During the orientation process of the available literature, we identified the following interventions as most plausible for ensuring compliance with decisions and achieving closure (stabilising) in ownership and use of land disputes:
Once the parties to an ownership or use of land dispute have accepted their agreement and demonstrated their commitment to its terms, an additional step is needed to ensure their compliance with the agreement and achieve closure. Performing a public ceremony (sometimes called a “reconciliation,” ”signing” or ”witnessing” ceremony) and formally registering the land that was previously under dispute are two of the most common ways of doing this.
Performing a public (“reconciliation”/”signing”/”witnessing”) ceremony
Formally registering the land
For parties to a ownership or use of land dispute looking to ensure compliance with their decisions and achieve closure (stabilise their agreement), is performing a public ceremony or formally registering their land more effective for well-being?
The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, and ResearchGate.
For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: land dispute resolution; ownership and use of land disputes; land disputes reconciliation ceremony; land conflict reconciliation ceremony; land disputes signing ceremony; land disputes witnessing ceremony; land registration procedures
Quality of evidence and research gap
According to our research method, we grade the evidence comparing performing a public (“reconciliation”/”signing”/”witnessing”) ceremony and formally registering the land as very low. Although ample research on formal land registration is available, there is a dearth of evidence on its benefits relative to those of more informal procedures used to stabilise and ensure compliance with ownership and use land agreements, such as public ceremonies. There is also a general lack of empirical studies examining the land dispute resolution process in detail. Most of the available evidence comes in the form of case studies or expert opinions based on fieldwork.
Performing a public ceremony
Formally registering the land
Performing “such ceremonies and celebrations can…help to validate the legality of the agreement; solidify respect, harmony and goodwill between the parties; and stimulate community-wide accountability to the terms of the agreement” (Knight et al., 2017, p. 174).
Formally registering the land stabilises the agreement of the parties by making it legally valid and easier to enforce, which benefits the parties in the form of increased land tenure security. “Carrying out the required registration formalities so that [a newly produced land] deed” ensures that it “is legally valid and enforceable” (Norton, 2011, p. 23). “Formal government registration is the strongest form of rights documentation” (Knight, 2017, p. 187).
Evidence suggests that parties to an ownership or use of land dispute who perform a public ceremony are less likely to violate the agreement or re-open the matter due to the social and material costs associated with doing so. “Once these ceremonies have been performed, disputants very rarely take the case to another authority or transgress the agreement, because the social and material consequences of doing so would be quite high, including a fine several times what was paid in the reconciliation itself. In cases which are forwarded to government institutions or courts, the disputants and traditional authorities usually agree to that step before going through the reconciliation ceremony” (Meitzner Yoder, 2003, p. 21).
Formal registration following an agreement contributes to tenure security and helps prevent re-escalation of the dispute. “The creation of tenure security should be part of the land conflict resolution process. Once all legitimate tenure rights held by different conflict parties have been identified and a solution over future access to and use of the land [has] been achieved, tenure security should be established to prevent a re-escalation of the conflict. The creation of tenure security can have various forms, individual titling being only one of them” (Wehrmann, p. 95).
Performing a public ceremony
Formally registering the land
Depending on the setting of the ownership or use of land dispute resolution process, the authority of the customary leaders or institutions involved in the public ceremony may be inadequate to stabilise the agreement within the community. “Many customary institutions and techniques [such as reconciliation/signing/witnessing ceremonies] have changed over time through colonial interventions, independent state actions or other external influences. At the same time, certain aspects of customary institutions may be inadequate for addressing the scale and intensity of contemporary conflicts” (Goldman et al., 2014, p. 153).
Formally registering land in the aftermath of a dispute can be costly. Land registration procedures typically require the parties involved to pay various legal and informal fees (Norton, 2011, p. 23).
In addition to the cost, lack of understanding about formal land registration procedures may deter parties from proceeding with registration once they are in possession of a land deed or title. “The registration process is fairly complicated and bureaucratic and this complexity and the cost deter many Liberians from completing the registration procedure. In addition, some people wrongly believe that mere possession of a land deed is sufficient” (Norton, 2011, p. 23). “It is therefore essential that parties receive information and counselling about the registration process in language that they can understand” (Norton, 2011, p. 24).
The value of formally registering land depends on the capacity of the land registration system in a given country to progress land registration applications, or the availability of neutral third parties who are able to assist in capacity building. “There is little point in encouraging and assisting [parties to ownership or use of land disputes] to submit large numbers of registration applications if the system cannot in fact process them. It may sometimes be necessary to [for neutral third parties involved] to consider carefully targeted capacity building assistance, which can be as simple as helping to ensure that document ledgers are properly indexed” (Norton, 2011, p. 24).
“Some communities may be skeptical of – or directly opposed to – registering their land claims with the government” (Knight et al., 2017, p. 187). This skepticism may be a result of the tax burdens associated with land registration or fears related to the parties’ immigration status, for example.
Taken together, the available research suggests that both performing a public ceremony and formally registering land have stabilising effects and are generally conducive to the well-being of the parties to an ownership or use of land dispute. There are also potential challenges associated with both, the relevance of which depends on the setting of the land resolution process.
Both public ceremonies and land registration procedures have the effect of helping to validate and reinforce the parties’ agreement and prevent re-escalation or re-opening of the dispute. Public ceremonies do this by fostering harmony and goodwill between the parties and stimulating community-wide accountability to the agreement. Formal land registration achieves this by contributing to tenure security and making the agreement (and land rights protected by it) easier to uphold/enforce.
Although there are practical difficulties potentially associated with both interventions (depending on the location and cultural context of the dispute), neither of the compared interventions is likely to harm the well-being of the parties involved. Performing a public ceremony will have a less stabilising effect in communities where the customary authorities or institutions that would typically facilitate such a ceremony are less well-recognised or respected. The value of formally registering land will also depend on the capacity of the land registration system in a given country, the complexity of the required procedures, and legal and informal costs of doing so.
Performing a public ceremony and formally registering the land are roughly equal in the benefits they provide as well as the practical difficulties potentially associated with each. When used together, these interventions can also be mutually reinforcing.
Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the social and material benefits for land owners and users, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to a ownership or use of land dispute looking to ensure compliance with their decisions and achieve closure (stabilise their agreement), performing a public ceremony and formally registering the land are both conducive to well-being. Their relative effectiveness depends on the local context and culture.
Performing a public ceremony is most effective in communities where the customary leaders and institutions that would typically be involved in such a ceremony are well-respected and can confer legitimacy on the stabilising process. Formally registering one’s land is most effective in settings where land registration systems are highly functional and where practical barriers associated with the registration process are low.
With that said, either intervention – or a combination of the two – is preferable to doing nothing to ensure parties’ compliance with the land agreement and achieve closure.
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