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Liberia land policy, a ‘challenge to national development’

Mark M. Dahn
A section of SIme Darby  Plantations in  Grand Cape Mount  County, Liberia- photo by JPN
A section of SIme Darby Plantations in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia- photo by JPN

LIBERIA-Liberia has long been plagued by disputes over land for farming and forestry use that sometimes end in murder.

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

“a Land right 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, Hon. Armah Jallah, admitted that the bill is still before the senate. “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.

Hon. Jallah 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. 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 Senate, in April passed the Land Authority Act that seeks to establish the management and 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.

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

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 (FAO), 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 sex.

Land grabbing
One of the key issues affecting the forest sector in the absence of proper land rights is alleged land grabbing by some companies operating in the extractive sector in Liberia. Sime Darby, a Malaysian oil company and citizens of Grand Cape Mount County, on several occasions have had bitter disputes, with residents accusing 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 the 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 located, they just extending the palm farm again,” he said.

However, Sime Darby contested these claims, in a response to Mongabay, an online environmental media group, maintaining it follows proper procedures in acquirin rights to convert lands, including now securing full prior and informed consent (FPIC) of affected communities.

The company also asserted that it 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.”


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