Liberia: Centuries of Taboos, Cultural Restrictions Exacerbated by Multinational ‘Investments’ Undermine Women Land Rights

Radiatu H.S. Kahnplaye/Policy Advisor Natural Resources Women Platform

“The way we were living before was better; we used to get thatch, round pole, reef, wood, fish from water etc.. presently we have to walk distances to get all these things.”

Alice Bonu, women leader of Soweah Town, Butaw District, Sinoe county, decries the rough conditions under which they are living.  

The arbitrary expansion of multinational agribusinesses is the main destroyer of the livelihoods of people in indigenous communities, with women being the most sufferers. 

In their caregiving roles in the home, women feel the impact of land grabs, forced evictions, water and other pollution, as well as deforestation. That is why rural women from four communities in Juarzon Statutory District in Liberia’s Sinoe County are calling for an end to land grab and the protection of their livelihood.

The women, under the banner of the Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP), were reacting to news of large-scale expansion of land development to Gbason, Sargbeh, Karmo and Bilibokree towns in southeastern Liberia by Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL).

The Natural Resources Women Platform (NRWP) seeks to amplify the voices of under-represented women and design strategies to engage relevant stakeholders in addressing concerns about women rights to natural resources. Since its establishment, the NRWP has work extensively with rural and urban women to improve their wellbeing, advocate for their rights to land, food, water, housing, work as well as to take part in cultural life.

The Women Platform, like the Green Advocates International (GAI)and the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD) all in Liberia, are affiliates of the MRU Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform.

As part of its mandate, the NRWP gathered women from the communities targeted for multinational oil palm investment, to train and empower them with the requisite awareness, knowledge and skills to constructively engage government and the concessioners in the land acquisition process, to advocate and defend their rights to their customary lands and resources.

The training was informed by previous work by Natural Resource Women Platform and the effect women in particular have had to endure in communities affected by the operations of large-scale land development.

With the seizure of arable lands, pollution of water and the displacement of locals to make way for concessions, women are left to scramble for land to meet their livelihood. The Liberian government seems to care little about indigenous communities that depend wholly on the land for farming and forest products for their survival and medication. 

The NRWP has come face-to-face with the scale of human sufferings caused by land grab in these concession areas.  While supporting indigenous communities that have already been affected with locals dislodged from their habitat, the Women Platform also spent time training women in communities potentially targeted for similar investments by multinational companies. 

Women from the four towns (Gbason, Sargbeh, Karmo and Bilibokree) were taken on learning tours of communities already affected by palm oil and other land development. By doing so, communities themselves are able to identify the positive or negative impact of concession operations on neighboring communities within the same county.

Emma Clay, the chairlady of Ceedor Town told the touring women: “when the company was not here, we were farmers; our lives depend on farming.”

The women leader of Soweah Town, Alice Bonu warned her visiting colleagues that the company had disrupted their way of life. “The way we were living before was better; we used to get thatch, round pole, reef, wood, fish from water etc.. presently we have to walk distances to get all these things.”

With the enlargement of the Company’s operations, the locals are not allowed to use the bushes and water nearby to fetch/harvest any of those products again because it’s in the company’s vicinity. She said the company built a pump; they received land rental fees and a small amount of money for the company to clear their farm.

Soweah Town Chief, Teto Jallah, said the remaining land is not sufficient for the whole town to make their usual rice farm. “Before you reach a farm, you have to walk three to four hours. Before you get reef to put on your house, you have to walk for five hours.”

The Chief warned other communities that are yet to be affected by oil palm production to sit with the company to understand the benefits and effects of such investment in their communities before welcoming the investment.

The four targeted towns were also trained on how to map out their community resources and high conservation value areas to help them quantify resources available that could be used to enhance livelihood activities for years to come.

During the training, the indigenous women were able to identify places of value that their communities consider significant.  

Essentially, the mapping knowledge led to a decision for an alternative livelihood, where the communities use a mill for processing cassava into gari and fufu. Proceeds from the sales of the cassava products, (gari and fufu) are placed in a village saving loan scheme and association for future investment.

Cassava farming or production is not new to the women in Juarzon Statutory District in Sinoe. At least they have been involved in growing cassava for household consumption and small-scale commercial purposes at a subsistence level for years. 

But the introduction of the cassava mill to mainly women in these rural communities by the Women Platform, has been a game changer. The knowledge and skills transferred, improves cassava processing through technology which enhances quality, quantity and consistency in various cassava products.

Based on an earlier community social and economic assessment conducted by the Platform, a variety of approaches are known to have been adopted or used by these women to achieve maximum output. However, ensuring access to value added technology, financing and market, has always been a huge challenge.

Thus, the arrival of the Cassava Mill, made it possible to transfer not only the technology but the knowledge and skills to help these women improve their income and standard of living.

Study showed that maximum success was possible with the introduction of technology, capacity building, market access and financing of this community driven livelihood program.

The Acting Head of Secretariat, of the Women Platform, Veronica Gray spoke of the adoption of a co-creation strategy in the design of the program. She indicated that designing and using different methodologies and approaches also took into account women's literacy which then informed the nature of the language and format leading to the development of tools and training materials that were user-friendly, focusing on the simplest Liberian English or pidgin. The goal was to ensure that the women were the drivers of their own development agenda.

Meantime, tailoring the training materials to the needs of the women was not without obstacles. There remain long standing challenges ranging from decades of taboos and cultural restrictions that limit the rights of women to their land and natural resources. These obstacles also included speaking at events where their husbands were also present, simplifying the text, interpreting videos into simple English, were among many other constraints.

As indicated already, the process of receiving feedback and comments from women was a bit difficult. Though the focus of the program was on women, men were included because of their leadership roles within these communities.

Consequently, many women became a little skeptical to speak in the presence of their local leaders due to the culture and traditional taboos and restrictions which have influenced their way of life for centuries. 

Facilitators had to make use of their experiences in past work with women to extract feedback and comments from the women.