Côte d'Ivoire

Ivory Coast's war exacerbates bloody land dispute

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By Silvia Aloisi

DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Sawadogo Ouindi was never a rich man, but now he's lost everything.

An immigrant from Burkina Faso who had settled in a western Ivory Coast village, Petit Guiglo, he earned his living farming a cocoa plantation. This week Ivorian villagers turned against him and took his land and his harvest.

"They said I was a rebel. They said I had to go," he said, speaking from a makeshift refugee camp in Duekoue, a western town on the frontline in Ivory Coast's four-month civil war.

The conflict in the world's top cocoa producer, pitting three rebel factions against President Laurent Gbagbo, has exacerbated a bloody, long-running land dispute between Ivorians and foreign immigrants -- mostly from Burkina Faso.

Gbagbo's government had accused Burkina Faso of harbouring the dissident soldiers who now lead the rebels even before the crisis began with a failed coup on September 19. Since then, it says there is evidence of stronger support.

It did not take long before Burkinabe immigrants, who form the backbone of the cocoa industry workforce, became victims of reprisal attacks by security forces and local villagers accusing them of at least sympathising with the rebels.

A refugee camp at Duekoue, set up in a church courtyard and run by Spanish missionaries, is now home to 2,315 Burkinabe -- of whom 1,500 are children. But chief missionary Emilio Hernando said the refugees began arriving even before the war.

"The land problem has been there for a long time. The war only made it worse," he said.

NO LONGER WELCOME

Migrant workers started flocking to Ivory Coast from its poorer, landlocked neighbours after independence from France in 1960, encouraged by then President Felix Houphouet-Boigny who sought cheap labour to develop the cocoa industry.

Immigrants, including three million Burkinabe, now make up a quarter of the country's 16-million population.

For decades Ivorian landowners sold or rented their land to migrant workers -- Houphouet-Boigny used to say the land was the property of whoever worked it.

But a new law promulgated in 1998 under pressure from local farmers said only Ivorian nationals could be landowners, sparking bloody clashes between villagers and immigrants.

The land dispute, aggravated by the near disappearance of once-plentiful rain forest ideal for growing cocoa, is one of the crucial issues on the table at peace talks in Paris.

Sources close to the closed-door negotiations said on Wednesday an agreement had been reached on the need to make property ownership easier for foreigners.

But it may already be too late to stop violence spreading in countless hamlets dotting Ivory Coast's west.

Refugees, mostly Muslims, say they were chased from their plantations by local villagers of the Guere ethnic group from Gbagbo's mainly Christian and animist west. Largely Muslim northern Ivory Coast is held by rebels.

"The Guere say the land is theirs. They burnt our houses, they took our harvest," said 36-year-old Rabo.

Hernando said at one stage his mission hosted 6,000 Burkinabe. Many have now gone back into the bush, setting up militias to retrieve what they say is their land.

"People are fighting in villages. There are wounded, there are dead," he said.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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