By William Q. Harmon, with New Narratives
KPARBLEE DISTRICT, Nimba County – Dubuzon Clan wants to legalize ownership of its ancestral land, stretching 8,534 acres along the banks of the Cestos River towards Liberia’s border with Cote d’Ivoire, roughly a 15-minute walk away from this Krahn-dominated settlement. It plans to contract logging companies and use funds to build a clinic, erect a school, provide hand pumps, and build roads for over 2,000 residents.
To realize that, Dubuzon has to acquire a deed for the land. The Land Rights Act of 2018 recognizes rural communities’ full ownership of land—for the first time in the country’s history—but first requires it to complete some legal steps.
Dubuzon has already identified itself and completed a participatory mapping of its land, the first two steps under the law. But its progress has stalled due to a boundary dispute with Yourpea, a neighboring clan, over a good swathe of forest.
“We have suffered too much in this community due to lack of basic social services and because of this our women and children continue to die. Our people deserve better and this is why we been trying to obtain our customary deed to develop our land, but everything has stopped,” Dennis Barmie, a resident who has been working on the process since it began last year. “It is sad.”
Dubuzon and Yourpea, two of four clans in Kparblee District—located between Grand Gedeh and Nimba—are both claiming the forest, endowed with timber. All activities—hunting, fishing, and farming—in the quarreled woodland have been placed on hold as a result of the dispute.
Dubuzon argues they own it, claiming their ancestors, who came from the Ivory Coast, established the area in the 17th Century. “We the people of Dubuzon Clan are the real owners of this forest. Our fathers were the first group of people who move in this place and accommodated these people when they started arriving later,” says Frederick Sebbeh, an elder of the clan. “This is our forest and the Yourpea people are just looking for confusion. This is not fair at all.”
Yourpea Clan disagrees with that narrative. It counter claims its towns and villages are closer to the controversial forest while Yourpea is also the headquarters ofKparbleeStatutory District. Yourpea is an hour walk to the disputed forest and Dubuzon is two hours more.
“The forest belongs to us and there is no way around that,” says. But Kaipy Johnson, a volunteer forest guard who is representing Yourpea in the boundary harmonization exercise. “This is what our parents left for us to survive on.”
Wrangle such as the one between Dubuzon and Yourpea between Dubuzon and Yourpea is happening in many places countrywide as more communities claim theirancestral land rights. Just next door from here, there is one case between Gayea, a clan that borders Dubuzon, and Gblor, a Gio-dominant community.
Before the wrangle broke out, Parley Liberia, a civil society organization, worked with Dubuzon on its customary land process. Parley is guiding a number of communities in Nimba, Lofa, and Bong, including Gayea, to legally own their lands. But the nongovernmental organization pulled out when tension between the clans began to escalate.
“We thought we could not do any forward until the situation is resolved,” says Nyahn Flomo, Parley’s program coordinator. “We pray that the situation is resolved soon so that Dubuzon can complete its exercise in order to get its statutory deed.”
The dispute between the clans is due to Yorpea’s ignorance of the Land Rights Act led to the dispute, according to Dennis Barmie, a resident. “We now know more about the land issue than our neighbors,” says Barmie. “I believe if the two clans were trained we would not have had this problem.”
Yourpea’s Chief Elder, Garrison Saity, concedes he and other townspeople are unaware of the law but blames Parley Liberia for that. “Parley went and trained the people of Dubuzon and they did not train us,” he tells this reporter. “We noticed that Parley was not cutting the boundary right. They were cutting deep into our land. So we had to abandon the exercise because they were cheating us.”
Parley Liberia denies any wrongdoing, adding the NGO had hoped to follow what representatives of the two communities would agree upon. “That was squarely in their purview and not ours,” he says. “That’s why we had to abandon the process when Yourpea started expressing dissatisfaction.”
Flomo refutes Saity’s allegation about training, saying Parley Liberia had chosen Dubuzon because it worked with the community five years ago on a cross-border project. Yourpea benefited from Parley’s negotiation and boundary harmonization training, just that Dubuzon benefited more from the customary land formalization drill, Flomo says. “This … requires more engagement with the community and only Dubuzon could benefit because they are the project beneficiaries.”
The land crisis between the rival clans has no winners but Dubuzon is poised to become a bigger loser. Its dream about development is slowly turning into a nightmare. It does not have roads, schools, clinics, and safe drinking water. It is cut off from the rest of Liberia, with roads here only passable by motorcycles. There are no Liberian mobile phone networks, with the Voice of Tappita, a local radio station, the only connection to the clan.
Land rental fees and other benefits from logging or mining deals after getting its deed could change all that. But with Dubuzon still stuck on boundary dispute, it has more steps ahead. It needs to first complete the boundary harmonization. After that, create bylaws and set up a land governance committee. Then the Liberia Land Authority will conduct a confirmatory survey and give it a deed.
Some people are still hopeful.
“There is a need for the conflict to be settled amicably,” says Dee Henry Korso, whose father comes from Yourpea and mother from Dubuzon. “We want the conflict between the two clans resolved as soon as possible.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.