Providing legal recognition for communities’ customary land ownership rights is a new phenomenon in the history of land tenure in Liberia. In the past, especially with the enactment of the 1956 Aborigines Law, a large swath of land in the interior of Liberia was given use or secondary rights under public land.
However, as part of its reform agenda, the Land commission formulated and consulted the Land Rights Policy, which was subsequently c validated and adopted by the Government and people of Liberia in May, 2013.
The Policy establishes for the first time in the history of Liberia, four tenure rights categories: Private, Public, Government and Customary Land, which give a more defined land ownership status to communities. This also means that communities as a collective will have the authority to manage lands in their respective territories.
The Land Rights Policy (LRP) of 2013, and the proposed Land Rights Law (currently pending before the legislature), represent a critical break from the past by providing for legal recognition of customary land rights with equal status to private land rights.
Liberians living in rural communities and utilizing customary tenure were regarded by the State as users of their land, rather than as owners. The State held all land not privately deeded as public land, which could be converted to private land through a process culminating in the signing of a deed by the President.
The recognition of community land rights is also considered critical to safeguarding local livelihoods and fostering sustainable development. The LRP, which was adopted following extensive national consultations, commits the government working collaboratively with communities to ensure that they a) self-define, b) determine their boundaries, c) establish themselves as legal entities, and d) establish strong community governance institutions that are consistent with the principles of the policy. The government, in addition to providing resources and technical assistance, will be responsible providing legal recognition through deeds to communities and ensuring that competing rights and claims are respected. In the Land Rights Policy, the rights to Customary Land, including ownership rights, must be secured by ensuring that these rights are equally protected as private land rights. Rights to Customary Land include rights of the community as a collective land owner and rights of groups, families, and individuals within the community.
In the same vain, strong customary land rights produce many benefits which include among other things, increasing investment in land and the benefits to communities from natural resource use, reducing the growth of the urban poor, improving local governance, fostering a sense of nationhood among rural Liberians by demonstrating respect for their rights and local values, and promoting legal certainty for businesses.
To begin planning for the implementation of the customary land rights of communities after the enactment into law of the Land Rights Act and field-testing the processes for the legal recognition of customary land rights as contained in the Land Rights Policy, the Land Commission in February 2014, established the Customary Land Rights Unit (CLRU) as a structure within the Technical Secretariat of the Commission.
This Unit is charged with the responsibilities to prepare action plans and develop mechanisms to ensure the smooth transition of the program to communities. Other key inputs leading for achieving the mandate of the Unit include but not limited to: conducting orientation and field training of staff on the processes for recognition and documentation of customary land rights; developing steps and procedures for implementation of customary land recognition; assisting in building the capacities of local civil society organizations; assisting with establishing local land governance structures; and conducting inventory and developing data base on concessions in the natural resources sector on customary land.
Under the proposed institutional framework for land, the Unit will be charged with the mandate to provide effective supervision for the implementation of the customary land rights of communities.
In a related development, in 2014 the staff of the Community Land Rights Unit underwent four months of theoretical and practical trainings from which they acquired basic understanding of customary land tenure system, norms, and practices in a customary community, collaborative decision making and conflict mediation to assist customary communities secure their land rights, and basic skills and knowledge in GPS undertaking. These trainings resulted to the “transfer of knowledge” that guided the preparation of a proposed guide for developing a national framework for implementing customary land rights recognition and documentation by staff of the unit.
The CLRU will be training and effectively facilitating local CSOs, CBOs, and NGOs who will be working with customary communities as they go through the processes of customary land rights recognition and documentation. Presently, The CLRU is collaborating with the National Civil Society Council to ensure that rural communities’ dwellers have an understanding of the Land Rights Policy, the proposed Land Rights Act and the steps and procedures listed in the proposed guide framework for implementing customary land rights of communities.
The policy is expected to be strengthened by the Land Rights Act currently before the National Legislature for enactment into law. And, when it is enacted into law, the training of other staffs and stakeholders to understand and be familiar with the merit and demerit of the customary land tenure system, as well as education and sensitization, including workshops will be crucial on the agenda of the Land Commission.