An image of the country's flag.

Burundi‘s history of political conflict over the last 50 years has revolved in large measure around issues of access to land for agriculture. With a rapidly growing population of 8 million people overwhelmingly dependent on farming for employment and incomes, the ability of Burundi‘s government to resolve outstanding disputes over rural land will be critical to political stability as well as economic growth. Repeated episodes of population displacements due to conflict, an already high level of population density, traditional laws and customs that discriminate against women‘s ownership of land and other fixed assets, and the inter-linking of ethnic identities with access to land and other resources: all of these factors challenge the abilities of the government and its donor-partners to develop a satisfactory property rights regime and provide adequate resource governance in Burundi. Further, recent reports of increased investments in mining activities and the potential for petroleum extraction may generate new opportunities for conflict over natural resources.

Donors have stepped up their support for Burundi‘s efforts to address land ownership and management issues since the election of 2005. Efforts have included: providing financial and technical assistance for drafting a new Land Code and for developing the dispute resolution work of the National Commission for Land and Other Possessions (CNTB); strengthening the capacity of the government to register property and of the judiciary and informal institutions to resolve disputes; piloting the decentralization of land administration to local levels (with specific priority given to ensuring that women had access to land); and developing options for repatriation and resettlement of displaced people and reintegration of former combatants into civilian life. Substantial and sustained economic growth based on increasing agricultural productivity will, however, require continued attention to issues of property rights and resource governance. Outstanding questions include, for example: how sufficient land might be made available to permit rural households, including those headed by women, to increase their incomes through intensified agricultural production; what kinds of rules would increase access to and assure better management of water and wetlands for production; and how forests might be maintained or even enhanced to protect watersheds and produce fuel wood and timber for the population.


In order to realize stronger economic growth while maintaining peace and security, Burundi‘s institutions for land administration, adjudication and dispute settlement, and the continued development of a new legal framework governing property rights will need substantial financial support as well as technical assistance. As a matter of priority, support might be targeted at:

  • Development and adoption of a legal framework governing land. Burundi is at a critical juncture regarding land access and tenure security. Reinvigoration of the Government‘s effort to draft and pass a land code is a priority, followed by a long-term institutional and financial commitment from the international donor community. Once a land code passes, the GOB will need technical and financial assistance in drafting complementary legislation and implementing decrees, conducting a country-wide public information and awareness campaign to the population and civil society, training government administrative and judicial personnel on the law, and resolving land disputes that pre- date the code and/or those that arise due to new code provisions. The GOB will also need technical and financial assistance to build the capacity of new or newly reconfigured institutions charged with implementing different aspects of the law, particularly those related to land administration.
  • Institutions that can help to resolve land-based disputes in the short term. The work of the National Commission for Land and Other Property (CNTB) has already demonstrated some results but much remains to be done. Some have suggested that the traditional Bashingantahe’s capacities should be strengthened to permit disputes to be settled at the local level. In addition to providing financial support for the work of these organizations, donors could provide expanded training on conflict-resolution methods as well as helping them to ensure that the basic constitutional principles of equality and fairness are reflected in decision-making.
  • Institutions that are committed to improving women’s rights, especially with regard to access to and inheritance of land. This is especially important for women being repatriated from camps of displaced persons and a relatively large population of widowed women, but is also important for ensuring that the principles of the Burundian constitution regarding individuals‘ property rights are translated into reality. Donors have already begun to work with civil society organizations and have supported pilot efforts to reintegrate women into rural lives. Sustained support for expanded efforts is needed to have a greater impact.
  • Institutions that govern water resources, both to provide potable water services and to manage rainfall and surface water for expanded and more sustainable agricultural production. There is growing evidence of excessive erosion in denuded watersheds, increased use of wetlands for production, and awareness that drought can threaten overall productivity. If Burundi‘s nickel resources are exploited in the coming decade, these mining operations are also likely to have an impact on water use and quality. Donor support for assessing and reforming the existing institutional and legal frameworks governing water could held to ensure a more equitable and sustainable situation going forward. This initiative could also link with a forestry initiative, as protection of upper watersheds through afforestation is likely to be an important approach to better water management.


Since Burundi‘s independence in 1962, ethnically based political parties have vied for control of the country, resulting in decades of violent conflict. Families have been forced to flee successive waves of conflict, and tens of thousands have been internally displaced or temporarily resettled in neighboring countries. Lands left by refugees and displaced persons have since been occupied by other families. As a result, rights for returnees are uncertain, and disputes are common. Continued risk of violent conflict in rural areas impedes development and hinders a reduction of government spending on security measures, to the detriment of pro-poor programs.

Since the 2005 elections and a 2006 ceasefire, a fragile peace has existed in Burundi. Some incidents of violence occur, such as in April 2008 when rebels fired on the capital, but sustained conflict has not resumed. In mid-2010, the national elections held in the country were marred by pre- election violence and resulting low turnout. The ruling party retained control of the country, and despite allegations by opposition parties of election abuses, international election observers concluded that the election procedures were transparent and conducted peacefully.

Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world, constrained by the productivity of its agricultural sector. Although its tea and coffee sectors have traditionally fueled Burundi‘s exports, high – and growing – rural population densities have led to increased land scarcity, fragmentation and degradation, and these in turn have contributed to low levels of productivity in many parts of the sector that supports as much as 95% of the country‘s population.

Much of Burundi‘s forestland has been lost to the demand for fuelwood, and expansion of agricultural lands and plantations has replaced most natural forest. The country has had little experience with community forest management, although local communities have been engaged in plantation development. One of the largest remaining expanses of forestland is Kibira National Park which, together with Rwanda‘s adjacent Nyungwe National Park, forms one of the greatest remaining tracts of mountain forest in East Africa and the most wildlife-rich ecosystem in the Albertine Rift.

Prior conflicts and lack of investment have damaged the country‘s water supply facilities and reduced the government‘s ability to provide safe drinking water to the population. In one study, 50% of respondents indicated that they have to pay bribes to obtain access to safe drinking water. The government recognizes the sector‘s need for reform, and is working with USAID, the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and other donors on a new legal framework and restructuring plans.

Although historically Burundi has not been a globally significant source of minerals, it has substantial nickel reserves as well as stocks of other metals, and a British company has begun exploration of petroleum reserves under Lake Tanganyika.

Published / Updated: December 2010