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Liberia land policy a ‘challenge to national development’

Sime Darby plantation in Cape Mount County. Photo courtesy JPN Liberia

Sime Darby plantation in Cape Mount County. Photo courtesy JPN Liberia

  • Liberia has struggled to implement comprehensive land policy or laws to address the problems.
  • In 2009 the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set up a now-defunct Land Commission of Liberia to conduct land policy and regulatory reform.
  • The Liberian Land Rights Act was proposed two years ago but is stalled in the legislature.

Liberians are anxiously awaiting the passage of the stalled Land Rights Act, which many land experts in Liberia say will help drastically curtail conflicts. Liberia has long been plagued by disputes over land for farming and forestry including double land sales, corporate land grabbing, local disputes over territory, and equal gender access to land.

In late August 2016 one person was killed in the northern county of Nimba after two towns clashed over a parcel of land. The conflict started when residents from neighboring towns claimed the same parcel of farm land. The residents eventually armed themselves with cutlasses and sticks.

Today, two counties in western Liberia remain locked in another serious land dispute. The counties of Bomi and Gbarpolu both claim ownership to a parcel of land that’s home to a town called Sawmill.

Recently, the Liberian government, through the Ministry of Internal Affairs, dispatched a team of traditional leaders (locally called “Zoes”) to the area to make arrests and bring the situation under control. The fate of farmers on the disputed parcel of land who spoke with state radio remains uncertain because they do not know which county they actually belong to.

Land surveyors in Liberia. Photo courtesy JPN Liberia
Land surveyors in Liberia. Photo courtesy JPN Liberia

Speaking to a group of Liberian journalists recently, farmers in the area said they have been constantly threatened from both sides. An elderly man in his late 60s, Flomo Tokpa,  said most of them are no longer farming because of the problems.

“My son this year my children may not make farm because of the land business in Gbarpolu,” Topka said. “This…is very serious, as many of us here have been making farms since we were little boys. If the government does not do anything about this, I tell you, this issue will undermine our development.”

As an agro economy that depends on the natural forest for many of its exports including timber, iron, ore, and rubber, the absence of good legislation in land governance will likely also hamper the investment climate.

After 14 years of civil war that ravaged the country’s social, political and economic structure, the land sector of Liberia is known as one of the key sectors that has long been seriously engulfed in sometimes violent conflict. Liberia has struggled to implement comprehensive land policy or laws to address the problems.

Land rights protesters in Nimba County, Liberia. Photo courtesy Mark M. Dahn
Land rights protesters in Nimba County, Liberia. Photo courtesy Mark M. Dahn

In 2009 the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set up the Land Commission of Liberia to conduct land policy and regulatory reform. The commission also established a proper land governance structure to ensure that every Liberian has access to land. Before the commission came about,  a bloody land dispute involving a former lawmaker Roland Kaine and former rebel spokesman Charles Bennie left 22 people dead. In 2008, the General Manager of the Liberia Agricultural Company (LAC), Michael Bruno was shot dead by an unknown gunman. Bruno was shot at the project site where the Company was clearing to plant rubber.

No customary land

In July 2014, the defunct Land Commission of Liberia submitted the Land Rights Act to the National Legislature for passage.

The intent of the Act is to ensure that the issue of land ownership is properly coordinated so that ordinary people can have access to their own land. The Land Rights Act remains in the corridors of the legislature with no action taken.

As a result of the delay in passing the Land Rights Act into law, civil society organizations have come together under the banner of the Civil Society Organizations (CSO) working Group on Land and Community Rights. On September 8, the group petitioned the legislature to make the proposed Land Rights Act into law and address the constant land disputes in Liberia.

The act seeks to provide three categories of land ownership in Liberia: government, private and customary land ownership. Currently, only government or public land, and private land exist.

The civil society working group believe that private and public (government) land ownership have deprived the ordinary people access to their own land. They also believe that if given customary land ownership rights, they will be able to make decisions on their own.

The group argues that many land- or forest-related disputes in the country will continue unabated if the legislature fails to pass Land Rights Act.

Forstina Gonba, head of a student group working with the CSO working group, says access to customary land will increase productivity in the rural areas and also reduce the numerous land conflicts around the country.

