The local expertise and technical support of civil society are critical for government implementation of the regulations of the Land Rights Act.

Signed in 2018 after more than a decade of activism by communities and civil society organizations, the Land Rights Act (LRA) is a legislative cornerstone for the protection of customary land rights in Liberia. It provides opportunities to ensure more just and equitable land ownership and guarantee the collective community land and resource rights of more than two million Liberians.

Liberia’s local communities rely on these lands for their livelihoods and cultures, and act as guardians of Liberia’s biodiverse forests. Yet communities lack legal title to the vast majority of their territories. Without secure rights, their lands are vulnerable to land-grabbing and conflict. Much of the country’s lands have been granted to companies under concessions, often without the consent of their customary owners. Palm oil companies especially have been complicit in tenure abuse.

And insecure land rights played a major role in the two civil wars that ravaged the country from 1989-2003 with warlords seizing control of lands and misusing resources.

The LRA therefore represents a significant victory for Liberia’s communities and is a huge step forward in addressing longstanding conflicts over land and consolidating peace in the country. Importantly, the LRA also includes opportunities to overcome traditional barriers to indigenous and community women’s participation in decision making over land and resources. Women play a critical role in managing community lands, and the benefits of community land ownership cannot be realized unless their rights are secure. The law also prevents the government from signing concessions agreements without consulting communities.

Yet the work to address the longstanding issue of insecurity around land does not end with legislation. Liberia’s citizens will not gain from the protections of the LRA without implementation. Nor can the government go it alone: given their proximity to communities, history of advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups, and their familiarity with the government’s platform under the new law, civil society organizations are ideal partners for implementation. To recognize customary ownership and governance rights on the ground, government, community organizations and civil society must work together to create an implementation plan and build the technical, financial, and human capacity to provide necessary services to the communities spanning the country.

Recognizing the need for partnership between civil society, communities, and government in order to realize such sweeping change, last month my organization Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Liberia Land Authority and civil society organizations Sustainable Development Institute and Parley Liberia to work with 24 communities across the country to secure tenure rights over their customary lands under the LRA. The memorandum of understanding will coordinate the efforts of these four partners through a US$2 million project from the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility that will advance tenure security over more than 750,000 hectares of forestland and directly benefit 100,000 people. The project will also build the capacity of government and civil society to scale up collective customary land and resource rights and deliver on the promise of the Land Rights Act for the more than 2 million Liberians who stand to benefit.

Speaking about the agreement, Attorney J. Adams Manobah, Acting Chair of the Land Authority, reaffirmed that our united action will enable effective implementation of the law’s provisions and build socio-economic progress by clarifying land status for Liberians, particularly in rural communities. Through this collaboration, a cadre of organizations across Liberia will be trained to support communities to secure their rights. A common methodology for participatory mapping and guidelines for navigating the process delineated in the Land Rights Act will also be developed. This will allow other communities to follow the same guidelines to achieve recognition of their land rights. Moreover, the 24 project communities will draft by-laws and constitutions for governing and managing their lands.

This collaboration between communities, civil society, and the government on this project is more than a step forward in effective implementation of the law. It also represents a means for communities to begin building viable futures, protect Liberia’s forests, and ensure peace in Liberia lasts for generations to come. Such collaboration also makes Liberia a leader in West Africa for cooperation with civil society and communities and sets a precedent for other countries in the region to follow.

About the author: As Executive Director of the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) in Liberia, Julie advocates for the rights of women to own land and have equal participation in the governance and management of natural resources in Liberia. She is a former Coordinator of the NGO Coalition of Liberia, a network of over 20 Liberian NGOs working in the forestry sector. As a member of the Land Rights Working Group in Liberia, she contributes to local and national land reform processes. The Working Group was active in the campaign on community and women land rights in Liberia which pushed for passage of the Land Rights Act (LRA).

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