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Earlier this year, the outgoing President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf handed over power to George Weah in the country’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power since 1944. It was a moment that crystallized just how far Liberia had come in the last 13 years, since a 2005 peace agreement brought an end to over a decade of civil war, raising hopes internationally that the country remains on course towards lasting peace.
But President Weah also inherited a country that, like much of West Africa, is plagued by insecure community land rights and at risk of trending toward instability and conflict. Disputes over land and natural resources were among the structural causes of Liberia’s prolonged civil war, and advocates warn that failure to address this issue threatens to undermine the country’s hard-won peace.
Millions of Liberians depend on the lands and resources that investors covet for mining, logging, and agriculture. Yet, research shows that the plantation model of development has failed to deliver promised benefits to Liberia’s rural people and that they benefit far more from retaining their traditional lands. Time and again they have been forced from their lands or faced the destruction of resources they depend on to make way for palm oil plantations and logging concessions.
President Weah has shown sensitivity to the concerns rural Liberians have for their lands and resources. In his inaugural address, he noted that “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”. Yet, in an earlier address, he told investors that Liberia was “open for business,” with these two statements suggesting varied paths down which President Weah could lead the country.
So, President Weah has a choice: be “open for business” without recognizing community land rights and risk a backslide into conflict and insecurity or to move towards a new model by prioritizing the land rights of the people who voted him into office and consolidate peace and sustainable development in Liberia.
Liberia's situation is not unique: up to 2.5 billion people in the world rely on indigenous and community territories — at least 50 percent of the world’s land — for their livelihoods and subsistence. Yet communities only have legal ownership rights to 10 percent, despite mounting international commitments to respect and title indigenous and local community lands.
But Liberia is notable for two reasons. First, the country is especially vulnerable to conflict over land. Forthcoming data from the Rights and Resources Initiative shows that at least 19 percent of the country—and likely much more—has already been handed over to companies in the form of concessions, principally for large agricultural plantations and logging operations.
Second, Liberia has a legislative solution to this crisis on the table in the form of the 2014 draft of the Land Rights Act (LRA). Community organizations have already laid the groundwork for implementing this law as soon as it is enacted. And the government of Liberia has come tantalizingly close to enacting it in past years. The LRA would have changed the game for communities in Liberia—and still could—by automatically 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 these issues.
Yet the bill has stalled as powerful interests opposed it. A version of the LRA passed the Lower House of Liberia’s legislature last year, but it had been altered to open up community territories to land grabs, which would have disastrous results for communities, the environment and ultimately for Liberia’s future.
Even when contending with criminalization in response to their advocacy, community advocates in Liberia continued to push for a version of the bill that respects their rights. In so doing, they echoed the struggle of Indigenous Peoples and local communities the world over, who face record levels of violence and persecution to make their voices heard.
A decade ago, it was a struggle to incorporate land rights into international negotiations on development and climate change. Today we have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the New York Declaration on Forests, and these rights have been included in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Increasingly, governments and the international community recognize that they cannot meet their environmental, human rights, and economic development commitments without respecting land rights. Research has shown that without secure land rights for communities, rates of conflict and deforestation skyrocket, while human development falters.
By contrast, when governments and private sector actors recognize and respect community rights to their land—and civil society supports the efforts of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to secure their land rights—conflicts decrease, economic indicators improve and forests are more likely to remain intact.
With the 2014 Land Rights Act on the table, Liberia has the opportunity to achieve all this and more.
By enacting a version of the law that protects the rights of communities, President Weah would show the world that countries in the Global South do not have to—indeed, cannot—sacrifice the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to achieve their development, environmental, and human rights goals.
To move forward, governments must work toward economic models that recognize the integral role of community rights in sustainable development and growth.
President Weah has a golden opportunity to catalyze respect for land rights in Liberia—and make Liberia a model of peace, prosperity and development for West Africa and the world.
Solange Bandiaky-Badji is the Director of the Africa and Gender Justice Programs at the Rights and Resources Initiative.