DAKAR, SENEGAL— Land disputes remain a major threat to peace in post-war Liberia. Despite the creation of a Land Commission to deal with ownership conflicts, Liberians say many problems still persist.
The American Refugee Committee, a humanitarian aid group that works with displaced Liberians, says that an estimated 800,000 people fled their homes during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war.
Following a 2003 ceasefire, many returned home, only to find that their land had been taken over during their absence.
“When I came from the refugee camp, my land had been encroached on by another neighbor," recalls Emmanual Glay, who came back to his home in Monrovia’s Paynesville District in 2009, after spending eight years in Ghana.
"Right now, I don’t have anywhere to stay. So I think something needs to be done about this because my family is just roaming around. This is happening to so many refugees who return home after the war,” he adds.
Lamin Sando, the chief of Klay Town in western Liberia, notes land disputes in general are causing many problems within the country.
“Last year we had a problem between Gbo and Seyeh," he explains. "The Seyeh people wanted to enter on Gbo land and the problem came there between them is that the people from Saye town want to wait and say they would not allow the Seyeh people to enter on there, on the land. It brought heavy confusion.”
A Land Commission was created in August 2009 to deal with the problem. Cecil T.O. Brandy, the chairman of Liberia’s Land Commission, says this is the first time in his country’s history that land rights have been defined and they include customary rights.
“With our new policy of recognition of customary land, we are hoping to empower local people," Brandy explains. "So some of the issues now that you see, even with concessions, will be resolved, because now negotiations will be the land owners at the community level where they are, and not at the government level. … In our rural communities, many cases have been resolved through customary methods: through chiefs, through elders, through mediations that people have always used for resolving not just land cases, but a wide range of cases that are going on in local communities.”
Search for solutions
The commission says it has helped resolve more than two dozen land cases so far through ADR - alternative dispute resolution. Brandy notes the ADR gives the Commission the power to convene a task force to mediate land conflicts. The Commission cannot, however, implement laws or settle cases.
“Our power is greatest with regards to the area of policy because it is the policy that forms the basis of action," Brandy says. "It’s the policy that drives the law. And we are very proud of the Commission that over the last few years we developed, finally, we’ve come up with a set of policies with regards to land rights.”
Brandy says the Land Commission has also begun looking at mediation examples from other post-conflict countries that have experienced land disputes.
The Commission says it is still documenting the number of people currently affected by land issues in Liberia.