Public hearings on the proposed Land Rights Bill took place in the Chambers of the Liberian Senate on Monday, August 10, 2015, before the Senate Committee on Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources and Environment (lead Committee) and the Committee on Judiciary, Claims, Human Rights and Petitions, as well as the Committee on Lands, Mines, Natural Resources & Environment and Judiciary of the House of Representatives, with call from a cross-section of Institutions represented, including the Governance Commission, Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), National Civil Society Council of Liberia, the National Traditional Council of Liberia, amongst others, to pass the law.
Earlier in his opening statement, the Senate Committee Chairman on Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources and Environment, Senator Albert T. Chie of Grand Kru County, noted that, land rights, ownership, protection and use are very crucial to the existence and well-being of the Liberian people.
Senator Chie said Liberia has suffered several land-related violences that resulted into the death of many citizens and residents and the destruction of properties. He said some of the land dispute cases are on the courts dockets unresolved, while several others are being addressed through dispute resolution at a snail pace. He furthered that many Liberians often predict that the next civil conflict will be land-related, but assured that Government’s decision to take all necessary measures to address land problems in the country through the reform of land policies, laws and programs is irreversible and unwavering as evidenced by the proposed Land Rights Bill.
The opening statement by Senator Chie was followed by testimonies from several panelists who were invited to provide their candid opinions on the Land Rights Bill. They include the Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, Hon. Patrick Sendolo, the Chairman of the Land Commission, Dr. Cecil T. O. Brandy, the Chairman of the Governance Commission, Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, the Chairperson of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, Madam Frances Greaves, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture for Planning and Policy, Dr. Charles McClain, and Mr. Ali Kaba of Sustainable Development Initiative (SDI), amongst others. The panelists pleaded with the legislators for the passage of the proposed Land Rights Bill, affirming that the drafting of the Bill and its subsequent submission to the National Legislature through the office of the President, was a result of extensive and participatory consultations, with diverse stakeholders, thus the Bill when passed will benefit the government and people of Liberia.
However, two of the panelists, former Deputy Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, ECB Jones and the Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), Harrison Karnwea, held different views and argued against some provisions in the Land Rights Bill.
Mr. Jones said even though he is not opposed to the passage of the Land Rights Bill, there were however some issues, which he referred to as “bugs” that needed to be revisited and clarified before the Bill is passed into Law.
He cautioned committee members of both houses not to hastily pass the Bill because the issue of land is critical to sustaining the country’s peace and security while at the same time protecting the rights of the people as enshrined in the Constitution.
He then volunteered to work with the Joint Committees on Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources and Environment to point out what he perceived as “bugs” and proffer his expert opinions.
For his part, FDA Managing Director, Harrison Karnwea similarly, subscribed to the passage of the Bill, but expressed concern that the Land Rights Bill could be in conflict with some provisions in the Community Rights Law. Hon. Karnwea also stressed the issue of governance as it relates to the forestry reform law of 2006, which mandates the FDA to set aside 30% of the remaining forest as protected area. He therefore requested the honorable legislature to critically look into these issues with a view that they are not in conflict with other laws before the passage of the Bill.
In a statement during the hearing, Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe also supported the passage of the proposed Land Rights Bill, which he said is in the best interest of the Liberian people. Cllr. Gongloe specifically argued against the issues raised by Hon.
Harrison Karnwea, stating that the Community Rights Law is possessory rights which are different from title rights. Cllr. Gongloe said the proposed Bill, for the first time in the history of Liberia, gives communities the opportunity to have titles to their land, making it possible for them to negotiate with investors, which will lead to greater economic advancement for all Liberians.
The National Legislature now has the task to rectify and fast-track the passage of the historic Land Rights Bill to curb the injustices of huge land grab in the country by those with significant economic status that have persisted in the land sector for years.
The draft Land Rights Bill already provides wide range of protections for customary land rights, which if retained and passed into law, will fulfill the potential protection of security of tenure for the customary land rights as contained in the Land Rights Policy.
Over the years, there have been disparities between user’s rights and ownership rights, but the Bill has harmonized those rights by equating them to that of the private ownership rights said Dr. Brandy in his closing statement.
“Therefore, most of those issues that were raised in the hearing are captured in the Bill; we all need to read the document extensively so that we can together resolve these land issues, which have the potential of brewing violent land conflicts in the country,” Dr. Brandy concluded.