The vast majority of Liberian citizens – those living in rural communities – are on a path toward having customary land ownership rights recognized for the first time in Liberia’s history. A major milestone in Liberia’s lengthy land tenure reform process was reached on May 21 when the Liberian Land Commission presented President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with the country’s first-ever Land Rights Policy, which defines Public Land, Government Land, Customary Land, and Private Land, as well as Protected Areas that will be conserved for the benefit of all Liberians.
The Land Rights Policy recognizes that “practice has become the law and policy, rather than the law and policy guiding the practice.” The formulation of the Land Rights Policy was guided by the following principles: secure land rights, economic growth, equitable benefits, equal access, equal protection, environmental protection, clarity, participation and evidence-based. Most significantly, the policy aims to address historic inequalities by recommending that customary lands are given protection equal to that of private lands.
Although the country emerged from a 14-year civil war in 2003, disputes over land and resource rights remain a source of potential conflict. In her remarks at the public ceremony, President Sirleaf said, “By clearly defining the various categories of land and accompanying rights and responsibilities, the Policy will assist in the development of appropriate legal mechanisms and procedures for the resolution of the numerous contentious land disputes.”
According to the new policy, since 1824, “the Government of Liberia has treated all land that is not deeded as public,” regardless of occupancy, historic use, or intended use. As a result, rural communities have often been displaced and dispossessed of their lands while companies were awarded timber, mining and agricultural concessions. The physical occupants of the land were left without a stake in the negotiation process and without the ability to benefit from the proceeds. According to Frank Pichel, Land Tenure and Property Rights Specialist at USAID, “The Liberian land governance system had been largely limited to the urban elite who could access the formal system. With the new land policy, property rights will finally be available to all Liberians.”
True to its principle of participation, the policy was developed through a broad two-year nationwide consultation process that gathered the views of Liberians in every county, including youth and women, the private sector, and international partners. USAID’s Land Policy and Institutional Support (LPIS) Project, which is funded through a Millennium Challenge Corporation Threshold Program and implemented by Tetra Tech with support from Landesa and Thomson Reuters, supported the development of the Land Rights Policy through research on customary tenure and women’s property rights, support to the consultative process and technical support to the Liberian Land Commission.
While finalization of the draft land policy is an important achievement, making improved land governance a reality for all Liberians will require additional measures and political will. As President Sirleaf stated at the National Validation Conference, implementation of the policy will require laws to be changed or repealed, institutions to be restructured, and the public to be educated. Speaking to the assembled delegates from all 15 Liberian counties, she said, “As we try to right the historical wrong, we must all be prepared to be a part of this process, to work for this change, to support the reform process that has brought us to where we are and to make sure that this new Liberia, of which we all speak and which we all want, indeed will ensure the rights to private land, to public land, to government land, and to community land.” The policy will next move to the Land Rights Legal Drafting Team, which will draft laws to send to the Executive and Legislature.