Liberia: Two Rival Clans in River Cess unite to Claim Land Rights

Photo of gold rich Yarvoe Village, Kploh Chiefdom, Central River Cess District

KPLOH, RIVER CESS – For a little over 10 years, the people of Teekpeh and Ziadue Clans in Central River Cess District, River Cess County, were locked in a land dispute over a gold-rich village called Yarvoe. People from both clans could not farm within the disputed area nor could they move freely there. But today The clans have now put aside their differences to seek customary land right as the Kploh chiefdom.

Report by Varney Kamara, with New Narratives

The resolution of their dispute is an example of how the Land Rights Act, passed into law last year and hailed across the world for recognizing customary land rights, is inspiring unity among communities across the country, experts say. 

The law mandates customary communities seeking land rights to identify themselves in any way they choose, among other things, to acquire deed for land they lived on for generations. Hundreds of communities across the country are currently going through this process.

“We have decided to come together so that we can live in peace here,” says Clan Chief Jacob Tarr of Teekpeh. “Once we are together, we believe that we can easily negotiate and participate in discussions between the government and investors coming in here to invest,” he tells FrontPage Africa. “We have logs in the forest here, and we also have several gold mining creeks in our clans.”

“This is something that we all embrace warmly because we want to be in peace as we used to be in the past. In the past, we had only one clan called Zaidue, and we can only hope for peace to prevail amongst us,” says Joseph Yansay, chief spokesman of the elders of Ziadue clan.   

Peace talks between the clans actually began in 2015 and in 2017 they signed a community self-identification memorandum of understanding. The clans agree in the MOU that Yarvoe village belongs to Teekpah.       

Mineral-rich village 

Yarvoe, named after Yarvoe Meyongar, a celebrated witchdoctor in River Cess, is home to over 200 people, many of whom survive mainly on gold mining.  Thirty-five class “C” license holders operate this part of the Central River Cess district, according to the local Sam Beach Mining Agency of the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME). Miners have flocked to this place in the last decade, locals say. High rainforests, creeks and hills surround the area. 

The entire Central River Cess District has a huge potential for gold, according to Mayeah Youhn, Liberia’s chief geologist. Youhn says that explains why “everyone is rushing there.” 

The confusion between the two towns heightened in 2009 after Teekpeh decided to survey the portion of land it had claimed from the chiefdom’s estimated 20,000 acres.  Prior to that time, Teekpeh was a part of Ziadue. But after the civil war in 2003, it decided to be a clan on its own. Their separation coincided with a gold-rush in that part of the country at the time, thrusting them into a boundary dispute over the mineral-rich village. 

Ziadue is closer to Yarvoe but Teekpah has a longstanding traditional tie to the village. Ziadue is a 45-minute walk to Yarvoe, while Teepkeh a three-hour-and-45-minute walk there. However, Teekpeh had argued that the mineral-rich village hosts the graveyard of its kinsmen even when it was not a clan.   

“This is what we’ve been saying all along that negotiation is the best way in which communities can resolve this kind of dispute, and this is truly resolvable once the communities have been able to engage each other peacefully and have self-identified their boundaries,” says Ali Kaba of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), which helped the clan duo understand the law and the processes leading towards customary land rights. 

“From the onset we did not anticipate that communities would use the land rights law to settle their [internal] boundary disputes. In my mind, these communities have realized that by peacefully harmonizing their differences would create opportunities for them to develop and make good use of their natural resources,” Kaba tells FrontPage Africa.  

Dr. Emmanuel Urey agrees with Kaba. He says their story can be used to genuinely settle land dispute across the country, fueled by ethnicity and the aftermaths of 14 years of civil conflict that broke down the country’s social fabric.   

“Land is fundamental to our existence as a people,” says Dr. Urey, who is the Country Representative of Landesa, an international consortium that conducts research and provides policy advice and frameworks to governments on land issues, according to its website. Urey says Teekpeh and Ziadue clans’ boundary settlement is a “unique scenario where other communities across the country could effectively use the law to harmonize similar differences over land conflicts.” 

“This is good news for the framers of the law,” Dr. Urey says. “We have seen the positive impact that the law is beginning to have on our people. However, we still need more awareness on the full implementation of the law. The Government needs to play its part. The LLA, too, must continue to monitor CSOs on the enforcement of the law.”

The LLA also revels in the clans’ reunion. 

“From the onset of the creation of the law, we knew exactly that there would come a time where communities in dispute over land ownership would use the law to settle their differences,” says Atty. Manobah, acting commissioner of the LLA. “The law provides that such matters be handled amicably. In the event parties do not reach a compromise, then the LLA comes in, and then, followed by the court,” he adds. “So, we are very happy that Teekpeh and Ziadue clans have decided to settle this issue peacefully.” 

Getting a deed is still a long way to go for the clans. After identifying themselves as the Kploh chiefdom, the LLA will map the chiefdom’s land and cut the boundaries with its neighbors. Thereafter, the chiefdom will develop its own bylaws and constitution, establish a land governance body—called in the law community land development and management council (CLDMC)—and then conduct a confirmatory survey before getting a deed as a customary community. 

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of a Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.