Liberia’s food crisis can also be attributed to land ownership in some parts of the country. One of such places is in the Western Liberian county of Grand Cape Mount, where some farmers have said if nothing to mitigate this situation that part of Liberia is going to be out of food.
Oldman Yarkpawolo Bleeh is a resident and farmer in Kinjor, Gola Konneh District, Grand Cape Mount County.
Oldman Bleeh, who heads the Kpelle ethnic group residing in that part of the country as Governor, said finding farming land now has become a serious nightmare as landowners are beginning to charge relatively high fees for land rent.
The Kpelle Governor, who has lived in the Kinjor for more than four decades, disclosed that they are made to pay between US$20 or L$2,500 to the owners of the land, who are predominantly from the Gola ethnic group, who have resided in the area for centuries.
Oldman Bleeh said despite the payment of said amount to owners of the land, they are restricted somehow, including only being able to farm and not being allowed the wood to make charcoal, which brings in extra earnings for them.
Charcoal farming or burning is an informal area of self-employment for many Liberians in rural parts of the country, especially in counties that are not too far from their nation’s capital. This helps these rural parents with some extra cash to meet other needs including providing education and other basic things for their families.
Kinjor and Ladjor are small communities in Grand Cape Mount County, approximately 120 kilometers away from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
He said the two communities were renamed Kinjor to give chance to Liberty Mining Company, which later changed to Aureus Mining Company and now Bea Mountain Mining Corporation (BMMC).
Kpelle Governor Bleeh narrated that the situation escalated a decade ago when over 370 families of Kinjor and Larjor, an adjacent community, were forced to abandon their original homes, farmlands, and artisanal mining activities to give way for ‘legal mining activities.’
The 2017 Citizen Helpdesk Survey report states that the New Kinjor population is estimated as 150,996.
Despite the huge population unearthed in the survey reports, about 450 families are said to be claiming the entire land with others, including the Kpelle Governor, only allowed to farm or utilize the land under specific conditions, including the payments of fees.
The ownership stands increased recently when the BMMC or corporation begun its corporate social responsibility through the construction of over 200 housing units, a source told the Daily Observer newspaper.
“The less than 450 families want the company to only build houses for them, but not other residents, who have lived here for decades. This is a complete future threat or conflict if not addressed properly by officials of the county or central government,” said a source, who does not want to be named for fear of angering landowners.
In Liberia, mining has a significant impact on the economy, health, and well-being of local communities in concession areas,” Citizen Helpdesk indicated.
“Mineral Development Agreements (MDAs) establish incentives, payments, and responsibilities between the concession company and the government, but do not always follow international best practices for engaging and protecting the community affected by the resource extraction,” the group indicated.
“MDAs can be long, complex, and highly technical, and too often little effort is invested to simplify information and communicate any rights of the community or obligations of the company included in the MDA,” the group said following the survey reports.
“The owners of the land seize the coal whenever someone is caught carrying coal from their farm. You are not allowed to burn the fell trees for coal on the land given for farming. One has to make a request or additional request to burn the trees for charcoal and on many occasions, you have to pay another fee to burn coal,” Oldman Bleeh, the father of 15 children, stated.
“Interestingly, the government has called on farmers across the country to engage into serious farming activities to increase food production in the country. Despite being a governor, and lived here for 42 years, I sometimes pay to farm;” adding that he’s sometimes allowed to farm without paying a fee.
According to him, residents from other ethnic groups, including the Kpelle tribe, have appealed to own some parcel of land but their appeals have not materialized and they think only government can help address or resolve the ongoing situation in Gola Konneh District.
He said the situation continued to affect nearly all farmers, excluding the Gola Tribe, who according to reports inherited the land from their ancestors, and the Vai Tribe who are considered settlers in the area.
“The only help given to farmers is that they allow you to farm sometime and during harvest, certain percentage is given to them,” he indicated.
