Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Liberia’s New Land Rights Policy and the Opportunities for Local Communities

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Recent policy reforms in Liberia are likely to lead to a viable democratic state that protects the property rights (constitutional rights) of the people, provided relevant portions are legislated, implemented and enforced. This edition of the series is focused on the new Land Rights Policy, which has come as a major national instrument to comprehensively address the issues of land ownership, and the protection of tenure security for land owners in Liberia. The ownership or distribution and governance of land and its related resources have been a major challenge for human societies from time immemorial, as it has been a great source for wealth and a source of conflict. Liberia’s major attempt at addressing problems associated with land since the end of the civil war is articulated in what the Land Commission has just promulgated, the Land Rights Policy.

The land Rights policy attempts for the first time to clarify land ownership in the country into various categories rather than retaining the vague classifications of land ownership that are in extant and controversial laws like the Aborigines Law of 1956, Public Lands Laws of 1973 and other laws related to forest ownership and management. In the new policy, there are four categories of land rights in Liberia. A land may be owned either by the Government (Government Land), a private citizen or group (Private Land), a community (Customary Land) or for every Liberian (Public Land). These four classifications are very important in determining tenure security, ownership and management, and the policy went further in proposing governance arrangements under each category. In the opinion of this patriot this new classification and recognition of specific rights brings an opportunity in protecting the historic inheritance and traditional rights of families, private individuals and vulnerable communities that have been the victims of peripheral capitalism and accumulation in Liberia.

Over the years, the Liberian state have expropriated lands belonging to communities and tribes and HAS given same to multinational companies under various forms of concessions including plantation agriculture and mineral extraction. Unfortunately, these concessions only supported the growth of an enclave economy in the capital with the presidency and state elites as the largest beneficiaries, leaving customary landowners landless, and poor. Promises of social development and employments have passed unfulfilled. This has not changed for the better even though some reform measures including the Community Rights Law of 2009 and the National Forestry Reform Law of 2006 have been promulgated and legislated since the end of the civil war. However, the reforms bring some levels of hopes for those communities in that once effective governing arrangements are put in place, they will gain their fair share from their inherited properties.

With the new land rights policy and the above mentioned laws, customary landowners have not only been recognized as legitimate owners, but have been given a status of equal participants in managing, and investing in their land as legal entities with the authority to enter into contracts and obtain equities. The novel thing about the Land Rights Policy is that it recognizes this category of customary land rights and calls for the recognition of such as private land rights and governed under both formal laws and customary laws based on the given area. This means a particular clan, chiefdom, or village that has historic claim over a land will be recognized as the private owner of the land with a titled deed in the name of the clan, chiefdom or tribe issued by the Republic of Liberia. The governance and management of customary land is left with the community that owns the land, and strong points are made in the policy for inclusive decision-making processes that are transparent and accountable. This provision of the policy in my view will protect vulnerable groups within the communities, such as women, young people and disabled against the manipulations of community-based elites. In a broader perspective, the policy seeks to protect the land rights of each citizen whether under private or community ownership.

The unfettered control of the Liberian presidency and some state elites over lands in rural Liberia for commercial purposes, particularly the loose authority of the President to grant concessions on lands under the Public Land Laws of 1973 is to come to an end with communities now having the rights to determine how investments are made on their lands. The policy gives the Government of Liberia the right (authority) to manage concessions on customary land in the interest of the people. This management function given to the government is to assert the sovereignty of the state in dealing with multinational companies and further protect the communities. This clause and other clauses related to land rental fees provided for in the Community Rights Law, and the National Forest Reform Law, and the international principles of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), have put local communities in a better position today as opposed to the past. If all of these are scrupulously implemented through a process of local self-governance empowered by Liberia’s National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance, they will provide greater prospects for local economic transformation of Liberia’s rural poor , and will further reduce the problems of local resistance against concession companies in the country, like the case of the Liberia Agriculture Company and the people of Grand Bassa in 2007 and the ongoing crises between the people of Grand cape Mount and the Malaysian-owned Sime Darby Plantation.

Finally, while the policy provides for a brighter future for customary landowners, it also endorsed the past violations of customary rights by declaring that it will not be applied retroactively. This means communities that have lost lands and are still fighting against the government and concession companies are declared losers and will never recover their inherited properties. It is for these communities that progressive activists must demand adequate and sustainable reparations including satisfactory resettlement benefits.

-In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry