Nairobi — "We are trying to reach out directly to the president"
Chiefs across Liberia are petitioning lawmakers while activists prepare for a sit-in protest in the nation's capital as they push to secure ancestral land rights, regarded as key to averting renewed bloodshed in the resource-rich country.
About 100 women marched on the presidential palace last week to kick off a campaign to amend the Land Rights Act (LRA), a watered-down version of which was passed by the House of Representatives in August, after years of delay, activists said.
"We are trying to reach out directly to the president," Ali Kaba, senior researcher at the Sustainable Development Institute in the capital, Monrovia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We are aiming to present our petitions together as activists, traditional leaders and women groups to the Senate this week," he said, referring to the upper legislative house, which is due to review the law.
Most of Liberia's 4 million people live on land held under customary tenure, which is largely administered by chiefs but is not secured or recognised by legal title, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Land has been at the centre of many armed conflicts in Liberia and is seen as a potential catalyst for unrest and threat to the nation's peace, said Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after a 2003 peace deal.
Two decades of civil war - in which some 250,000 people died following an uprising by Charles Taylor in 1989 - complicated land tenure as most records were destroyed, said James Yarsiah, head of Rights and Rice Foundation, a Liberian advocacy group.
President George Weah, a former football star who was inaugurated in January, has ordered a review of land concessions entered into by previous administrations to ensure they are legal and that performance requirements have been met.
Under his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia accelerated policies granting concessions to logging, palm oil and natural rubber companies, which helped to attract some $15 billion in foreign investment, the finance ministry said.
"The community only wants a fair share of their land and fair share on its investments," said Yarsiah.
"We saw the president's directive as an opportunity to push for LRA," he said, referring to the law which petitioners want amended to reinstate clauses to ensure that customary land cannot be privatised without community consent.
Concessions for logging, mining and agriculture cover more than 40 percent of the country, according to the Civil Society Organisations Working Group on Land Rights in Liberia.
Reporting by Kevin Mwanza, Editing by Katy Migiro.