Following over three hours of exhaustive debate, 20 members of the Senate plenary yesterday voted to return the proposed Land Rights Act to committee room for further work before the concurrent vote. Tuesday’s debate was focused on four categories of land ownership, namely; Government Land, Public Land, Customary Land, and Private Land. The Land Rights Act was submitted to the National Legislature in 2014 by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which according to the chairman of Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources and Environment, Senator Albert Chie, “marks a very major step in resolving land conflicts in Liberia.”
The Act was submitted to the Albert Chie headed committee and the Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims & Petitions Committee chaired by Senator H. Varney Sherman. The two committees together with their counterparts at the House of Representatives, carried on several consultations with local and international land experts; and yesterday’s submission was the third – and its concurrent passage was expected by especially members of the two committees. But several Senators, including Senator Sherman, who as chair of the Judiciary Committee signed the proposed draft, was, however, among those who vehemently argued that more work through amendments needs to be done to reflect the reality of the importance attached to the issue of land in the country.
Senators Henry Yallah, Jim Tornolah, Daniel Naatehn, and J. Alphonso Gaye, among others, all welcomed the work by the two committees but argued that there was still need for consultations before passage. But in opening remarks and overview of the works of the two Houses, Senator Chie said the proposed Act was good as it has touched on several sticky land issues, and that for the first time in the history of the country, citizens can now claim ownership of land that had been denied them. In a press briefing, Senator Chie, who had earlier looked displeased but later showed some sign of relief, said he was not disappointed by the plenary’s decision and the manner in which the debate went. “I expected passage, but I would have been surprised if it didn’t go through a thorough screening as it did. I’m still confident of its passage by this 53rd Legislature,” he added.
Among many issues, the proposed Act essentially transfers ownership of most of the land in the country from the Government to traditional communities which, according to the Act, “is a strong departure from the 1973 Public Lands Law through which the state owned and managed most of the lands on behalf of citizens.” For the first time, traditional communities will exercise full ownership over their customary lands and will be involved in the decision-making process over the use of their land. By such, it is anticipated that traditional communities will benefit from the development of the resources associated with their land, thus improving their economic conditions and social well-being.
The proposed Act also reinforces the constitutional provision of ownership of land by Liberian citizens only, except charitable, missionary and other benevolent institutions; while there are provisions in the proposed Act for conditions of escheat of land and exercise of the right of eminent domain by the Government, but in accordance with due process.
Advising the plenary for the enactment of the bill, the Joint Committee noted that the proposed Land Rights Act prescribes improvement of access to land, security of tenure, land rights and other measures intended to drive economic development in Liberia, especially rural areas, and finally to minimize land conflicts.