Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed black slaves from Northern America, mostly the USA, who initially recognized the land rights of local communities and purchased land. Nevertheless, conflicts over land ownership and land use rights have plagued the country, driven in recent decades by land grabbing for logging, agriculture, and mining. In 2017, Liberia ranked 177 out of 188 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Report index. Liberians are still recovering from two brutal civil wars, that were in part fuelled by conflict over land and land reform.
The Accra Peace Accord, which ended the second civil war in 2003, called for a more just and equitable process of land reform. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf launched a new land policy in 2013 to give ownership rights to the majority who live on customary lands. The intent of the Land Rights Policy was translated into a draft bill called the Land Rights Act. After four and a half years of debate, Liberia’s Senate passed the Act on 23 August 2018. On 4 September 2018 it was overwhelmingly endorsed by the House of Representatives. It is now referred to as the Land Rights Law. It awaits approval by President George Weah before implementation. Passage of the Bill was accelerated by a national and international campaign that collected 80,000 signatures from Liberians and friends of Liberia abroad.
The Law ensures that the customary land rights of rural communities are recognized and protected. It also takes into account women’s land rights and requires Free Prior and Informed Consent before community lands are developed. Under the Law, communities must identify themselves through a participatory process as a first step to gaining collective title to their customary lands communities. The process must include all community members, including women, youth and minorities. This is a complex undertaking in many parts of Liberia, as land records are poor, and after two decades of civil unrest and conflict many people resettled outside of their communities of origin and many records were lost.
To facilitate the process, Liberia’s Land Commission had developed a draft guide to the procedures and processes for identifying customary communities and their lands, called ‘Field Guide for Developing a Framework for Implementing Customary/Community Land Rights Recognition Nationwide’. The first step in the Field Guide is a guideline that will enable local communities to make progress in a process to gain collective title to their customary land when Liberia passed the Land Rights Bill.
The Tenure Facility pilot project, completed in 2017, organized a coalition of nongovernmental and governmental organizations, with private sector engagement, that tested and refined the guideline for community self-identification in a variety of settings, built capacity for implementation and prepared for national adoption and upscaling. It capitalized on the current momentum to advance recognition of community collective rights and strengthened the civil society-government partnership, which is crucial to upscaling the protocol guideline nationally to significantly advance the land and forest tenure rights of local communities in Liberia.
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