Several government agencies, development partners and civil society groups working on land and natural resources policy reform have endorsed a recent recommendation from representatives of local communities in five counties.
The local communities want customary land and natural resources ownership and rights be taken to a national referendum so that it can be placed in the Liberian Constitution.
It can be recalled on August 5, 2013, participants at a three-day workshop in Gbapa, Nimba County, proposed that customary land rights be part of the ongoing constitutional review process. Participants at that workshop were drawn from Bong, Lofa, River Gee, Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties.
At a breakfast meeting last week at the offices of Green Advocates International in Monrovia, representatives of several government agencies, development partners and civil society groups upheld the citizens' recommendations and promised to facilitate processes leading to the inclusion of portion of the Land Policy that recognized the customary land and natural resources rights of local communities.
The consultative meeting also discussed the dormancy of the Liberian REDD process and the inconsistencies between the Community Rights Law and the Community Rights Law Regulation.
Green Advocates Lead Campaigner, Alfred Brownell said the meeting was intended for stakeholders to collectively look at three key issues which continue to surface in the organization's consultations with rural communities across Liberia.
He made specific reference to the recent recommendation calling for the amendment of the Constitution of Liberia to recognize and protect customary land and natural resources rights; the need to address the inconsistencies between the Community Rights Law and the Community Rights Law Regulation and the dormancy of the REDD process in Liberia.
Attorney Brownell observed that the Constitution discriminates against statutory rights and customary land and natural resource rights.
He claimed that statutory rights have always been treated as superior of Customary Land and Natural Resource Rights.
"This is, in fact, the reason why a concession agreement or contract signed by the Government of Liberia which is a statutory legal document, for example, has the power to evict a rubber, rice, vegetable or cassava farmers from their ancestral or traditional lands without their consent or even the chance to negotiate benefits," Brownell said during the meeting.
He stressed the need for the Constitution of Liberia to equally respect statutory rights and customary land and natural resource rights whether rural communities have deeds or not.
A representative of UNMIL Civil Affairs Section, Kofi Ireland told the gathering that stakeholders including Green Advocates and local communities have the opportunity to discuss which portion of the Constitution should be amended.
Mr. Ireland noted that the ongoing Constitutional review process provides perfect opportunity for people and local communities to start these conversations on which portion of the Constitution should be revised.
According to him, if civil society groups and local communities drag on until the process of reviewing the Constitution is concluded, it would be a lost opportunity for everybody.
He called on Green Advocates and other civil society groups to take the conversations about including Customary Land Rights in the Constitution to various communities across the country.
For his part, Conservation International representative to the consultative meeting, Borwen L. Sayon said communities need to own certain rights to land.
A Land Commissioner Estelle K. Liberty suggested that customary land rights should not be limited to forest areas alone.
She said recommendation to include customary land and natural resources rights in the Constitution was laudable, but warned civil society to be careful about how to discuss it.