From the Civil Society Organizations Working Group on Land Rights in Liberia:
We, the Civil Society Organizations (CSO) Working Group on Land Rights in Liberia, call on the legislature to immediately pass the 2014 version of the Land Rights Act (LRA) to secure the customary land rights of Liberia’s local communities. The 2014 version would recognize the rights of millions of Liberians to the lands they live and work on and further set our country on the path to peace and sustainable development. However, we are deeply concerned by reports that the draft has been altered significantly behind closed doors, and call on the legislature to immediately release the new draft for scrutiny by the public and civil society.
Failure to recognize the rights of millions of Liberians to their customary lands jeopardizes peace and security, and could fuel a slide back into the conflicts that devastated our country for decades. If the legislature does not pass the 2014 version of the Land Rights Act before its recess in August, it will likely be delayed until after the elections; a new government takes office in 2018, leaving the legislation in limbo indefinitely.
Most Liberians rely on their lands and territories to support their livelihoods; up to present, their ownership over their customary lands is not formally recognized by the government. Over the last few decades, the government granted logging, mining, and agriculture concessions covering around 40 percent of the country, many of them overlapping with the customary lands of communities. This leads to forced displacement and exacerbated poverty; those who refuse to leave their homes are often met with violence. These problems are not unique to our country; across West Africa, insecure land rights are strongly linked with land-grabbing, conflict, and violence.
Liberia has the opportunity to lead the way in securing its peoples’ land and forest rights, benefitting both community and country. Legally-recognized rights prevent land-grabbing, increase incomes, and decrease hunger, as well as contribute to sustainable development and climate change mitigation, two goals our leaders have repeatedly pledged to work towards. Perhaps most critically, the Land Rights Act addresses the roots of Liberia’s conflicts and is a necessary condition for driving our country towards lasting peace.
The draft Land Rights Act, submitted to the legislature in 2014, would reduce poverty and promote peace by resolving a chief source of conflict and securing long-term stronger economic power for all Liberians from a sustainable resource that will benefit all Liberians, regardless of where they live. It would elevate customary tenure to the same level as statutory law and recognize strong community rights to their customary lands and natural resources.
A diluted version of the law could undermine rather than secure community rights, exacerbating poverty, hampering investment opportunities, and damaging communities’ ability to effectively protect and manage their lands, potentially leading to further unrest and violence. It would jeopardize Liberia’s role as a leader in land rights in West Africa, and therefore its role as a leader in building sustainable peace.
Time is very limited for the legislature to pass a progressive Land Rights Act. If it is not adopted before August 30, it will likely be left for a new government in 2018. As the LRA languishes in the legislature, communities remain vulnerable to land-grabbing and large-scale land acquisitions and the poverty and violence that often accompany them. Liberia’s local communities cannot continue to wait for the recognition of their rights, and our country cannot afford to move backwards.
We therefore call on the general public and all stakeholders to pressure their lawmakers to open space for an inclusive and transparent legislative process.
We call on our President, who has expressed her support for the Land Rights Act, to use all the weight of her position to pressure the legislature to act now, and fulfill the mandate that came with her election.
We call on international donors to ensure that secure land rights are a precondition for supporting conservation and development initiatives in our country.
Finally, we urge our lawmakers to pass a Land Rights Act that safeguards customary land rights for all Liberians regardless of class, gender, or religion. It is critical that the law include the following four tenets:
1. Customary ownership is automatically formalized and granted the same legal protections as individual private ownership. With or without a deed, customary rights must be protected.
2. Communities are empowered to self-define and self-identify their lands and boundaries in keeping with customs, history, and local norms.
3. Communities are directly responsible for the management of their land and natural resources, and investments can only proceed on their lands with their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
4. Customary land rights take precedence over all other proposed uses of land, including proposals for protected areas, tribal certificates, and concessions for mining, logging, or industrial or agricultural development.
If the government fails to pass the Land Rights Act, or passes a watered-down version that does not secure community rights, it will break its many promises and definitively demonstrate that it does not value first and foremost the safety and security of its people. A bright future for our people is within grasp.
We urge you to act now, before it is too late.
The Members of the CSO Working Group
1. National Civil Society Council of Liberia (NCSCL)
2. Rights and Rice Foundation (RRF)
3. Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)
4. Foundation for community Initiative (FCI)
5. Save my Future Foundation (SAMFU)
6. Search for Common Ground (SFCG)
7. Federation of Liberian Youth (FLY)
8. Women NGO secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL)
9. Association of Liberia Community Radio (ALICOR)
10. Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP)
11. Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD)
12. National Charcoal Union of Liberia (NACUL)
13. Rural Human Rights Activist Program (RHRAP)
15. Farmers Union Network (FUN) of Liberia
16. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
17. Voice of the Voiceless (VOV)
18. Liberia Reform Movement (LRM)