According to him, some farmers have expressed disenchantments over the situation, stating that they have lived for decades in the area and was tired of paying money to farm.
He said over one thousand Kpelle people live in the area and rely mainly on farming activities to sustain the family. Despite the huge mining activities ongoing in the area, residents continue to strive for better living conditions.
Governor Bleeh said prior to the coming of the Bea Mountains Mining Corporation, some residents were involved in illegal small-scale mining activities to sustain their families.
He added that civil society actors, government and the private sector need to work together to limit abuses, create a dignified environment for farming activities and expand opportunities to all.
Ma- Hawa Kollie, a farmer and resident of Kinjor said the payment of fees to farm with serious restriction is reducing farming activities in the area.
“My children and I live here for more than 25 years and so nowhere to go now to start new life. We just want the government to help us, because we live here for many years so we can’t pay money to farm anymore,” Ma Kollie, a mother of nine children, said.
Ma Kollie and her husband hail from Northern Liberia, Lofa County bordering mainly with the Republic of Guinea. A portion of it also borders Sierra Leone.
Madam Kollie, 52: “We thought that this new company would help us with job, but now downsizing our people. We don’t have anywhere to go now after all these years. A daily hire would help in reducing the cost of living for residents or citizens in Kinjor.”
Edwin Saye, a farmer and resident of Kinjor who migrated from Nimba County, another political sub-division of Liberia, said he relocated to Kinjor in search of fertile soil and other mineral resources a decade ago. According to Saye, a father of two kids, he has also been affected, too by the payment of fees in order to farm in spite of his long stay in the area.
Saye is one of those who, in addition to farming, rely heavily on charcoal burning for additional income. But, with the present situation, he is worried, especially for his kids who were born in Kinjor, but don’t have any land reserved for farming activities.
Mr. Saye said despite having gotten his two kids in Kinjor, he continues to be denied or deprived of the right to use the land freely, especially for farming and charcoal activities.
He narrated that if farmers do not have money to pay for a piece of land to farm, they move in the middle of the forest to farm.
“Whenever we are caught, the fined is L$5,000 or US$50 dollars. Many community members are not making farms, and things are getting difficult on the people. Additionally, our farms are sometimes taken away,” he said.
Yusuf Kamara, an official of Kinjor’s local administration, explained that not everyone is made to pay that amount to farm and how some who can afford to pay the L$2,500 sometimes become violent when they are approached to make payment for the farmland.
According to him, community people, especially women groups, which do not have the required fee, negotiate with the management team comprising a 10-member committee to allow them to farm, and during harvest, a certain percentage is given to the team.
“We have some farmers who become very violent whenever caught farming. Sometimes, they use the cutlasses they have against me and those accompanying me to the farm,” Kamara stressed.
He described farmers who don’t pay fees before farming as “illegal farmers” despite some of them have lived in the area for decades where they have intermarried.
According to him, land rights reform processes call for a political solution to enhance development in the field of Agriculture, and food security. Rights Protection, in his view is intended to avoid conflict.
Further, according to Kamara, laws and communal contributions are good for local development, without firm political will and a transparent system put in place; many citizens become prey to others who could claim certain rights.
However, Liberia has succeeded in the passage of its Land Rights Act, a document that gives rights to land ownership by government, individuals and community.
Zinnah Diploh, dean of elders of Kinjor and surrounding towns and villages, said the total land in question equals 6125 acres.
According to him, one Daniel Tolbert is the owner of the entire land and he got it from his father, but is now owned by six persons.
“Only we the children remain. We are now here taking care of the land,” he said.
He said his brother Dee Francis Tolbert is also helping to take care of the land by paying tax for the land to national government.
Alvin Freeman, a resident of Kinjor and recently dismissed by Bea Mountains Mining Corporation employee along with additional 65 persons said citizens were finding it difficult to survive.
According to him, the corporation dismissed 66 persons without any concrete reasons.
He said the case is currently at the Labor Commissioner’s office in Robertsports.