“This Land Rights Act means a lot to the ordinary people, some people want to develop the land but the land is not theirs,” Gonba said. “The passage of this act will bring peace and prosperity in the country.”

He added that incidents in about half a dozen counties prove the need for passage of the law.

Gonba also indicated that the passage of the Act will bring all concerned customary lands under one category and increase food production in many counties.

Liberian women petition the government for land rights. Photo courtesy Mark Dahn
Liberian women petition the government for land rights. Photo courtesy Mark Dahn

Betty Sharpe is affiliated with a women’s land rights working group called Sharpe Home Care Services (SHOCAS) agrees.

“Land rights is human right,” she said. She also believes that Liberia will not be peaceful if the issue of land ownership is not settled.

“We are calling on you honorable lawmakers to please pass this act so everyone can live in peace,” Sharpe said. “We need a positive answer when it comes to this land rights act.”

Senate response

Responding to the CSO’s quest, the leader of the Liberian senate, Armah Jallah, admitted that the bill is still before the senate.

He said the bill was received in 2014 from the executive branch of the Liberian government and the appropriate committee at the senate will discuss the bill for consideration.

“We’re aware that the executive sent us a bill about land right and is still in committee room, but I can assure you that bill will be on the senate floor for discussion soon,” he said.

Senator Jallah said that the legislature will do all it can to ensure that every citizen in Liberia has equal access to land regardless of gender, ethnicity, sex or creed.

The Liberian legislature in April passed the Land Authority Act that seeks to establish the management of land administration. It also deals with crafting policy in land tenure.

Liberia has had a serious problem with how forest land can be equally or equitably distributed between men and women. This is particularly true in families where the women have little access to family land.

Experts in Liberia say the key to ensuring responsible gender-equitable governance of land tenure is to start with a gender-equitable policy making process in which all stakeholders, women and men, are equally included in formulating positive laws.

In an interview, Mark Idala, Country Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said the government of Liberia needs to formulate laws that will provide for equal land distribution and participation regardless of status in the society.

Idala said that voluntary Guidelines of Governance of Land Tenure (VGGT) is one of the key principles that if implemented could be good for Liberia. The VGGT seeks to give equal access to land and governance of Land tenure for all sexes.

Land grabbing

One of the key issues affecting the forest sector in the absence of proper land rights is land acquisition — which critics term “land grabbing” — by companies in Liberia. Sime Darby, a Malaysian oil company, and citizens of Grand Cape Mount county have on several occasions had bitter disputes with residents who have accused the company of cutting down their forest illegally.

In 2009 Sime Darby signed a 63-year concession agreement with the government of Liberia to develop palm oil in western Liberia. But residents in the area told state radio ELBC in early September that the company has gone beyond the boundary as spelled out in the agreement and is destroying their farmlands.

A resident of Zoduo Clan, James Momo, said area residents don’t know exactly how many hectares of land was granted to Sime Darby by the government and they are worried to see the company expanding its plantation every year.

“Our land here is threatened because we do not know the boundary for Sime Darby, they just extending the palm farm again,” he said.

However Sime Darby contested these claims, maintaining it follows proper procedures in acquiring rights to convert lands, including now securing full prior and informed consent (FPIC) of affected communities. The company also asserted that SDPL has only developed 10,437 hectares of its 311,187-hectare concession, three-quarters of which consisted of an “old rubber plantation” belonging to Guthrie Plantation Liberia.

“Between 2011 and 2012 we accept that we didn’t get things right and that there were disputes with communities. However, since 2013 we have improved our processes and have been engaging citizens and other stakeholders on a regular basis,” a company spokesperson told Mongabay. “Our FPIC process starts with a ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MOU) which is signed by the community and Sime Darby, and witnessed by the Government and NGOs. We currently have an MOU agreement with the Zodua clan, and we are confident we have their full support in developing their land. If community members do not provide consent, Sime Darby will not develop the land.”

Editor’s Note: On September 16 at 1:07 pm Pacific Daylight Time, this article was corrected to include a response from Sime Darby. We made the following changes: “One of the key issues affecting the forest sector in the absence of proper land rights is land grabbing by companies in Liberia” was changed to “One of the key issues affecting the forest sector in the absence of proper land rights is land acquisition — which critics term “land grabbing” — by companies in Liberia”. We also added the two paragraphs starting with “However Sime Darby contested these claims …”

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