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The Nature of Social Justice Advocacy and Local Resistance to Land Concession in Liberia: Impact on Land Governance system, Customary Land Rights and State Response

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MONROVIA – One of the decisive moments in social justice advocacies for land rights in the recent history of Liberia came in 2011, when rural communities, wrote a letter of complaint against the Sime Darby Plantation Company to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The communities letter of complaint essentially cited violations of land rights, accompanied by disruptions to the socio-economic and cultural life of the local communities, and failure by the company to abide by the principle of Free, Prior, Informed, Consent (FPIC).


By Baba Sillah, Special for New Narratives


The Sime Darby concession agreement was signed with the Government of Liberia in 2009 for a Gross Concession Area of 311,187 hectares spanning the boundaries of four counties including Gbarpolu; Bomi; Cape Mount and Bong. 

Following the complaint to the RSPO, the Liberian government, Sime Darby and Project Affected Communities (PACs), began discussions through an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sime Darby. However, the government is considered to have exhibited an overall lack of will to protect the rights of its citizens and its general disposition tended to side more with Sime Darby (Siakor, 2012,). For example, in response to a call by Sime Darby on President Ellen Jonhson Sirleaf “requesting her intervention in the dispute between the citizens and the company,” (Inter-Ministerial Committee Report, 2012; quoted in Siakor, 2012), the President visited the communities and “told citizens that once the government had signed a contract with the company, the communities could not change it.”

Notwithstanding, the Liberian government’s professed commitment to both national and international legal instruments such as The Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands (CRL); the Public Procurement and Concessions Act of 2005 (PPCA, 2005); African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1981); United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1997) and most significantly United Nations Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC), all of which are intended to protect the rights of rural people, commitment, it must be said differs from compliance. Commitment only signifies that “actors accept international human rights norms as valid and binding for themselves”, whereas compliance or rule consistent behavior entails, “sustained behavior and domestic practices that conform to the international human rights norms…” (Risse, Ropp and Sikkink, 1999, p.9-10).

It would take a combination of determined Civil Society, NGOs, and international partnership efforts that resembled a transnational pressure group arrangement to pressure the state into moving from commitment to adapt “prescriptive status” on land rights. Prescriptive status involves changing domestic laws, and ratifying related international treaties and protocols (Ibid). The foremost prescriptive status the Liberian state has implemented regarding customary land rights is the change in the land law of the country. It remains to be seen, however, whether the state will be rule consistent in its observance of the new law. 

Over the past decade, several groups including the Civil Society Oil Palm Working Group, which comprises Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU), Rights and Rice Foundation, Green Advocates, the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), and the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), working in concert with rural people called on the government of Liberia to respect national and international laws and policies regarding customary land rights, ensure the equitable distribution of wealth generated from the palm oil sector, protect the  Project Affected Communities’ farmlands against usurpation by Sime Darby,  among others. For instance, in February 2018, the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI), another member of the Civil Society Oil Palm Working Group issued a statement stating:

“The Concession agreements with Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia have provisions that do not comply with Liberian laws and international human rights standards,” and with respect to the duration of the agreements “The duration of these agreements violates the statutory limit of government leasing of public lands…” Land concession has 50-year duration in accordance with the Section 70 of the Public Lands Law of 1972 (Sendolo, 208).

The advocacy and resistance to land concession in Liberia, especially over the last decade of a massive wave of land-grab worldwide, brought increased local and international attention to the problematic nature of the land governance system in Liberia, the consequences for the general governance and continued stability of the state, and the necessity for urgent land reform. (Wily, 2007; Siakor, 2012; Nyei, 2011).

As a result of the sustained advocacy by Project Affected Communities and civil society for change to the policies and laws governing land administration, some significant departures from the historical norms on land rights and tenure security have been achieved. Historically, the state has regarded all lands not possessed through the statutory process (fee simple-), which leads to the granting of official deeds as public lands (Public Lands Law 1956). This policy, for many decades, disenfranchised rural people from customary land ownership and simultaneously made it possible for the state to grant land and other form of concessions to foreign companies on customary land even where tribal certificates existed (Siakor, 2012; Wily, 2007).

The Land Commission was established in 2009 with the mandate to propose, advocate and coordinate reforms of land policy, laws and programs in Liberia. Some of the objectives of the Land Commission are to ensure, among other things; security of tenure in land and the rule of law; and effective land administration and management (Section 3.1)

In 2013 a new land policy, “Land Rights Policy” was drafted after consultation among relevant government ministries and agencies and Civil Society Organizations. The Land Rights Policy was submitted to the President of Liberia in 2014 by the Land Commission as the draft “Land Rights Act” (LRA). The Land Rights Act provides for four categories of land: (a) private land; (b) public land; (c) government land; and (d) customary land.

