27 August 2018

Liberia: Land Rights Bill Sails Through

At long last, the Liberian Senate has finally concurred with the House of Representatives (HOR) on the passage of the much talked about Land Rights Bill. The Bill has been forwarded to President George Weah for signature and possible printing into handbill by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2014, the Bill has been lingering in the Legislature without definitive position being established.

Basically, the law seeks to protect the land rights of rural Liberians. Unlike in the past, this law prevents the government from directly leasing-out land to concessionaires without the involvement of rural dwellers in the negotiations

In August 2017, the House of Representatives voted and passed into law the Land Rights Act and submitted it to the Senate for concurrence.

In its report on Thursday, the Senate's Committee on Lands, Mines, Energy, Natural Resources and Environment and the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims and Petitions said the passage of the bill was in the best interest of the country.

Four cardinal issues including, Private Land Rights, Customary Land, Government Land, and Public and Protected Areas were fully addressed in the new law.

Under the Private Land sole proprietorship according to the committee's report, partnerships composed of only Liberians and corporations owned entirely by Liberians may hold titles to land.

Additionally, in the act, the ownership of private land excludes the rights to the mineral resources on or beneath the land, the ownership of private land shall become extinct by abandonment and the land escheats to the government if the owner fails to pay all taxes on the land for a continuous period of 10 years or the land has not been occupied, development of used by the owner for a continuous period of 10 years.

At the same time, the law on ownership of customary land includes the ownership and right to use and alienate, by means, all non-mineral resources on the land such as a forest, mineral resources are excluded.

In an interview with Legislative reporters, following the passage of the law, the Committee's Chair, Lofa County Senator, George Tengbeh, said the passage of the law is a major achievement not just for the country but ordinary citizens.

He said whatever benefits or concession coming, they too (landowners) will have a share.

"If you asked who owns the land? Is the government, the state in out preamble that is the first thing you will see the Republic of Liberia. And the custodian will always be the community. So whatever benefits, or concession coming they too will have a share, they will have a say in it unlike before the government will only go and do what it want to do. But this time around, the community will have a say in it. The community will be part and parcel of the negotiation and then negotiations will go on to lay it rightly," Sen. Tengbeh indicated during the conference.

Prior to the passage of this law, lands for which no deed existed were classified by the government as public land, something rural Liberians constantly frowned at as the government proceeded to award large parcel of land to concession companies.

Upon signature by the President, the law will seek to establish community ownership of customary land by evidence of oral testimonies of community members, maps, signed agreements between neighboring communities and any other confirming said documents.

All concessions, contracts, permits, and licenses issued on community land prior to the effective date shall remain enforceable in keeping with their existing terms and conditions.

During the review of any concession on customary land after the effective date, the inputs and concerns of the community hosting the concession will be presented through the customary land support office.

Under Government Land and Public Land, Government Land shall consist of all lands owned, occupied and used by the government for buildings, projects, and other activities of government, including lands on which are located offices of ministries, agencies, schools health facilities, military bases etc.

Public land in the act shall consist of all lands acquired and held by the government through purchase, donation, confiscation, escheat, and gift or otherwise, which is not presently used by the government and is neither private nor customary land.

Protected areas under the act may be created by the government on a private land or customary land, upon negotiation with the owners.

The land rights act submitted to the National Legislature by President of Liberia is said to be a very major step in resolving the land conflicts in Liberia.

The new law notes that the different categories of land ownership and rights in Liberia and discusses the bundle of rights associated with each land category.

Additionally, a nationwide survey will be conducted by the Liberia Land Authority so as to confirm the boundaries of all customary lands. In line with the new law, results from the survey will be published and registered with the Liberia Land Authority.

The passage of the bill came following several protests and sit-in-actions by land rights campaigners and some traditional leaders, during which they called on the Legislature not to remove a portion of the proposed law that give them direct ownership.

Meanwhile, despite calls from some Senators including Grand Bassa Senator, Nyonblee K. Lawrence for a conference committee to be established so as to harmonize the amendments by the Senate, Senator Tengbeh said during the scrutiny process, the committee was always liaising with the House, adding that the law is to be sent to the President for signature.

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