MONROVIA, Montserrado – Last year, Liberia scored a milestone achievement by adopting its first, ever Land Rights Act that recognizes community land ownership. At the time, international organizations and rights campaigners, including Welthungerhilfe, welcomed the country’s achievement, describing the law as one of the continent’s most progressive.
Since then, not much has been done to implement the law. Stakeholders want to make sure that the law is successfully implemented and have begun discussing key messaging strategy around the law’s implementation. At the first of a series of forums held on February 5 and 6 in Monrovia, representatives of organizations convened, including USAID’s Land Governance Support Activities, the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia, the Liberia Land Authority, and other institutions and actors in the land sector.
The forum was hosted by the Rights and Rice Foundation, Sustainable Development Institute, Landesa, and Welthungerhilfe in collaboration with the Liberia Land Authority.
Prior to the coming of the Land Rights Act, lands for which no deed existed were classified as public land, and many smallholder farmers were not allowed to own their own farming land.
This threatened the livelihood of many, as most of the country’s population depend mainly on agriculture. Rights groups have blamed the system for the government’s practice of giving large swathes of land as concessions to private investors.
Since peace returned to the country in 2003, conflict over land ownership has continued to take prominence. A survey released by the Catholic Relief Agency in 2017 revealed that half of the population believe that the country could plunge back into conflict due to land conflict and widespread corruption.
More than half of the country’s population also currently live on land acquired under customary tenure, according to USAID. Such category of land ownership is not recognized by legal title. But with the Land Rights Act, a community’s claim of ownership of customary land can now be established by evidence, including oral testimonies of community members, maps, and signed agreements between neighboring communities, and any other confirming documents.
The Land Rights Act was passed by the Senate approved by President George Weah in September 2018 and printed into hand bill in October to be implemented by the Liberia Land Authority. This came after pressure from local farmers, women groups and civil society organizations and happened four years after the initial bill was submitted to the legislature by former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In a period of 24 months, the Land Authority is also required to work with communities to begin a nationwide survey to confirm the boundaries of all customary lands. The survey will be validated, published, and registered with the authority, which will issue statutory deeds and keep records, as required by the law.
The new law recognizes four categories of land ownership. They include, private ownership, public, government, and customary or community ownership. A maximum of ten percent of customary lands in each community will be set aside and allocated as public land. Where the boundary, extent, or size of customary land is contested by a private landowner, the law puts the burden of proof on the person making the challenge.
The law will also entitle community members to carry on agricultural activities on a portion of customary land designated by the community as an agricultural area. Community members will also be able to lease, mortgage, or use agricultural areas for medium to large-scale agriculture.
Constance Teage, the gender land tenure specialist for Landesa, said the forum was intended to ensure that a harmonized message will be disseminated to the public on the law and its implementation.
Landesa’s global aim is to reduce poverty by securing equitable land tenure for rural residents. Teage is currently working with the Foundation for Community Initiative and Development Education Network in Liberia on the implementation of the Land Rights Act.
“We know there are so many organizations creating messages, and we said there needs to be a harmonization of these messages,” Teage said in an interview at the forum.
“It’s important to synchronize the messages because you can imagine there are 15 counties and there are so many organizations that are working within these counties. We want the same messages to go out; we don’t want for this organization to give one message and this other organization [to] give another message.”
She said the forum was also intended to identify areas where gaps exist in the dissemination of messages and implementation of the LRA.
“That’s why we have a lawyer here. We have the Land Authority because you don’t want to give communities false information,” she noted.
While the law may be good, Teage said clashing dissemination of information could cause confusion or undermine the law’s implementation.
She said messages presented by participating organizations has been compiled and would be presented at an upcoming retreat that would include other stakeholders, including the Civil Society Working Group on Land Rights to validate a synchronized message to be presented for approval by the Liberia Land Authority.
Morris Kansuah, a senior partner advisor for Welthungerhilfe, said as the law becomes implemented, it was important that the stakeholders working with communities in the sector meet to identify provisions that require further interpretations or clearer definitions.
“A component of the law is saying that if a portion of land is developed by the holder of a tribal certificate, that portion will be turned over to that individual and the undeveloped portion can be renegotiated by that tribal certificate with the community. But the issue is, what is ‘developed’? It’s a key issue,” Kansuah disclosed.
“Is the person who has a pepper farm of a piece of land considered as a developer of that land or a person who has a rubber tree planted on the land we called the developer?” he noted. “These are information we need to carefully monitor as we communicate the Land Rights Law to the people.”
The executive director of Rights and Rice Foundation, James Yarsiah, who also described the new law as landmark legislation, described the process of synchronizing the messages on the law as a “precondition” to implementing the law.
Yarsiah said strategizing on a synchronized message would avoid experiences of the past where laws are made but the beneficiaries are unaware of their provisions.
“Before we go out, we think we need to synchronize the messages that we will be using for fear that when we get out, one agency could be another message and another agency giving a different message. That confuses the population. To avoid that, we think we need this so that we’re sure that when messages get out there about the law, they’re consistent,” he said.
He called on the government to support the Land Authority for the timely execution of activities prescribed by the law.
The Land Authority’s executive director, Stanley Toe, disclosed in an interview that the authority has not done much work in terms of direct implementation of the law.
Toe said the initial tasks prescribed by the law within the first 24 months of implementation were a huge undertaking. He stressed the need for resources, including trained manpower. He noted that regulations, guidelines, and manuals also need to be developed to guide the different activities and stages of the implementation of the law.
At the same time, he said the authority is learning from the experiences of other countries and seeking international technical assistance.
“Passing the law was the easiest part, but now the law has passed, the challenge of implementation has sunk in,” he noted.
He said like other agencies of the government, the Land Authority faces budgetary challenges, as currently allotments are only meant for salaries, leaving out operations and goods and services.
“But we are in conversation with the government to see how this stress can be minimized during the next fiscal year. That is to provide us with some level of funding that will be able to do some of these works,” he said.
In the meantime, Toe said the authority has carried out outreach in Bong and Nimba with the support of USAID’s Land Governance Support Activities project. He said he was also currently in talks with the Millennium Challenge Account to support the process of extending the outreach on the law and its key provisions in Montserrado and Margibi.
Although the Land Authority collects fees for land administrative services, the director said those fees are placed in the government’s consolidated account and the agency relies heavily on donor support.
Featured photo by Friends of the Earth International