A visual history of Indigenous Peoples' land rights in
Liberia

Sustainable Development Institute led this initiative to develop a protocol for communities to self-identify

With the protocol, communities took the first step to achieving title to community lands under Liberia’s Land Rights Law

“Our land reform effort is about bringing hope, justice, and peace to our people.” J. Admans Manobah, Commissioner and Vice Chairman of the Liberia Land Authority

Overview

Land Rights Law creates opportunities to grant title to those who live on customary lands

Liberia is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has never been a European colony. Conflict over land and resources in Liberia is rooted in the emigration of former slaves from North America, known as ‘settlers’, who formed an independent country in 1847. Their descendants failed to recognize the customary rights of Indigenous Peoples in law and allocated immense contracts for natural resource exploitation on their ancestral land. Today, Liberia ranks 177 out of 188 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Report index. In addition to poverty, Liberians are still recovering from 14-year civil war (1989-2003) that was fuelled by conflict over land. A crucial element of the Accra Peace Agreement was ensuring a more just and equitable process of land reform.

In 2016, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) led a multi-stakeholder Tenure Facility initiative to develop and test a national protocol for community self-identification in partnership with Liberia’s Land Commission, the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI), Development Education Network (DEN-L) and Parley Liberia. The guideline will support the land reform envisioned by Liberia’s Land Rights Policy by clarifying the first step in a process to gain collective title to their customary land under the new Land Rights Law, passed by the Senate in August 2018 and awaiting approval by the President.

Who are the Indigenous Peoples of Liberia?

95% of Liberians are indigenous. They include three main language groups: Mande, Kru and Mel. An estimated 2.5 to 5% of Liberians are Americo-Liberians, descendants of free black immigrants from North America. In addition, there are other west Africans, including Ghanians, Guineans, and Lebanese traders.

1820

The Mayflower of Liberia departs New York City carrying 86 free black people

Former slaves or descendants of slaves establish the settlement of Monrovia, named after the United States President James Monroe. Between 15,000 and 20,000 freed black people and Africans rescued from illegal slave ships join them and establish separate colonies. Initially they recognize the customary land rights of the local communities and purchase land, introducing a formalized system of private land titles.

1847

The colonies unite to establish the independent Republic of Liberia 

Americo-Liberian colonists draft and approve a constitution modeled on that of the United States. The 3,000 settlers exercise overwhelming political control over Liberia’s Indigenous Peoples who are banned from voting, if they do not own land. Liberia maintains a dual land tenure system with unclear terms of ownership for both private and customary lands. Indigenous tribes rise up in violent rebellions to protect their territories. 

1918

Liberia joins the Allied side in World War I

1920

Firestone Corporation establishes rubber plantation in Liberia

1926

Government grants Firestone more than 400,000 hectares to establish the largest rubber plantation in the world, initiating Liberia’s open-door plantation economy

1927

League of Nations investigates accusations that the Government forcibly recruited and sold Indigenous People as contract labor or slaves

1930

League of Nations concludes that the Government fostered a policy of intimidating and suppressing Liberia’s indigenous people

The Government, says the League of Nations, has been “systematically and for years fostering and encouraging a policy of gross intimidation and suppression”, “[suppressing] the native, prevent him from realizing his powers and limitations and prevent him from asserting himself in any way whatever, for the benefit of the dominant and colonizing race, although originally the same African stock as themselves.”

1942

Liberia signs defence pact with the United States assuring the US and allies in World War II access to rubber 

1949

Government passes the Hinterlands Law recognizing the customary land rights of native tribes

The Law allows chiefs to formalize customary land rights through purchase, however, few are able to take advantage of the opportunity.

1956

Liberia adopts the Aborigines Law, weakening the tenure rights of the majority of Liberian citizens who claim customary rights

The Aborigines Law gives ownership of tribal land back to the State by declaring customary land rights to be only usufruct rights. Those without a written deed are no longer the legal owners of their land. The Government treats all un-deeded land as public land, managed and administered by the State. Conflicts over land increase, driven by land grabbing for logging, agriculture and mining. Insecurity over land breeds tension between the Government and rural communities.

1949-1959

Liberia signs four agro-concession agreements totalling more than 400,000 hectares, and initiates a privatization arrangement that leads to several large-scale private land claims

1972

Government passes the Public Lands Law establishing procedures for selling or leasing public land to foreigners, enabling the transfer of state land to private land 

1974

Government passes the Registered Land Law formalizing the land registration system and requiring landholders to register their holdings

Government revisions to the Liberian Code of Law create confusion as to whether the 1949 Hinterlands Act or 1956 Aborigines Law is in effect

1979

Rice Riot unleashes decades of violence and destruction in Liberia

Massive demonstrations against the Government’s proposal to increase the price of rice turn violent. President Tolbert orders troops to fire on demonstrators, killing at least 40 and injuring more than 500. The credibility of President William Tolbert’s Americo-Liberian government is damaged. 

1980

Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe of the “Krahn” ethnic group leads a military coup ending 133 years of Americo-Liberia rule

President Tolbert and 26 supporters are murdered, and 13 cabinet ministers are executed. Doe’s military regime bans political opposition, closes newspapers, jails reporters, and in fear of counter-coups cracks down on certain tribes. 

Samuel Kanyon Doe

1989

Liberians suffer 14 years of brutal civil war

2002

Women of Liberia create the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement and stage silent nonviolent protests

“In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails.”

