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Aloys Mwezi’s stick-thin frame quivers with anger in the shadows of the acacia trees. He starts to shout, jabs a finger at the government official, and makes his argument once more. He should not have to share his farmland with his 14 relatives, he says, because he has a piece of paper from a Rwandan court confirming it all belongs to him.

“Yes sir, I know,” says the lady from the National Land Centre in Kigali, looking up from a bench piled high with ledgers marked “Claims Disputes”. “But now your relatives are making claims too, it may not be valid.” Mr Mwezi shakes his head and snatches back his piece of paper.

It is another morning in the village of Kanzenze, another dispute for the open-air mediation team and another twist in a drive to issue title deeds for the first time. Using a database of satellite photographs and an army of surveyors, the government wants to demarcate all 7.9m plots of land and record them by the end of 2014.

The project is the most sophisticated of its kind in Africa and the sort of ambitious scheme with which President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda is becoming synonymous.

The hardest part is resolving disputes without violence, the task of the officials and local volunteers on the mediation committees, which open to hear complaints after demarcated maps are posted on village notice boards.

Mr Mwezi’s fight is over two hectares of banana trees and cassava plants a few kilometres south of Kigali, but all over Rwanda, the ownership of countless hillside terraces and tufty patches of pasture is in dispute.

“You realise what they are disputing over is really very trivial, but it becomes very serious because it is land,” says Emmanuel Nkurunziza, director general of the land centre.

The numbers show why: Eighty per cent of Rwandans depend directly on agriculture; they live at a density of 350 people per sq km, the highest in Africa; and the population is growing at 2.6 per cent a year. That is a stark reminder that Rwanda’s future depends on what happens to the impoverished millions who hoe the soil.

Population pressure is a recipe for social friction when the wounds of the 1994 genocide remain so fresh. But disputes between Tutsis and Hutus are less common than those such as Mr Mwezi’s, which is rooted in the genocide but between members of a Tutsi extended family.

Allied against him are his one surviving brother and the children of his five other dead siblings, who are represented by Yves Nyatanyi, a nephew. Mr Nyatanyi, whose his crisp white shirt marks him out as a city resident, says later: “He can cultivate for us. We can share the profits. He is our uncle. We do not want him to have a bad life.”

The government says the best way to make rural areas less volatile is to make them more prosperous, which is why it has rolled out grand plans for raising agricultural productivity. It wants to rehabilitate degraded soils and broaden the use of fertiliser and high-yielding seeds; more food processing and more diversification into coffee and tea; upgraded feeder roads; and rural electrification.

But none of that can happen unless the government sorts out land tenure, because a farmer who has only informal rights to his plot has little incentive to invest heavily in it.

That was how things were until 2005 when a land law was passed that paved the way for replacing unwritten customary claims with formal property rights. It gave women equal land rights to men for the first time too.

“It can unlock the potential of land as an asset,” says Sion McGeever at the Kigali office of the UK’s Department for International Development, which is funding £20m ($32.4m) of the £37m land title project.

Mr Nkurunziza says he feared disputes over more than 10 per cent of plots but, so far, fewer than 5 per cent have been contested.

Mr Mwezi’s is one of the many tangled cases whose threads stretch back to the early 1960s, when he fled Rwanda for Tanzania after his father was murdered during Tutsi purges under a new Hutu dictatorship.

A brother who had a plot in Kanzenze was killed during the 1994 genocide and when Mr Mwezi returned in 1998 he found it had been taken over by a Hutu.

He took him to court and it ruled the two men had to split the land. Then, this year, when demarcation began, his relatives demanded that Mr Mwezi share his two hectares.

The nieces and nephews say that, when Mr Mwezi went to court he was representing all of them. He says that since no one bothered to help him at the time, the land is all his.

But two days later, he says his daughter and two sons have talked him down. “They said: ‘You are an old man. You should accept it. We are young. We can look for other things’,” he explains. “So I called the relatives and said it was OK.” They can split his plot and Rwanda can begin to consign land disputes to the past.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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