Monrovia — The Civil Society Organization (CSO) working group on Land Rights in Liberia, in collaboration with the National Civil Society Council of Liberia has alarmed that the current Land Rights Act passed by the House of Representatives and currently before the Senate is not in the interest of ordinary Liberians.
In a press statement over the weekend, the group noted that the current draft, if passed without revisiting several contentious issues, would go against both the letter and spirit of the Land Rights Policy of 2013, and further undermines peace, reconciliation, and development for years to come.
"While recognizing the efforts of the House of Representatives in passage of the Land Rights Bill, we would however like to warn that the Bill was dramatically watered down in such a way that rather than securing land rights, the current draft instead ensures a massive, legislative grab of most rural Liberian's lands.
If the current draft is passed without modification to how public land is designated, it will spark tensions in the country, as the bill allows the state to claim 30% of customary lands of communities for its own use without compensation.
It also allows for an unknown amount of land to be acquired through an unvetted process like Tribal Certificate," the CSO Working Group alerted.
It specifically pointed out five provisions in the current draft act including tribal certificate, 30% of public land, protected and proposed protected areas as government land, prior informed consent (FPIC) and gender that need to be revisited or not will amount to an unprecedented legislative grab of rural Liberian families' lands.
It pointed out that the provisions in the current draft of the LRA legitimizes and validates Tribal Certificates and various other pre-existing property documents without safeguards against widespread bad faith transactions, fraud, historical procedural impropriety, or inaccuracy in the original survey processes; warning that validating Tribal Certificates without robust vetting risks opening the door to large-scale privatization of Customary Land without genuine or inclusive consent of the community owners.
To guide against this, the Working Group strongly recommends the original solution set out in the September 2016 version of the Land Rights act be reinstated in its entirety.
"Should this not be possible, the group added, "we suggest changing the language of the current Article 47(2) to read: "Notwithstanding provisions of Section 1 of Article 47, the Public Land Sale Deed obtained by a holder of a Tribal Certificate shall entitle the holder to 100% of the developed portion of the land.
The Land Authority shall send an officer to confirm, in consultation with community members, what land had been truly "developed" by the date of the passage of this Act. All land not yet developed shall revert to the Community to become Customary Land."
It stated that the current LRA provides for the government to convert 30% of Customary Lands to public land without due process, compensation, or justification, effectively constituting expropriation of 30% of Customary Land from rural Liberian communities; and added that such a "taking" of community land without the consent of the Liberian land owners living on and earning their livelihoods from that land, and without payment of compensation does not only go against the 2009 Community Rights Law, it is also unconstitutional.
On Protected and Proposed Protected Area as Government Land, the group noted that the current draft of the LRA contains inconsistencies that function to remove Protected Lands, both designated and proposed, from their customary landowners; noting that it altered the September 2016 version of the Land Rights Act and create confusion about the status of protected areas.
It recommends amending Article 42(1) to read: "All Land previously designated by the Forest Development Authority (FDA) as Protected Areas, including those already designated, shall be and remain Protected Areas, while simultaneously categorized as Customary or Private Land."
It further called for the reinstatement of the rights of communities to Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) to all concessions and investments on their land; adding that the current draft of the Land Rights Act sets out no participatory rights for communities, no consultative rights, no benefit sharing right commensurate with the denial of the enjoyment of their Customary Land, and no use or access rights.
The Working Group recommends adding Article 33 (3) to read: "Concessions, contracts, permits and other documented licenses executed by the Government in favour of any Person on Customary Land prior to the Effective Date of this Act shall remain valid and enforceable in keeping with their existing terms and conditions, provided the Person exercise maximum efforts to engage positively, with the free, prior informed consent of the Community on all relevant matters arising.
On gender, the group asserted that the Land Rights Policy clearly recognizes that women's land rights are often less protected than those of men and therefore specifically aimed to give equal protection to the land rights of men and women; yet, the current Draft Land Rights Act falls short of maintaining this mandate as in the alteration of article 36(6) originally article 38(8) which marginalize women's participation in land governance.
The CSO recommends that the LRA institutionalizes women's participation in land governance structures so that women represent at least 30 percent of the Community Land Development Management Committee.
"Importantly, any decision taken in respect of Customary Land shall be in accordance with the customs, traditions and practices of the community, provided that a decision which defeats the rights of women, heirs, descendants or persons with disability shall be null and void," the group avowed.