Liberian Observer | 5 July 2019
By William Q. Harmon
Report implicates gov’t officials in massive land grabs
The impoverished state of Bomi County is likely to worsen as many subsistent farmers are at the verge of losing their residential and farm lands to elites, who have since begun land-grabbing spree in the county, if a new report, released on Thursday, July 4, 2019 is anything to go by.
Released in Monrovia by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), the report found that a number of former and current officials of the Liberian government could be converting those rural communities’ lands into their personal ownership—a situation that likely means children and unborn generations of these rural dwellers will have nothing to inherit from their parents as the land they sit no longer belongs to them.
Bomi is one of the poorest counties in Liberia, with 70 percent of its 84,119 people being subsistent farmers, according to Liberia’s last National Population Census in 2008.
The report, which revealed the conversion of more than 9,000 acres of land in the Senjeh, Klay and Suehn-Mecca Districts, tends to expose new frontiers of land grab, this time with no direct connection to concessionaires, but allegedly carried out by individuals who are reportedly using their influence, finances and connections at the detriment of local communities.
Of the three districts, the report said officials’ land grab may be the gravest in the Mecca District.
The SDI, however, failed to name the officials implicated in the land grab scheme. The group also alleged that the land grab is carried out with help from tribal chiefs and elders.
The report said claims by people the SDI interviewed could not be independently verified, but locals did present documents for land they claimed they owned.
Land grab in customary communities is a contravention of the Land Rights Act passed into law just September last year. The passage of the law was hailed both locally and internationally primarily, because it recognizes the rights of customary communities, which make up most of the country’s landmass.
The report said current and former officials of government were undermining the law. “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,” warned the report, entitled: The Struggle between the Powerful and the People–How Customary Communities struggle for Land and Livelihoods.
“Land tenure security for communities is also under threat by a new wave of land grab by national elites, using their political influence and wealth to acquire land. The acquisition of land by elites is dispossessing communities of their land that they need for livelihood purposes,” it said.
“The use of power and influence by national elites to demand lands from customary communities does not only show the weakness and vulnerability of Liberian democracy, but also indicates our unwillingness to change business as usual,” James Otto, one of the authors of the report said at its launch.
Leaders need to show commitment to the rule of law and respect for the survival of people they govern, Otto added.
There are, according to the report, 6,200 acres of community land that have been transformed to private ownership by elites. “A female member of the House of Representatives from Bomi County owns about 1,200 acres of land, a senator from the 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,” it added.
Similarly, the report found that 2,850 acres of community land could have gone to government officials. “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, and a government official of the past and current government owns 600 acres,” the report alleged. Sinjeh is the same place Bomi County District #1 Representative Edwin M. Snowe has his palm plantation.
In Klay, it also found out that about a thousand acres of community land could already be in the hands of officials.
The report said the quantity of land could be more, because figures recorded in the report did not include lands owned by district and land commissioners.
Did Officials manipulate tribal certificate process?
Most of the lands spoken of in the report were grabbed via tribal certificates. It is likely that those tribal certificates were obtained after a moratorium on the sales of public and community lands through an executive order by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The total number of tribal certificates in circulation or have been registered with the Liberian Land Authority (LLA) are unknown, the report further said. LLA did not respond to queries for comments up to press time.
The Land Rights Act mandates all tribal certificate holders to legalize them with the LLA within 24 months after October 10, 2018. The report said communities could lose out to government officials if nothing is done to curtail this apparent wave of land grab.
“The law, however, is unclear whether this exercise would take place before tribal certificates are processed into deeded land. If the LLA goes ahead to transfer tribal certificates into deeds before self-identification, there might be little land left for customary ownership,” the report said.
“Without putting into place safety mechanisms, it is plausible that powerful tribal certificates holders, counting on their influence, could use the law to transform their certificates into deeds. This will amount to a new wave of legal land grab, this time not by concessionaires, but by local elites.”
However, land grab in customary communities is not a new phenomenon in Liberia—it dates as far back as the 1920s—but the alleged land grab by government officials is new.
The report said these officials might be learning from concessionaires like Firestone, Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum, companies that have signed concessions for community lands, allegedly without their consent.
The report argues that there has been no political will from successive governments to address food security in rural (and urban) communities. The country’s industrial agriculture model undermines food security and government officials might be benefiting from regulatory “gaps” in the agriculture sector.
The report made a number of recommendations, including that the government set up a system for transparent payment for large-scale land acquisition, an agriculture regulator that sees to it that customary community lands are protected, amid huge land-related concessions.
There were other recommendations for communities to seek third party support in institutionalizing their customary land as enshrined in the Land Rights Act (LRA), as well as civil society organizations to develop skills to assist communities protect their lands.
Communities are required under the LRA to go through a legal procedure to have titled deed to lands they have lived and farmed on for generations. They have to first self identify themselves. As a land institution at any level (district, clan, chiefdom, quarter or so), the LLA has to harmonize the boundaries with the communities’ neighbors. They then have to set up a community land development and management committee (CLDMC) and, even at that, the LLA has to conduct a confirmation survey.