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The Land Rights Act victory in Liberia means the work has just begun

Tuesday, 23 October 2018 16:13 GMT

Women take part in a community land rights meeting in Rivercess County, Liberia, 2013. Photo courtesy of SDI Liberia.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rachael Knight is senior adviser for land at Namati and Ali Kaba is senior researcher and programme coordinator at the Sustainable Development Institute.

In September, Liberia passed the long-awaited Land Rights bill into law. Its passage is a triumph for the courageous, determined community members, civil society activists, and lawmakers who spent years advocating for more equitable, fair land rights for the citizens of Liberia. 

Nearly 70 percent of Liberia’s 3.3 million citizens live in rural areas and own their lands collectively according to customary laws. Despite strong customary claims, for the past 62 years the Liberian government claimed all lands as owned by the state and allocated roughly 17 percent of the country to foreign investment without consulting community members.

Liberia’s Land Rights Act remedies this injustice by ensuring Liberia’s economic growth will not disenfranchise its rural landowning communities but rather include them as key actors in the nation’s development.

The law strongly protects community land rights in many ways, including the following eight mandates:

  1. Communities may define themselves according to community members’ preferences – so long as they do not discriminate or exclude residents. (Articles 2, 34.1 and 34.2)
  1. Community members are considered to be the private owners of their customary lands. The Land Rights Act ensures that customary land ownership is private land ownership, as protected as private lands bought and sold on the land market. (Article 2, Article 32.1)
  1. Proof of a community’s private ownership of their customary lands may be established through oral testimony alone: a community does not have to have “papers” or a deed to prove their ownership over their ancestral lands. (Articles 9.4, 11.3, 32 and 37.1)
  1. All community members, including women, youth, and members of minority groups have equally strong ownership claims to customary lands, and have equal rights to use and manage community land. (Articles 2 and 34.3)
  1. The community itself is responsible for the management of their customary lands and is tasked with drafting bylaws on how they will govern their land; elect diverse leadership; make a land use plan that ensures sustainable use and conservation and is based on customary practices. (Articles 35.1, 36.1, 36.2 and 38.1)
  1. The community’s land governance body must be composed equally of men, women and youth and must make decisions by consensus. (Articles 36.4, 36.6, 36.7 and 36.8)
  1. Communities must give their Free, Prior and Informed Consent before any outsiders can use or “interfere with” their private customary lands. (Article 33)
  1. Community members may continue to use lands designated as “protected areas” for their livelihoods. (Article 42.5)

Now that the Land Rights Act has passed into law, it is necessary to begin its implementation. A critical first step should be a nation-wide legal education campaign that ensures Liberians are aware of their new land ownership rights. Rural Liberians have been taught for generations that the government owns their lands and that the citizens are mere “custodians.” A massive legal education campaign is necessary to refute this now-obsolete conception.

Liberia can look to Mozambique’s “Land Campaign” as an example, deployed after the passage of its 1997 land law. The campaign included:

  1. Nationwide dissemination of education materials, including 120,000 copies of a comic series, 3,000 audiocassettes, 15,000 pamphlets, 500 posters, and other resources like tee-shirts and billboards in more than twenty national languages.
  2. A manual for civil servants, lawyers, surveyors and professionals detailing how to practically implement the new land law.
  3. A video broadcast nationwide in movie theaters, television, and radio.

Liberia has successfully passed an excellent Land Rights Act, a fact that should be celebrated. Yet in many countries, good land laws go unimplemented due to lack of political will. Experience has shown that only when citizens know their land rights and are empowered to demand their protection and enforcement does law become practice.

The Liberian Land Authority and civil society must ensure that Liberians know their new land rights. The eight points outlined above might be taken as a starting point for a nationwide “Liberian Land Campaign” to ensure that all Liberians can leverage the new law to build a more flourishing, equitable society for all the generations to come.

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