Says CSOWG/LRR Coordinator Alphonso Henries
In September 2018, Liberia passed the Land Rights bill into law. Its passage by then was highly embraced by community members, civil society activists, and lawmakers who had spent years advocating for more equitable, fair land rights for the citizens of Liberia.
Many of them saw it as a way of resolving future conflicts surrounding land matters. For now, the law is gradually losing its essence and may result into potential land war or conflict in the country due to what could be viewed as reluctance on the part of the Liberia Land Authority (LLA) to carry out a country-wide awareness about regulations intended to ensure that the people know about the law, says Alphonso Henries, coordinator of the Civil Society Organization Working Group on Land Rights Reform (CSOWG/LRR ).
The regulation is created to ensure private use of land resources is aligned with policy standards. Henries said the existing legal and policy frameworks do not explicitly spell out specific emphasis on land rights and, therefore, the LLA should now focus on creating awareness about the regulation.
“People are aware of the existing land laws and policies, but did not know how and to what extent the laws and policies protect their land rights,” Henries continued. He made the assertion on Wednesday, August 5, when he addressed journalists at a one-day training workshop to make them understand and constructively engage the LLA on the regulation.
It was held in the offices of the Liberia Reform Movement on 9th Street, in Sinkor. “Experience has shown that only when citizens know their land rights and are empowered to demand their protection and enforcement does law become practical,” Henries said. According to him, the LLA needs to create more awareness about the land regulation that would make people understand the land rights issues in order to save the country from land grabbers.
At the same time, the CSOWG/LRR coordinator asked the government to undertake a country-wide awareness on customary land, stressing this will boost land security to the local people especially those on customary or communal lands. Henries believes that the regulation, if utilized, would help the people to gain a better understanding of the factors and dynamics of issues surrounding land access, utilization, and management in the country.
The law strongly protects community land rights in many ways, including the following eight mandates:
- Communities may define themselves according to community members’ preferences – so long as they do not discriminate or exclude residents. (Articles 2, 34.1 and 34.2);
- Community members are considered to be the private owners of their customary lands. The Land Rights Act ensures that customary land ownership is private land ownership, as protected as private lands bought and sold on the land market. (Article 2, Article 32.1)
- Proof of a community’s private ownership of their customary lands may be established through oral testimony alone: a community does not have to have “papers” or a deed to prove their ownership over their ancestral lands. (Articles 9.4, 11.3, 32 and 37.1)
- All community members, including women, youth, and members of minority groups have equally strong ownership claims to customary lands and have equal rights to use and manage community land. (Articles 2 and 34.3)
- The community itself is responsible for the management of their customary lands and is tasked with drafting by-laws on how they will govern their land; elect diverse leadership; make a land-use plan that ensures sustainable use and conservation and is based on customary practices. (Articles 35.1, 36.1, 36.2 and 38.1)
- The community’s land governance body must be composed equally of men, women, and youth and must make decisions by consensus. (Articles 36.4, 36.6, 36.7 and 36.8)
- Communities must give their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent before any outsiders can use or “interfere with” their private customary lands. (Article 33)
- Community members may continue to use lands designated as “protected areas” for their livelihoods. (Article 42.5)
Now that the Land Rights Act has passed into law, it is necessary to begin its implementation. A critical first step should be a nation-wide legal education campaign that ensures Liberians are aware of their new land ownership rights. Rural Liberians have been taught for generations that the government owns their lands and that the citizens are mere “custodians.” A massive legal education campaign is necessary to refute this now-obsolete conception.