21 August 2017

Liberia: 'Land Rights Act Must Protect Rural Landowners'

Global Witness has called upon the Liberian legislature to pass a Land Rights Act (LRA) that protects the land rights of rural Liberians and reject any versions of the LRA that strip rights from these communities. Jonathan Gant, Global Witness campaigner, said: "The LRA, if passed, should recognize that communities own their land and ensure local communities - and only local communities - have the power to say where their lands are and how they should be managed." Global Witness believes that any Act that does not protect the ownership and management rights of rural landowners should be rejected by the legislature. If the legislature passes a law that does not protect these rights, the law should be vetoed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The LRA is one of the most important laws the Liberian government could pass.

Approximately 70 per cent of Liberia's population - 3.3 million people - live in rural areas and own the land upon which they depend under systems of customary laws that are based on collective ownership. However, for generations the Liberian government has failed to recognize this ownership, treating rural people as squatters rather than landowners, and allocating immense natural resource contracts on their land. During Liberia's lengthy civil war, logging contracts allowed companies to strip the peoples' forests and abused local populations. Following the war, the government awarded contracts covering some 20 percent of the country, including a large palm oil plantation to Golden Veroleum, which resulted in community protests. The LRA could change this by formally recognizing that rural communities own their land under customary law. In doing so, the Act could give communities legal standing to consent to the award of new government contracts, empowering them to make decisions about how their land should be used.

The Act would also help people living in existing concessions; strengthen their bargaining position as companies like Golden Veroleum seek to expand their operations. The LRA could serve as a way for communities to improve their lives, allowing them to use land as a means of obtaining credit with a legally-recognized asset as collateral. Unfortunately, the Liberian legislature has not made a full version of the law it is currently considering publicly available. As such, it is not clear whether the LRA, if passed, will recognize customary ownership and ensure that it is local communities who are the managers of their land. Global Witness believes that if the LRA is to genuinely promote land ownership of rural communities it must be commensurate with Liberia's 2013 Land Rights Policy and the draft LRA submitted to the legislature in 2014. (3)

"It is deeply troubling that the Liberian legislature has not published a complete draft of the Act it is considering and it should do so immediately," said Jonathan Gant. "If the legislature is hiding changes it has made to the Act that would disempower rural landowners, then the LRA must be rejected."

Golden Veroleum, meanwhile, has made important development projects in communities it is operating. Golden Veroleum Liberia has created employment opportunities, rehabilitated roads and constructed schools, latrines and hand pumps among other social benefits for its operation communities in Tarjuwon District and in Sinoe County. Golden Veroleum Liberia and the people of Tarjuowon signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on November 9, 2013, which commits the company to employ community residents, construct and rehabilitate roads, schools, hand pumps, latrines and other social benefits. To date, GVL says it has employed over 900 community residents at its Tarjuowon farms and a total of over 3,600 Liberians, with more than 70 in managerial positions, and has constructed over 600 housing units for its workers in Sinoe and Grand Kru counties in fulfillment of the concession agreement signed with the Government of Liberia.

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