Liberia

An image of the country's flag.

Liberia is rich in natural resources, including valuable timber species, significant biodiversity, and mineral resources, including iron ore, gold and diamonds. Agriculture provides a livelihood for the majority of the population, with most farming carried out on small landholdings, but there are also a number of large commercial plantations.

Liberia has an urban-based elite, the descendants of freed slaves from the US and Caribbean. The majority of indigenous Africans live in rural areas. The land-tenure system reflects this division of the population. Throughout coastal Liberia, the urban elites use a Western statutory system of land ownership based on individual fee simple titles. In the Liberian hinterland, indigenous Africans use their own customary systems, which are based on community or collective ownership of discrete territories.

At first, state policy recognized customary ownership as full ownership rights, whether or not formally titled. It now recognizes only usufruct rights of possession and use of undocumented customary claims. This policy has permitted the state to grant concessions for vast tracks of customary lands, as well as to create national parks and reserves. It has also contributed to conflict, as indigenous communities lost their food and livelihood source and an important lynchpin of their cultural heritage. In addition, during the civil war, a new national forestry law was passed, decreeing that forest resources (trees), as distinguished from forest lands, belong to the state. This effectively took away community access to forest resources even when these were on the community‘s own lands.

The causes of Liberia‘s recently concluded 14-year civil war were multiple, but central to the war was conflict over land and natural resource rights. While key sector reforms have been introduced in the post-conflict period, there is still more work to be done with respect to land policy reform, land dispute resolution, legal recognition of customary rights and the promotion of community forestry development.

KEY ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERVENTIONS

Two land and property rights issues need to be definitively addressed as Liberia proceeds with post-conflict reconstruction. The first is the issue of the legal status of customary land rights, and the second is the issue of ownership of trees and other forest resources on community forest lands. Key reforms undertaken by the Liberian Government put it on the right track to resolving these issues: the cancellation of all existing forest concessions; the review of rubber concessions (2006); the establishment of the Land Commission (2009) to settle the question of customary land rights; and the enactment of the 2009 Community Rights Law, which returns ownership of forest resources to communities.

Obviously, resolution of the issues will take some time. Yet the Government faces huge challenges, including the need to jumpstart the economy. The resource sector – forest, mining and rubber – is seen as the main engine for economic development. The Forest Development Authority is poised to grant forest concessions amid protests from communities and civil society. The grant of concessions without a clear resolution of the issues has the potential for igniting conflict.

USAID is helping shape the solution to the issues. The Land Rights and Community Forestry Program (LRCFP) is working towards building a community forestry framework – both a legal and policy framework – and community capacity-building for sustainable resource management that includes biodiversity conservation and livelihood improvement. A component of the program is assisting the high-level Governance Commission and developing policy proposals for administering community land-rights (USAID 2008). In 2010 USAID began providing additional assistance to the Government of Liberia to address land tenure and property rights challenges by implementing the Millennium Challenge Corporation‘s program to strengthen land administration, develop land policy and law, and conduct field-based evaluations of customary tenure institutions and practices to best determine how they might be legalized.

It is critical, however, that the legal and policy framework for community forestry recognize customary ownership of community lands and, secondly, that ownership of the land include ownership of the trees and other natural resources thereon. Otherwise, communities will never be truly empowered, nor will they have the incentive to pursue sustainable resource management. Worse, it may serve as a spark for violent conflict. While the Community Rights Law is a positive development, it should be noted that there are still provisions in the National Forestry Reform Law, the Aborigines Law, and other laws that can undermine customary ownership. USAID is in a unique position through the LRCFP and other land tenure programs to provide technical and legal expertise that can help clarify the issues and their proper resolution for the Liberian Government. Aligning these laws is essential: clarity is achieved through taking all of these laws and facilitating the removal of contradictory sections. Addressing gender divisions of land ownership is also essential to improving rural livelihoods. This would ensure that the LRCFP would make a real difference in the lives of indigenous communities and all other Liberians.

SUMMARY

Liberia is one of Africa‘s smaller states in terms of population and land area. It houses the largest remaining remnant of the Upper Guinean tropical forests of West Africa (4.3 million hectares), which contain valuable timber species and significant biodiversity. Liberia is also rich in mineral resources, including iron ore, gold and diamonds. Agriculture plays an important role in the economy. Most farming is carried out on small landholdings, but there are also a number of large commercial plantations, including the largest rubber plantation in the world, operated by Firestone.

