Overall, respondents cited land disputes, including property rights, trespassing and tenure, as the type of conflict they most frequently bring before customary justice (figure 14). Others cited property-related disputes. Specifically, nine interviewees brought disputes in relation to the water rights of fishermen, six brought disputes related to grazing rights for animals and three brought disputes related to cattle driving. All these litigants declared themselves satisfied with the mediation process and its outcome.
These findings align with a recent report in the Malian press that rural land ownership remains an important source of social conflicts and rivalries, and that most land-related conflicts involve agricultural lands, which are a scarce resource across the country. This shortage is further aggravated by the speculation of private entrepreneurs, against whom farmers feel powerless. Further, these findings also match a 2015 International Monetary Fund report stating that ‘the real estate and property sectors in Mali are not formally regulated or supervised’ and that customary practices dominate in the awarding of land titles. This state of affairs has led to fraudulent actions to arbitrarily award land, among other corruption related issues.
In recent years, recognising that the status quo on the regulation of property is untenable, the Government of Mali has attempted to craft and adopt a law to improve the management of real estate and to replace the perceived arbitrariness of customary practices. The final law, adopted by the National Assembly in March 2017, Loi portant sur le foncier agricole, attributes specific roles to customary justice actors. For example, village chiefs are put in charge of any land transactions in which ownership is not formally registered, including donations and loans of land for a specific use. Every transaction authorised by a traditional chief is then filed with the municipality and legalised by the mayor. With regard to property regulations, customary ownership not registered with the municipality becomes official and permanent after 20 years of continuous use of the land by the same individual.
Additionally, every holder of customary ownership over a parcel of land is entitled to have their property rights formalised by the municipality, but only after approval by the village chief. Customary rights are recognised, preserved and can be transformed into ownership rights in accordance with the regulations. Most important, no agricultural land title can be established without verifying precedent customary agricultural land rights. Finally, the law regulates cattle driving, grazing and fishing rights. In the case of conflicts arising from land disputes, every village will have a Village Land Commission, which will be authorised to attempt a mediation of any dispute before deferring it to formal justice. No details are given with regards to their anticipated structure, however, including whether marginalised groups such as women or youth would be included in the decision-making process.
The law passed in March 2017 is potentially beneficial for both customary and formal justice, and for efforts to ultimately better integrate the two. First, the law provides clear guidance to customary chiefs, reduces arbitrary decision making and leads to the formalisation of the decisions of customary chiefs. It thus has the potential to curb one of the main identified flaws: the ‘lack of written evidence, everything is oral, no enforcement power, no obligation.’ Moreover, the law guarantees greater inclusiveness of vulnerable actors such as women and youth, by assigning them at least 15 percent of the agricultural land. Given the state’s attention to the issue, land disputes will likely be a driver of the evolution of customary mechanisms and of their connection to formal justice institutions.