An international land rights group said Liberia risks a resurgence of social conflict unless the country’s legislature approves a Land Rights Act that is moving through the parliament.
The Rights and Resources Initiative has just completed a study that shows indigenous people and local communities worldwide lack legal rights to almost three quarters of their land.
The group said failure to recognize land tenure for 1.5 billion people worldwide is hampering efforts to combat hunger and poverty, and it also ignites social conflicts.
Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, said the land situation in Liberia, one of the so-called “12 fragile states” in the study, is a concern because the government continues to take local land and give it to companies without the consent of the people.
"I say it’s equally bad, if not worst, in Liberia because Liberia’s government has been actively taking land from communities and giving it to industrial concessionaires without their consent – logging concessions, mining concession, palm oil concession and so that has been the key driver of all conflict in the rural areas,” White said.
Group urges passage
White said there is hope for Liberia, as land rights legislation is currently moving through parliament that would recognize the tenure rights of traditional people.
But, he said which way Liberia goes will depend on whether lawmakers pass the Land Rights Act.
“It is urgent because the president (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) has extended parliamentary session to end this week. She did that in order to give the parliament time to consider this land rights act as well as a separate bill on land authorities," White said.
"It’s also urgent because the election campaign starts up next year, and everyone in Liberia expects that it will get harder to pass substantive legislation next year."
Earlier this year at a constitutional review conference set up by the government, Liberians called for, among other recommendations, land reform to give more economic opportunities to local people, in particular sharing dividends from natural resources.
The conference said local people should own their own land and be a party to any negotiations with investors or concessionaires on such land used for mining, forestry and farming.
Impact of reform
White said land reform has a positive impact on combating hunger and poverty.
"It’s the difference between having no property and no land rights, no secure access and protection over your land versus being able to use your land and your family’s land, your clan’s land for your own development," he said.
"It’s the difference between being on the street and having your own home; it’s the difference between not knowing what you can pass on to your children and having a confident future for your children,” White explained.
He said Liberia is at a historic juncture right now regarding land rights.
“The decision it makes over the coming weeks about this Land Rights Act would determine whether it becomes a more peaceful and prosperous nation of land owners or whether it would become a nation of landless laborers who struggle in the fields of the industrial elites,” White said.
White said there are some individuals in Liberia who are not supportive of the Land Rights Act because they are satisfied with the status quo, where they have privileged access to power and resources of the land.
He said he is hopeful Sirleaf will hold firm and not risk undermining the intent of the Liberian people who have expressed a strong desire for their rights to be recognized.