Land grabs in Liberia: The people rise up

Pambazuka | 2015-06-23

Land grabs in Liberia: The people rise up

Ali Kaba

The Liberian government’s refusal to recognize and respect rural people’s customary land rights is marginalizing and destabilizing local communities. The state has handed out millions of hectares to investors in recent years. Now emotions are flaring into full-scale conflict.

The recent violence by community members against the Malaysian oil palm company, Golden Veroleum, in the presence of state officials in Butaw, Sinoe County, has once again thrown the spotlight on the violence between communities and concessionaires. One interesting take-away from the incident is that tensions between communities on the one hand and government and concessionaires on the other hand are growing, creating what has the potential to become a ticking time bomb. 

Since 2010, serious incidents of community-investor land-related violence necessitating armed state security force’s involvement have erupted in many concession areas. Maryland, Nimba, Cape Mount, Sinoe, Grand Bassa, Margibi, Rivercess, Monsterrado, Bong – ten of the fifteen counties – have all reported violent land related conflicts (destruction of properties worth millions of dollars, allegations of torture by community members against state security forces, false imprisonment and other human rights abuses, and death), between communities, investors and the state. To put it more bluntly: growing tension stemming from large-scale land concessions indicates that violence and community anger may become an increasing consequence of bad faith concession operations in host communities and murky land transactions. 

One of the central causes of this community anger and violence is state denial of communities’ and families’ customary land rights. (The vast majority of Liberians rely on land held, managed and used according to customary norms and practices for their livelihood.) The state’s failure to protect and defend communities’ customary land rights stems from an age old practice, mixed with an appetite for quick, cheap land and resource rental fees, that the state – and by this I mean those in charge of administering affairs of the state – has an unaccountable control over the country’s resources, including its citizens. 

Firestone’s land deals and the Fernando Po crisis are good historical examples to draw from. Importantly, in recent times, between 2005 and 2013 alone, the government has ratified or signed into agreement several land based concessions, ceding away to concessionaires almost half, about 4 million hectares of the country’s land, often without proper consultation with the people and communities living and making their livelihoods from the land being handed out. The Liberian government’s refusal to recognize and respect rural people’s customary land rights is marginalizing and destabilizing local communities. It has also contributed to poor working and living conditions and weak protection for workers and their families in concession enclaves, brewing distrust between communities and investors. Indeed, it is within these four million hectares that we are now seeing emotions flaring into full scale conflict and violence. . 

Furthermore, over a century of elite privilege has built in the state a patronage system to support an elite welfare system that rewards friends and families of the powerful, thus personalizing the state. One area this can be easily seen is around state processed private land claims. Laws like the now suspended Public Land Sale Act and accompanying instruments like Tribal Certificates and Presidential Signature to personalize public land (into private deed) have favored a few elites with close proximity to state power. Most large-scale public-to-private land transfers have tended to favor government actors. The recent infamous Private Use Permits (PUPs), which claimed almost a third of the country’s land space, is an extreme example of what is already unfolding all over the country. It is quite common to see members of the executive (president(s), ministers, directors of state-owned enterprises, county superintendents), representatives and senators, and members of the judiciary, along with their friends and family members, laying claims to huge tracks of lands all over the country. 

However, what is also clear – and is clearly reflected in recent violence in many rural communities across the country – is that the citizens have sufficiently shown to the state and state clients that these paternalistic patronage practices around land and natural resources are not only faulty as a principle of development but also defy the basic tenets of human rights. Importantly, it has led to intractable stalemates throughout the system, and in some cases, produce deadly outcomes. 

Against this backdrop, the recent violence in Sinoe should sound alarm bells for Liberian lawmakers, government actors, national stakeholders, and international partners. Genuine attempts at protecting and defending community land rights have the power to diffuse mounting tensions and restore peace. In particular, strong community land rights can help improve community cohesion, positive dialogue and communication within and between communities, a strong sense of citizenship, inclusion, ownership, a mutual investment climate, and successfully address the underlying drivers of conflict.

To this government’s credit, it successfully drafted and adopted an excellent land policy in 2013 that formally recognizes customary land rights. The Policy, which has since been made into a draft Act and submitted to Liberian Legislature, mandates that: “Customary Land rights are equally protected as Private Land rights.” The land rights of the community as a collective and the rights of individuals, groups or families within the community are equally protected. 

But deeds, not words, can help fix the broken relationships between the state, communities and concessionaires. Sustainable peace in Liberia is possible, but realizing it requires radically transforming the way the state does business in Liberia. Heavy handed policing under the guise of development and maintaining public order will only worsen the tension. Concessionaires should be weary of the situation and consider measures to improve their relationship with communities where they operate.

* Ali Kaba is a program manager and senior researcher at the Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberian non-governmental organization working to transform decision-making processes in relation to national resources. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Studies (CERPS), a Liberian think tank. 

  • Women living near the #Socapalm oil palm plantation in Edéa, Cameroon, are struggling for their land, autonomy and livelihoods. Please read their account and sign in support before 15 December: https://forms.gle/gBKbFCv2Bizzpfbt7
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