MONROVIA – The government of Liberia and major stakeholders in the forestland sector are developing guidelines for rural communities to accept and reject concessions targeted for their lands, a move advocates are hailing would curb land grab and strengthen the relationship between concessionaires and locals.
Report by Mae Azango, New Narratives Correspondent
Liberia passed into law the Land Rights Law in 2018 that recognizes customary land rights, but the guidelines, when finalized, will spell out how communities can exercise their rights to give or withhold their consent to any concession on their land.
“If we can educate the communities about these guidelines throughout Liberia, It will provide the opportunity for communities to come-face-to-face with investors in order to reduce riots in concession areas,” said James Otto of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) at a national validation workshop for draft guidelines last Thursday in Monrovia.
The draft was prepared through a project led by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), funded by the Liberia Forest Sector Project and carried out by LTS International. It brought together civil society organizations, concessionaires, government agencies and communities to adapt the “National Guidelines on Achieving Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) with Respect to Communities and Forest Resources”.
In an interview with FrontPage Africa following adaptation of the guidelines, Silas Siakor, one of the organizers of the event, said Liberia’s communities’ right to consent is a constitutional right as well as a right guaranteed by laws governing forestry, land and the environment.
“The government is trying to give clarity to it regulatory bodies, concessioners, Investors, companies and communities to understand Free Prior Inform Consent guidelines the same way,” Siakor, who won the Goldman Prize in 2006 for his advocacy against conflict timbers, said. “The idea is that, there will be some consistency in how people are interpreting FPIC and how is being implemented on the ground,” he pointed out.
This guideline is very important because companies will be under obligation to provide information of the good bad and ugly side of whatever project companies are going to invest in. For example, if you want to build a power plant for electricity, which is good because of insufficient energy, but if that community will be affected by smoke, you have to inform the community about the challenge that will come along with the development,” Siakor said.
Rural communities have been involved in violent clashes with concessionaires countrywide over reported land grab. There have been clashes in Grand Cape Mount with Sime Darby, Nimba with ArcelorMittal but the most infamous of all has been in Sinoe County with Golden Veroleum.
Cllr. Alfred Brownell, a Liberian environmental lawyer, was in April awarded the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize for his advocacy against concessionaires—mainly GVL—for alleged land grab.
Persistent conflicts with locals have seen the Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm (RSPO) reprimand GVL over reported land grab in places like Butaw and Tarjuwon, and led the company to withdraw and readmitted to the global oil-palm certification scheme. The RSPO is running a project in the country to foster a good relationship between concessionaires and communities by making awareness on its principles.
Some civil society actors said the community consent guidelines could have prevented the loss of lives and properties over communities-concessionaires clashes. “If the FPIC process had been introduced to the community from the beginning, things would have been better, but we were left out and were not informed when we used to see yellow machine destroying our crops,” said Saye Thomas, the president of the National Union of Community Forestry Management Body (NUCFMB). “We hope this FPIC guidelines in place, things will improve in our various communities,” said Thompson. Community forestry management bodies are community governance structures that represent the interest of the communities under the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands.
Apart from the Land Rights Law, Liberia is a signatory to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACPHR) that calls on states to ensure participation of communities in decision-making on natural resource governance, “including the free, prior and informed consent of communities”. It also notes concern over the “disproportionate impact of human rights abuses upon the rural communities in Africa that continue to struggle to assert their customary rights of access and control over various resources, including land, minerals, forestry and fishing”.
Speaking in an exclusive interview, Z. Elijah Whapoe, the manager for planning and policy at the EPA), manager for planning and Policy, said a major challenge was securing more funding for the implementation of the FPIC guidelines. “The EPA is trying to source enough funding from other partners to carry out awareness to make sure the FPIC process is for the benefit of the Liberian people regarding the natural resources,” Whapoe said.
“We are going to submit the document with its justification to the World Bank, which has given us the green light for additional funding to carry out the process. Even though we have little funding left to recruit community radio stations and community based Organizations so that they can carry out our messages in the various local vernacular that are contained in our communication and education strategy.”
Stakeholders are asking for the guidelines to cover the natural resource sector before the policy is finalized, organizers say.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.