Liberia‘s population is often divided into two main groups: a small urban-based elite who are descendants of freed slaves from the US and Caribbean (5% of the population, known as Americo-Liberians), and an overwhelming majority of rural-based indigenous Africans (95% of the population). The land tenure system follows this division. The first Americo-Liberian settlers brought with them the Western statutory system of land ownership based on individual fee simple titles (the most complete form of land ownership in Anglo-American law, often imported with colonialism and referred to in English law as freehold), while the indigenous tribes used their own customary systems, which are based on community or collective ownership of discrete territories.

State policy (established by the Americo-Liberian political elite) evolved from recognizing customary ownership as full ownership rights, whether formally titled or not, to merely recognizing usufruct rights of possession and use of undocumented customary claims. Early state policy and law (which may still apply) recognized a separation of ―civilized‖ and ―uncivilized‖ people in the application of Liberian laws, including land laws. In law, fee simple ownership was clearly reserved for ―icvilized‖ people. Per the Hinterlands Rules and Public Lands Law, the process for obtaining fee simple ownership required that the tribe be ―icvilized,‖ and limited claims of tribal land to 25 acres per family. In practice, however, some indigenous people obtained ownership title stated in terms of fee simple.

All lands not formally titled became public lands owned by the state, paving the way to the grant of concessions of vast tracks of customary lands for logging, mining (iron ore), and rubber plantations, as well as the creation of national parks and reserves. This inevitably generated conflict as indigenous communities lost their food and livelihood source and an important lynchpin of their cultural heritage. In effect, they had to buy back their lands from the government to acquire legal ownership. Some groups did so, acquiring collective titles to their lands.

Liberia entered a long period of instability, marked by descent into a 14-year civil war (1989–2003). The causes of the war were multiple, but central to it (even if not its direct trigger) was conflict over land and natural resource rights. These included issues over customary ownership, ethnic land disputes (Mandingo issue), and issues stemming from poor land administration systems and capacity. Timber and diamonds were used to finance the war, prompting United Nations sanctions against these resources. The war devastated the economy, public institutions, physical infrastructure and social capital, killed about 270,000 people, and displaced almost 80% of the population. Environmental degradation worsened as people crammed into camps without basic services, and dumped garbage and wastes into rivers and other ecologically sensitive locations. During this time too, a new national forestry law was passed, decreeing that forest resources (trees), as distinguished from forest lands, belonged to the state. This effectively took away community access to the resource even on the community‘s own lands. Previously, only minerals had been state-owned.

Liberia is now in post-conflict reconstruction after the January 2006 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa‘s first female president. Key sector reforms were introduced – all forest concessions were cancelled; rubber concessions were renegotiated; a Land Commission was established in 2009 to set policy for customary ownership and tenure security, improved land-administration and development of land resources; Liberia is adhering to the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme for rough diamonds; a committee on ethnic disputes has been created; and forestry laws were revised in an effort to balance commercial exploitation, community forestry and forest conservation.

The 2009 Community Rights Law clearly reiterates the distinction between forest trees and forest lands: ―All forest resources in Liberia, regardless of land proprietorship, shall be regulated by the Authority for the benefit of the people, except forest resources located in community forests and forest resources that have been developed on private or deeded land through artificial regeneration.‖ This repeats in different language the provisions of the 2006 Forestry Reform Law (Ch.2), which declared State ownership of trees and also included exceptions for ―ocmmunal forests‖ and privately generated forest. The significant point is not the separation of trees and land, but rather who defines the extent of ―ocmmunity forests‖ and whether traditional claims will be recognized, and who in the end controls the community forest. The 2009 Community Rights Law explicitly recognizes Tribal Deeds but at the same time limits Community Forest Land to a maximum of 49,999 hectares. Moreover, ―The community forest land shall be identified, validated and recommended by the Forest Development Authority‖ (GOL Community Rights Law with Respect to Forest Lands 2009b, Sec. 2.2, 2.4)

The donor community in Liberia is transitioning from relief aid to development aid. USAID investments include technical assistance for land-policy reforms and for budget management in the mining sector, swampland rehabilitation, and the development of community forestry. Liberian advocates have argued that land-policy reform and community forestry development necessarily require the full recognition of customary ownership of indigenous lands and all natural resources on those lands.

Published / Updated: November 2010

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