Liberia – Land Rights Reform

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Civil society groups call for an improved policy approach to forested areas, as concerns remain over the ambiguous tenure of customary land.

In an October 2015 conference entitled ‘Re-thinking Libya’s Forests‘, UK-based campaigns group Global Witness called for international partners and civil society groups to work together towards creating a more inclusive policy framework and understanding of the value of Liberia’s forested areas.

The discussions urged for the creation of a multi-stakeholder, gender inclusive steering group to encourage innovation in community forestry, particularly land planning. Key stakeholders included the NGO Coalition of Liberia and USAID.

Liberia, was identified by the United Nations (UN) as possibly having serious social repercussions from ongoing land disputes; In October 2015 Al-Jazeera reported that the government promised 520,000 hectares of land — close to 5% of the country — to the top four palm oil companies in Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made an effort to attract foreign investors; Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) holds 220,000 hectares, roughly the size of Tokyo, for an initial term of 65 years.

In 2009 the Liberian government established the Land Commission to determine how the country might address customary ownership issues. By late 2014, the commission had drafted the Land Rights Act (LRA), although Al-Jazeera commented that while the law looks good, the enforcement will be difficult, as collusion and intimidation can make free and informed consent almost impossible. The LRA is currently being debated within the Liberian government.

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Global Witness

Additionally, in 2012, Liberia and the European Union (EU) signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) that committed Liberia to take steps to eliminate illegal timber from domestic or international markets, and the EU to take measures to prevent illegal timber from entering its market.

President Johnson Sirleaf commented, during the October 2015 conference, that “we have taken pragmatic and firm steps in recognising the breakdown in the rule of law in the forest sector and the consequent harm to the national interest.” Steps taken include a switch to a focus on conservation and community management; “the policy recognises community land right and establishes a distinct category of community land rights,” continued President Sirleaf, cited by Front Page Africa.

However it is important for these new conservation projects and property regimes to be inclusive. Conservation areas should not exclude those people who depend on forested landscapes for their survival, while community property and land rights should not be formalised in such a way that only the wealthiest locals benefit.

SciDev reported that the Rights and Resources Initiative had conducted an analysis of the coordination between Norway and Liberia for US$100m of support to protect 30% of Liberia’s forests. The researchers postulated six scenarios to estimate amount of people who could be displaced by creating conservation parks in populated forest areas.

The report warns that compensation for people forced to move and facing loss of livelihood is estimated to be six times more than the $100m currently available to implement the entire project, reported SciDev.

According to the Global Forest Watch Liberia lost an estimated 711,476 hectares between 2001 and 2014, with only 4% of the forested area described as primary forest. Experts estimate that 71% of Liberia’s land area is held under customary tenure, but commercial concessions cover as much as 75% of the country’s land, reported the Africa Report.

Many rural communities work farmland as labourers, and struggle to regain land that was grabbed to establish commercial projects or national parks, often through ambiguous legal regimes. It is hoped that the new reforms to the land law will protect the poorest, but difficulties in its implementation and the guarantee of fair and equitable distribution, still remain.

Global Witness provide a number of resources on Liberia, available here.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin

LIBERIA: Senatorial Polls
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.51, Issue.12, Pp.20384B–20385A

LIBERIA: Justice Minister Resigns
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Vol.51, Issue.10, Pp.20307A–20308A

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Vol.51, Issue.5, Pp.20134B

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