Fessibu — The town in the Gizzimah clan Zorzor District of Lofa County made history in June when it was certificated by the Liberian government after becoming the first community in Liberia to legalize the ownership of its land. The people here are now poised to obtain a deed for the 3,500-acre land they have lived and farmed on for more than four centuries.
"Fessibu's acquisition of title deed means the total surrender and transfer of all the sovereignty from the government to the people," Francis Colee of Green Advocates International tells FrontPage Africa. "For too long our people have been denied these rights. For us, this is a very huge development that we highly welcome."
Fessibu's feat comes with the end of customary communities' long, bloody struggle for land rights. Before Liberia, a nation founded by free slaves from the United States of America, was founded in 1822, tribespeople owned the land. However, after the country gained its independence in 1847, they lost that ownership to the state, as successive governments expanded the new country. Tribespeople fought many wars against the government as it exerted its control of the countryside up to the early 1900s. In recent years, several towns and villages have lost thousands of hectares of land to concessioners and, current and pass government officials, including in recent years.
But in 2018, the Land Rights Act ended that struggle. The new law recognizes customary communities' full ownership, unlike a bevy of previous laws that gave them only partial possession.
"Symbolically, I think this is an important milestone that has been achieved by the people of Fessibu," says Colee. "It means land ownership has found its rightful place in this country. It sends out a strong message for other customary communities to follow."
"For us, getting a deed will put an end to violation of our rights and make us to have a direct say in what happens to our land," says Chief Lavela Papa, the town chief of Fessibu.
More than 300 communities across the country have applied for land deed, according to the Liberia Land Authority. In fact, six other communities in Foya District, Lofa County, have also gained full ownership of their land. Upper and Lower Rankollie, Upper and Lower Wuam, and Upper and Lower Tengia joined Fessibu in late July.
It took Fessibu a little over three years to complete the legal formalities for the customary title deed. A major challenge in Fessibu's journey was resolving a boundary dispute between Gizzimah--the clan in which the town is located--and Zeamah, its neighboring.
Fessibu recognized Kparwea Creek as their border but Zeamah opposed that, arguing Gbargayeah Creek. After a period of negotiations, the disputants finally agreed on Gbargayeah Creek, which lies three kilometers away from Fessibu.
Boundary harmonization is one of the stages in the process communities must complete to obtain customary land deed. The others are self-identifying, mapping (both of which come before boundary harmonization), forming a land governance body, developing a land use plan and a confirmatory survey.
Resolving the dispute with Zeamah did not just lead Fessibu to its land ownership but also guarantees the town's peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, according to Ali Kaba of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), which worked the community to claim the right to their land.
"I believe this will help to minimize land conflicts in this country," adds Kaba, who heads SDI's customary land protection program. "It will essentially correct those wrongs that the state made in the past."
Another challenge Fessibu had to meet was convincing men to accept women to participate in the land matters. In the hinterland, men did not treat women as equals before the Land Rights Act. They were denied right to land and equated to properties. Widows had to remarry in the families of the deceased husbands in order to stay in their homes. Female siblings were denied inheritance by their brothers. Land matters were discussed in Poro societies away from women. Even in some cases, men were denied equal ownership of land in their mothers' birthplaces.
Prohibiting all of that, the law recognizes women ownership of land. Any community seeking legal title to its land is mandated by the law to allow women to participate, and form a part of its land development and management committee, its governance body.
"From the initial stage, we caught difficulty in convincing the elders here to allow women to participate in the discussions, training and education, recalls Sam Flomo. "This was an aged-old taboo that we fought hard to break through."
Fessibu has a population of 8,000 people. The name of the town means "under the tree" in the Lorma language. The town was established by hunters back in the 16th Century. Hunters often took a rest under trees in the area and decided to permanently settle there, according to a local legend.
The town's experience is not as grim as many rural communities across the country but it is not cheerful either. The Liberian government took 1,000 acres of its land in 1957 for the construction of the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute (ZRTTI) but gave the community nothing in return, townspeople say. They still have no water, electricity, roads and clinics today.
"We have agreed under the [governance] framework and as requested by the law, that each of the town's five quarters should present its own development plan," says Kolu Biyan, who chairs Fessibu's land governance body. "The plans are to be executed within specific timeframe. The main objective here is to prioritize electricity and all other things will follow."
"We don't want a situation where people will come here and continue to infringe on our rights. We need to acquire this document to allow us decide what to do with our land," says Lavela Papa, clan chief of Gizzimah.
But Fessibu has to wait a few more months for the government of Liberia to conduct the survey to confirm the size of its land. The Liberia Land Authority (LLA) will commence that process across the country this dry season, discloses Atty. J. Adams Manobah. After the survey, the government will present the community a title deed.
"If we find out that people have legitimate private deeds on the same land Fessibu has surveyed, it means that we have to extract their land from it," says Manobah. "We also need to establish whether there are no tribal certificates for the land. These verifications must be certified before the confirmatory survey comes in."
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story's content.