Rural Communities Grapple with Challenges in Granting Customary Land Rights Despite Promising Beginnings
MONROVIA: Liberia embarked on a historic journey to grant title deeds for customary land to rural communities when the 2018 Liberia Land Rights Act (LRA) was passed by the 54th National Legislature and signed into law by President George Weah six years ago.
This monumental legislation, widely praised across Liberia and beyond for its comprehensive approach to addressing land-related issues and empowering indigenous communities with land ownership rights, kindled hopes of positive change. Communities across the country eagerly engaged in the formalization process to establish ownership of their ancestral lands.
While some progress has been made, the full implementation of the customary land deeds initiative, led by the Liberia Land Authority (LLA) in collaboration with the United Nations Peace Building Support Program, has encountered challenges, resulting in delays and frustrations for hundreds of communities waiting for formal recognition of their land rights.
Nora Bowier, Coordinator of the Community Land Protection Program (CLPP) at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), expressed concerns about the lack of progress in granting land deeds to communities. Despite the dedication of various Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and the donor community, none of the 150 communities that have engaged in the formalization process have yet received their deeds.
“Our communities have been navigating this process since the law’s passage, but they remain in a state of uncertainty, awaiting official recognition. We seek clarity on the factors impeding the issuance of these deeds after substantial effort has been invested,” Bowier stated during a meeting with representatives from indigenous communities.
Many communities have diligently followed the steps required for customary land formalization, including boundary harmonization and confirming surveys, essential components of the formalization process that lead to the issuance of legally probated titled land deeds. This process aims to replace informal land administration practices, often leading to legal disputes. Additionally, the surveys play an important role in identifying and clarifying boundary points between adjacent communities, ultimately promoting peaceful coexistence and preempting conflicts.
Despite these preparatory efforts, participants at the meeting lamented the lack of transparency surrounding the deed issuance process and the absence of tangible outcomes.
“We completed all the stipulated procedures, yet our deeds remain elusive. Our inquiries into the reasons behind this delay have gone unanswered,” one participant expressed.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN-Women, and the World Food Program (WFP), with funding from the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), initiated a survey process in 2021. This process aimed to enhance the institutional capacities of Liberia’s Land Authority to effectively enforce the Land Rights Act and the Local Government Act. The significance of this process was underscored by Violet Baffour, former UNDP Liberia Deputy Resident Representative for Programme, who noted that boundary harmonization and confirmatory land surveys held the potential to consolidate peace, prevent conflicts, and promote national reconciliation.
However, the anticipated dividends of this effort have yet to materialize, prompting Paramount Kollie of Zota District in Bong County to lament ongoing land disputes and instances of elite land grabbing.
The Civil Society Working Group on Land Reform organized the meeting to educate community delegates for an upcoming Community Land Dialogue with the Liberia Land Authority. The dialogue aims to address issues related to the implementation of the Land Rights Act’s customary land component and accelerate the process of deeds issuance.
The Working Group, a driving force behind this initiative, is currently engaged in a one-year project titled “Advocating for the Protection of Customary Land Rights.” This project seeks to empower customary communities to assert their land rights and ensure long-term security of ownership through the issuance of deeds, with funding from the Rights & Resources Initiative (RRI).
Bowier emphasized that the essence of land ownership lies in its potential to drive development and improve people’s living conditions. She urged the government to address the challenges hampering the implementation of the Land Rights Law and the customary land program.
Meanwhile, Liberia’s history has been marred by conflicts fueled, in part, by land disputes, making the proper recognition and protection of customary land rights an imperative step towards preventing further conflicts and fostering lasting peace.
The project’s overarching goal is to strengthen protection for customary communities’ land rights, empower these communities to advocate for their deed issuance, and support civil society organizations in addressing challenges related to the 2018 Liberia Land Rights Act, particularly as it pertains to the rights of customary communities.