2003

Accra Peace Agreement ends civil war and calls for land tenure reform

United Nations deploys peacekeeping mission UNMIL

2004

UN imposes arms, timber, and diamond sanctions on Liberia

2005

Democratic government is restored with the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female African president 

2006

Liberia establishes the Governance Commission 

An outcome of the Accra Peace Accord, Liberia’s Governance Commission aims to address the breakdown of to address the complete breakdown of democratic governance in the civil war. It is charged with making policy recommendations to ensure government functions in ways that are accountable, transparent, participatory and responsive to the interest of the Liberian people.

2007

United Nations General Assembly adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with 144 countries, including Liberia, voting in favour

2008

Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established under the Peace Accord, releases findings based on conflict mapping that land and property disputes are threats to Liberia’s fragile peace

2009

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf establishes the Land Commission to draft new land policies to address the weaknesses in Liberia’s land tenure system that fueled armed conflict

2012

By 2012, more than 2.3 million ha of forest land or 20% of the country’s total land mass is promised to commercial interests through private use permits, a type of logging license designed to allow private land owners to cut trees on their property

The permits are later found fraudulent and cancelled, and some participating government officials are prosecuted.

2013

Government approves Land Rights Policy that recognizes the ownership rights of those who live on customary land

2014

Liberia is hit by Ebola crisis, delaying land reform

Government tables the a draft Land Rights Act (LRA) to realize the intentions of the 2013 Land Rights Policy

2015

Sustainable Development Institute, the Land Commission, and a coalition of civil society organizations begin a partnership with the Tenure Facility

With financial and technical support from the Tenure Facility, SDI leads a multi-stakeholder initiative to develop and test national guidelines for implementing customary/community land rights. The initiative’s partners are the Land Commission, Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI), Development Education Network (DEN-L) and Parley Liberia. Their goals are to support the land reform envisioned by Liberia’s new Land Rights Policy, build capacity for implementing the guidelines, and prepare for national adoption and upscaling.

Working with SDI, the Land Commission drafts a national guide to the procedures and processes for identifying customary communities and their lands

The draft “Field Guide for Developing a Framework for Implementing Customary/Community Land Rights Recognition Nationwide” sets out the step-by-step process for communities to gain collective title to their customary land when Liberia passes the draft LRA.

 

2017

Protocol for community self-identification gives communities the tools they need to take the first steps to gain collective title to their customary land when Liberia passes the draft LRA

The coalition of  society organizations and the Land Commission, with private sector engagement, develops and tests the protocol in a variety of settings, involving 11 communities, 45,000 people and 150,000 hectares. They also build capacity for implementing the protocol and prepare for national adoption and upscaling.

 

President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hands over power to George Weah in the country’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power since 1944

2018

UN closes peacekeeping mission 15 years after it was deployed in the aftermath of two civil wars

Community organizations call on President Weah to approve the draft LRA

The LRA has the potential to change the game for communities in Liberia by recognizing communities’ rights to their customary lands, fundamentally altering the future of land rights in Liberia and setting a precedent for how other countries in the region and worldwide address land issues. President Weah has shown sensitivity to the concerns rural Liberians have for their lands and resources. In his inaugural address, he said “we owe our citizens clarity on fundamental issues such as the land beneath their feet, freedom of speech, and how national resources and responsibilities are going to shift from this capital to the counties.” National and international groups mount a campaign to promote passage of the Bill. About 80,000 Liberians and friends of Liberia abroad sign a petition calling on the Senate, Legislature and President to pass the Bill.

Senators, members of the Liberia Land Authority, and representatives work together
to advance passage of the Liberia Land Bill. of Senate

Senate and Legislature pass the Land Rights Act

After more than four years of debate, Liberia’s Senate passes the Land Rights Bill on 23 August 2018 and the Legislature on 4 September. Civil society, and national and international observers herald passage as a significant step in building the country’s emerging democracy and peace. The Act awaits approval by President George Weah.

“As someone that grew up in the shadow of a rubber plantation, I know the Land Rights Bill gives light to our people. It is an economic tool to empower our people and to help promote agriculture production while protecting communities. It is also a human rights issue. The years of concessions are over. With this Bill, Liberians are assured a seat on the table of land use activities. I can assure you the House will act to protect Liberians, communities with customary land rights.”
Representative Vincent Willie of Grand Bassa, Chair of the Committee on Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources & Environmental Protection

The Law sets the stage for local communities to identify their lands, using the guidelines and protocols developed through the Tenure Facility pilot project and other initiatives. The LRA ensures that the customary land rights of rural communities are recognized and protected. It recognizes women’s land rights and requires Free Prior and Informed Consent before lands can be developed.

 

 

“When we passed the law, I got a call from a traditional chief in Lofa. He said: ‘Senator, we got the good news. We were sitting on the land but we were never part of this country but now we feel a part of the country. In fact the owners of the country.” This statement touched me deeply and he best described my own feeling right now. Look, we know this is a sensitive Bill but we also believe the Bill is a generational piece of legislation. I am satisfied that I was part of passing a Bill recognizing customary land rights⏤a Bill that appeases our ancestors, empowers this generation, and makes sure the next generation is protected.”
Senator George T. Tengbeh of Lofa County, Chair of the Committee on Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources & Environmental Protection

 

 

President George Weah signs the Land Rights Act, paving the way for recognition of customary land rights in Liberia