Mount Nyiragongo exploded on May 22, leaving hundreds of thousands of people deprived of their land, amid threats of new disasters
The volcano has again revealed the consequences of natural disasters on land rights.
The smoke and ash that billowed from the cone of Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, did not only kill dozens of people and destroy 5,000 homes in nearby Goma.
The tremors and aftershocks shook the city, collapsing buildings and triggering a mass evacuation, though Scientists who approached the steaming volcano confirm that the danger appears to have passed — at least for now.
Dario Tedesco who has studied Congo’s volcanoes since 1995 told journalists in Goma that he is not “ruling out the possibility of another eruption.” Then quickly added, “But statistically there is very little chance this will happen.”
The Congolese government says the area is still on “red alert” and has warned residents to evacuate. For many residents of Goma, they’ve not only become homeless and haunted by hunger, but also landless, especially in Bukumu.
Alfred, one of the 400,000 persons displaced by the volcano, share his cramped shelter in Sake, 12 miles northwest of Goma, with 40 other people. But he is worried that someone else has unlawfully raised a structure on his land despite the government’s ominous warnings of possible mass poisoning.
“I’m mostly afraid of the unorganized nature of land reoccupation now,” Alfred said. “Even without the volcano, land conflict in Goma was frequent.”
International Land Coalition reiterates its sympathy and support for the affected populations and hopes that an organized program of reoccupation will be put in place.
In its evaluation report on the area post-eruption, International Land Coalition members in the DR Congo, especially Action et Aide pour la Paix, note that Nyiragongo is dominated by non-registered, non-urbanized land, the lack of information, scarcity of land, and land holding on the basis of local customs and practices. As a result, the reoccupation of land in the space covered by the lava deserves proper organization.
In that situation report released on June 2, Action et Aide pour la Paix stressed the need for such ordering of reoccupation, noting that it “would allow each disaster victim to peacefully recover its portion of land, and prevent (or reduce) land conflict that may be born from the process of re-occupation of the soil in this area newly covered by lava.”
International Land Coalition members in the Democratic Republic of Congo go on to recall that for several months, prior to the eruption, the area was already under interethnic tensions. The tensions were caused mainly by land disputes between the indigenous Kumu and the new occupants who are mainly from the Nande community. The latter had fled civilian massacres by ADF-NALU rebels and armed groups operating in the territories of Beni and Lubero.
The foregoing goes on to demonstrate how effective land use and planning are essential for the prevention of disasters. In addition - as seen with the 400,000 persons fleeing Goma - land is fundamental to the recovery from disasters: it provides a site for shelter, a resource for livelihoods and a place to access services and infrastructure. Therefore, land issues, such as security of tenure, land use, land administration and access, are important to key humanitarian sectors after a disaster.
Nyiragongo could be a wakeup call to further understand land issues before and after natural disasters.
Lead photo credit: Finbarr O’Reilly