Accordingly, the ownership of customary land entails: (a) the right to possess; (b) the right to use; (c) the right to be responsible, identify and (d) define boundaries. Importantly, the LRA granted customary land rights the same legal status as private land rights, a significant departure in the history of land governance in Liberia, and a move to streamline customary and statutory land governance regimes.  

This was a historic milestone as it sought to provide security for customary land tenure for millions of Liberians especially indigenous people without statutory deeds. For example, Article 2, Section 22 (ii) of the Land Rights Act states that: “in respect of land, ensuring that Customary Land is given protection equal to Private Land”, and Article 32, Section 2 holds that: “The existence of and ownership of Customary Land shall become enforceable as of the effective Date of this Act.” 

In order to bring land administration and governance under a unified body, a draft Bill to establish the Land Authority Act (LAA) of Liberia was submitted to the National Legislature in 2014. The LAA would serve as independent body to deal with all the administrative processes pertinent to land use and absorb the functions of ministries that deal with land issues such as the Ministry of Agriculture; Lands, Mines, and Energy, among others (Part II 4.0). After nearly three years in the Legislature, the Liberia Land Authority Act was finally passed in 2016. However, immediately following the passage of the LAA, the Civil Society Working Group on Community Land Rights in Liberia issued a position statement outlining some issues about the manner in which the LAA was crafted. The position statement raised qualms ranging from low consultation with key important stakeholders in the land sector, the overly bureaucratic structure of the governing board, the centralization of power in the Board of Commissioners, and the lack of clarity on how the Board of Commissioners would be chosen.  

Although the draft Land Rights Act was submitted to the Legislature by the President of Liberia in 2014, to achieve its passage proved difficult and spanned a period four years. The organization of mass advocacies by rural people and CSOs was crucial for reminding the government of the need to act quickly. For example, in 2016 more than 500 advocates from different parts of Liberia converged on the Legislature in a sit-in  demanding the passage of the draft Land Right Act. Subsequent meetings were held between the Civil Society Working Group, then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the head of the Liberian Senate (Ibid.). However, the Act was still not passed.  

CSOs’ demands for the speedy passage of the draft Act were against fears that if not passed urgently, the most fundamental provision of the Act seeking to grant customary land rights for people in the rural areas en masse could be changed (ibid). There were also concerns that the Legislature would undertake some alterations to the original version of the Act that would have to subjected customary land to privatization.  The privatization of customary land had the potential to disintegrate communities by making land sale easier. Another critical issue was women’s rights with regards to land ownership that some feared would be undermined in the process of converting Tribal Certificates to deeds.

Remarkably, after almost four years of unrelenting advocacy and tedious negotiations, the departure from a system of land governance that had discriminated against rural people and marginalized customary land ownership, making it possible for the government to award land concession in rural areas was finalized when the Land Rights Act was signed  into law by President George Weah on September 18, 2018 after the Liberian Senate’s unanimous concurrence with the House of representatives. 

This milestone, would not have been achieved without sustained pressure from CSOs and rural communities that consistently used issues of rights abuse and land grab arising from the Sime Darby and other land concessions to remind the government of the urgency for land reform. The true fate of the rights that the new Land Rights Law ensures security for customary tenure will however, be tested based on future evaluations of how the government handles land concession issues that affect rural communities.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

About Author:

Baba Sillah, is a doctoral student at Sophia University, in Tokyo, Japan. He researches in the areas of agrarian studies, comparative politics, and political governance and development, in the multidisciplinary field of Global Studies. He can be reached through email: b-sillah-8×[email protected]; [email protected];

References

         Nyei, I. A. (2011). Towards Diminishing Spaces for Rural People: An Analysis of the Impacts of Land Governance Policies and Concessions on Rural People in Liberia, p.52

        Sendolo, J.M. (2018, February 2). Local NGOs to Strengthen Advocacy for Equitable Distribution of Oil Palm Wealth. Daily Observer.  Retrieved from https://www.liberianobserver.com/news/local-ngos-to-strengthen-advocacy-for-equitable-distribution-of-oil-palm-wealth/

Silas Kpana’Ayoung Siakor (2012. Uncertain Futures: impacts of Sime Darby on communities in Liberia (2012). Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of Earth P. 27, foe.org/simedarby

         Wily, L.A. (2007). So Who Owns the Forests: An investigation into forest ownership and customary land rights in Liberia, p.117.

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