Photo: Milieudefensie

On September 19, Liberian President George Manneh Weah signed into law the Land Rights Bill (LRB), a landmark piece of legislation that recognizes the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to their customary lands and gives customary land the same standing as private land in Liberia.

This historic victory sets a precedent for land rights recognition in West Africa and can serve as a model for the region and beyond. It is the culmination of a decade of activism by communities and civil society in Liberia. A decade that also witnessed an enviable collaboration between state and nonstate actors. I have advocated for this bill and for community land rights in Liberia alongside my colleagues in the CSO Working Group on Land Rights Reform in Liberia since 2009.

The Bill that was finally passed truly protects the interests of rural Liberians, who form the majority of the country’s population, live on customary land, and make their livelihood by farming. This outcome was far from certain, as a previous draft of the Bill that was passed by the former Lower House of Representatives in 2017 would have harmed rather than protected community land rights. Since then, there have been unprecedented consultations and collaborations with Senate leadership, giving them a more nuanced understanding of land tenure issues in the country—a knowledge gap that previously impeded efforts to pass a pro-community law.

Perhaps most critically, the Land Rights Bill addresses the roots of Liberia’s conflicts and can help build and preserve the country’s hard-won peace.

This is an important step toward fulfilling President Weah’s promise to provide Liberia’s citizens “clarity on fundamental issues such as the land beneath their feet.” Most Liberians rely on their lands and territories to support their livelihoods, but lack legal recognition of their land rights. Over the last decade, large swathes of community land have been granted as concessions to logging, mining, and agriculture companies. One hundred percent of over 200 agriculture and logging concessions examined in the country were already inhabited by local peoples. This has led to communities losing their homes and livelihoods, and exacerbated poverty and violence.

Secure rights, by contrast, can help reduce poverty, ensure sustainable development, and mitigate climate change. Perhaps most critically, the Land Rights Bill addresses the roots of Liberia’s conflicts and can help build and preserve the country’s hard-won peace.

It provides the legal basis for recognizing community land rights, outlining several key provisions that will help reduce land conflict and strengthen communities’ ability to govern their lands. These include:

  • Clarifying the use of Tribal Certificates, which have been a source of conflict and stalled investments in the past;
  • Limiting the amount of land to be set aside as public land from 30 percent to 10 percent dependent on availability and determination of community land by residents;
  • Providing for transparent and participatory designation of protected areas;
  • Ensuring the free, prior, and informed consent of affected communities for any land-based investments;
  • Ensuring community level management of customary land rights, with equal representation of male, female, and youth;
  • Recognizing women’s rights to land and participation in community decision-making processes, a crucial issue given the key role women play in managing land and resources within communities

But even after a decade of tireless activism by civil society and community leaders, a great deal of work remains to be done in the implementation phase of the Bill. Points of contention remain. The Land Authority has already warned that implementation may be slow due to limited financial and technical resources. We must ensure that the Bill is translated into real change on the ground.

I believe that we will get there, and celebrate this historic victory for the people of Liberia. I believe that this landmark legislation—like its sister legislation the Local Government Act—has the potential to transform governance in Liberia and put people at the center of the management and benefit sharing of land and natural resources. I believe that this legislation marks one major leap forward toward Liberia’s sustainable development, peace, and democracy.

About the author: James Yarsiah is the Executive Director of the Rights and Rice Foundation and a member of the CSO Working Group on Land Rights in Liberia.

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