. These, amongst other actions, are areas for which it remains vital for national and local authorities to develop their capacities and work towards an inclusive access to land for all Burundians. This will ultimately ensure safe housing, effective livelihoods and a full and rights-based contribution to their societies. IOM remains committed to supporting the efforts of the government to establish an adapted and inclusive HLP sector to have all Burundian’s fully contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the goals of their communities.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities