Sad Stories of Land Grabs In Liberia: Why Will Monkey Not Do What Monkey Sees?

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The story written by Daily Observer reporter William Harmon and published in the paper’s July 5, 2019, edition under the headline, “Report Implicates Gov’t Officials in Massive Land Grabs”, has claimed the attention of the Daily Observer.

The writer, quoting a report published by the local NGO Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), says subsistence farmers in Bomi County stand in danger of losing their traditional and customary lands to greedy land-grabbing elites from Monrovia.

According to official statistics, Bomi County is one of Liberia’s poorest, with a population of 84,119. It is now hard hit by Monrovia-based elites seeking to carve out large swathes of ancestral and customary lands for their private use.

More than 9,000 acres of traditional and customary land in the Senjeh, Klay and Suehn-Mecca Districts have already been converted to private use by Monrovia-based elites, with the Suehn-Mecca District being hardest it by the land grab.

It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the country’s land area have been signed away in concessions to logging, mining and agriculture since local people have no formal rights to their land.

Further, according to the SDI report, 6,200 acres of community land have been transformed to private ownership by Monrovia-based elites. “A female member of the House of Representatives from Bomi County owns about 1,200 acres of land. A senator from the same county possesses approximately 800 acres; someone who is fronting for the same senator has acquired around 2,700 acres, and a minister in the current government from the county owns 1,500 acres.”

The report continues: “In Sinjeh, a seated lawmaker from the county has 350 acres of land used from oil palm cultivation; another member from the House of Representatives possesses 700 acres, a senator from another county acquired 200 acres; a government official of the past and current government owns 600 acres”.

Former Finance Minister Amara Konneh is reported to have established a vast oil palm plantation covering hundreds of acres of land. Representative Edwin Snowe is also known to have established a vast oil palm plantation in the Senjeh District.

The passage into law of the Land Rights Act (LRA) in September 2018 has not done much to address the problem, as government officials and powerful interests continue to undermine the law.

The SDI report notes: “Although the Land Rights Law provides for the formalization and protection of customary land rights, land grabbing by national elites could jeopardize full implementation of the law.”

Under the law, communities are required to exhaust several legal procedures to qualify them for land ownership in fee simple.

But the history of land grabbing in Liberia dates back to the founding of the Republic when US naval Captain, Robert Stockton, pointed a pistol to the head of King “Long Peter”, demanding the surrender of Cape Mesurado to the settlers.

While the expansion of the Liberian state from the coast to the interior entailed the incorporation of local tribes and their ancestral lands into the Liberian state, it was not until the arrival of Firestone in Liberia in 1926 that the largest land grab in Liberian history was recorded.

Thousands of people, including local communities, were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for the concession of one million acres of land to Firestone for a period of ninety-nine (99) years.

In later years following World War II, large tracts of land were concessioned out to mining interests. Additionally, rubber concessions were also granted to foreign owned business interests.

They included the Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC), Liberia Agricultural Company(LAC), B.F. Goodridge (now Guthrie). By then the ruling elites had developed strong interests in rubber production, with a few individuals acquiring large tracts (thousands of acres) of land for rubber cultivation.

But at no time did the nation witness a such a splurge of land grabbing attempts as it did during the tenure of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

In 2008, Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) bought over the Liberian Operations Inc. (LIBINC). The EPO subsequently claimed 169,000 hectares of land as their property, which brought it into conflict with the 7,000 inhabitants belonging to the people of Jogbahn Clan, who have inhabited the area for generations but whose prior consent was never acquired.

The company has since applied to acquire an additional 35,000 hectares of land, despite popular protests against it.

Further in 2010, the Sirleaf government, without consulting the people, granted a Malaysian company, Sime Darby, a concession to cultivate 10,000 hectares of oil palm in Cape Mount and another 20,000 hectares in Gbarpolu County in contravention of Liberian law and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

Local opposition and resistance to such land grabs have always been met with brute response from the Liberia National Police and company security officers. Petitions sent to then President Sirleaf, expressing local opposition to the land grabs, were simply ignored, although she had on one occasion admitted that mistakes were made in the acquisition of the concessions.

She told Sime Darby locals that whenever government, including legislators, sign documents with foreign companies or countries, they can not be changed, adding that the Constitution gave government the authority to sign agreements on behalf of the country, stressing that people should not direct their frustrations at Sime Darby.

“So, if your government made a mistake, that’s your government. You have to come back to it so we can settle it,” she declared.

Truth be told, President Sirleaf’s economic strategy was but one crafted by Western donors, which called for the auctioning of Liberia’s land and natural resources and its transformation into a rentier state, with the hope that somewhere out of the blues a strong domestic private sector would have emerged.

In effect she proved to be a trusted guardian of a bright economic future conceived by the myriad of Western donors who supported her; but it all turned out to be a colossal failure.

What now appears to be an impending collapse of the country’s economy cannot be blamed on President George Weah alone, although corruption amongst his officials is at runaway levels. Many of former president Sirleaf’s officials, including herself, are sitting tight, with their loot safely stashed away. So why will Monkey not do what Monkey sees?

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