The Civil Society Organization Working Group on Land Reform on Monday told the Legislature that they remain optimistic that the land reform bill, when passed into law, will empower rural communities through the recognition of customary land rights and other issues across the country.
The CSO working group said the passage of the land rights act will also support communities to self-identify and manage their land in line with the new law, going as far as providing legal assistance where needed.
Gerald Yeakula, acting head of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), who spoke on behalf of the group during a public hearing on the Land Rights Bill on Capitol Hill in Monrovia, said land is not just a source of livelihood for rural people; it also represents power, wealth, culture and history.
Giving the group’s recommendations to the legislature during the presentation, Mr. Yeakula said, “We want to recommend that communities decide on how much land they can grant to an individual, which would generally be based on land owned by the community as customary land.”
He said the group was concerned about issues surrounding tribal certificates, including the number of acres a person can own, which the bill provides for up to 150 acres.
Mr. Yeakula said part of the working group’s concerns is that women’s issues are not properly addressed, citing article two, which calls for women to be residents in a community for up to 15 years before qualifying to own land. The group’s recommendation is that the number of years for women to become residents of an area for land ownership purposes be reduced to two years.
Buttressing the group on the residency issue, Atty. Vivian D. Neal, president of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL), said, “We strongly feel that this position will affect women, because 95 percent of the women are married in another community. So if this law is passed, a woman who marries in another community will be a stranger for 15 years before becoming resident; and there is a need to reduce the number of years.”
Speaking further, CENTAL’s Yeakula said the law does not provide for grievance settlement to address issues of enforcement or mismanagement, recommending that “the law provides for grievance mechanisms within it as part of the process to protect and safeguard the communities’ rights.”
He said under article 49, customary land can be sold after 99 years, and recommended that it be reduced to 60 years from the passage of this act.
He said, sadly, many people have been denied the opportunity to appreciate the value and benefits inherent in the ownership of customary property.
“There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind, as the right to own property. Property, including land, has a peculiar hold on the human imagination and a particularly fundamental place in our constitutional structure; yet, the state has defaulted on securing the land rights of indigenous peoples. The indifference with which these people have been treated finds its roots in the very origin of the Liberian state, and has unfortunately survived up to contemporary times,” Mr. Yeakula said.
He noted that while there are accounts of negotiated sale of land by natives to the settlers, ensuing events indicate that the natives always sought to protect their ownership of the land.