This article originally appeared in FrontPage Africa.
Magdalene Morweh is a 42-yr-old chief of Boe’s Town, River Cess County.
She is a tall, dark, and handsome woman, and the mother of three surviving girls out of fifteen children. Morweh and her children survive on cassava and rice farming on a piece of land along the road to Boe Town.
Morweh said that in the past, it was very difficult for a woman to claim the property of her husband upon his death, especially when it came to land.
“Before, when a women’s husband dies, she could not claim the land if she did not have children by the man,” Morweh explained.
“Even if you and the man had farmed on it before his death, the relatives of the man will not allow you to have it.”
But now thing have changed.
According to Marweh, the situation with women in her region has improved since the arrival of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a local organization that conducted research on the issue of customary land ownership in the area.
Besides husbands relatives taking away land that should belong to widows, there are internal boundary issues as well. Marweh said that there have been serious internal boundary problems with neighbouring communities, but that everything has been settled with the help of SDI.
In addition to problems with husbands’ relatives and boundary issues, concession agreements with large companies can also take people’s land. SDI program manager Ali Kaba told FrontPagrAfrica that it was necessary to conduct the research in River Cess because the people of River Cess have been marginalized in terms of profit sharing with the State.
He highlighted a few companies operating there, such as Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC) and a gold mining company named Amlib. There are also rumours of oil drilling that might take place on or off shore in River Cess, Kaba disclosed.
He noted that in most of these operations in the county, women are the most vulnerable to be left out of profit sharing and benefits of the land, and that is why it was necessary to have brought them on board and educate them on their rights to land.
As inscribed in the 1973 Land Act, community dwellers are enabled to legitimize their customary land claims. Kaba said that in regard to the Act, awareness was the most important thing. People did not know about these rights, he added. Marweh expressed her gratitude for SDI. She said that it educated her and her community about their land rights.
“I can now take someone who wants to take my land to court,” she added. “Before, I did not know I had land right as a woman and someone could just take my land and there was nothing I could do.”
Marweh noted that since she has been educated as to how to claim land that is rightfully hers, she now wants to document and formalize her land claims. She mentioned that besides the above things becoming obstacle for women’s land ownership, concessions agreements signed by the government serve as another one of the major issues for women and the loss of land.
“In most of these agreements, we are not consulted and we don’t gain anything from it,” Marweh said. “Only our farm land is taken by the companies through the government to do their logging.”
The greatest concern for Marweh now is how to get her land deed from the government of Liberia. “We already have some documents demarcating our borders and land area, we pray that the government will give us our deeds,” she said.
Marweh went on to note that if she has a deed for her land, any concessions company wanting to operate on it will have to consult her and she will have to agree before any operation can begin. And in so doing she can get some benefits from her land, rather than be left out, like the situation was before.
A report by Namati and the International Development Law Organization(IDLO)recently completed a research project on land ownership in Africa that highlighted Liberia as the highest concessions signed or land granted country in Africa.
“Between 2004 and 2009, the Liberian government granted seven forest concessions alone, amounting to 1.7 million hectares, which constitutes over 15% of the total land area, and in most of these concessions, communities living and making their livelihoods on this land are awarded with little or no consultation at all,” the report noted
In President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s second-term inaugural message, she vowed to address more urgent issues that have resulted from tensions, war, and marginalization, which includes land reform, among others.
“These include, land reform, ethnic strife and inadequate communication between the government and the people,” Sirleaf said.
A legislative act created the Land Commission in 2009. One of its mandates is to carry out fact-finding through studies and public consultation and other mean to determine the needs of land users. Furthermore, the Land Commission operates with a view to identify inadequacies that deserve remedial action.
According to Suzana Ville, the Land Commission officer for education and outreach, to fulfill the above mandate, the Commission has started a pilot project vetting tribal certificates, which she said will enable the Commission to find out who has genuine tribal certificates. Two counties have already benefited from this process, Ville said, in Fisebu, Lofa County, and Plebo, Maryland County.
Ville also told FrontPage that a lot of malpractices are going on in the public land sector. People are selling land that does not belong to them and some people have even sold a single spot as many as five times.
She noted that such problems are the reason why a moratorium was placed on public land, so as to enable the Land Commission to review the Public Land Law.
Ville reiterated that the first stage of the new program was to create awareness and to also find out how many people have tribal certificates for their land. She noted that obtaining a tribal certificate is the first step for one to own a public land.
“We understand that land issues are the heartbeat of every Liberian,” Ville said. “We also want to acknowledge that not only government has the right to land. Community people also have land right.”
Ville noted that she is satisfied with the involvement of women when these land issue are being discuss in the Commission’s pilot projects in Lofa and Maryland. “Women have right to land like any other persons,” she emphasized.
Meanwhile, the Land Commission currently has a moratorium on all public land sales in the country, in order to review land reform laws, and cannot tell when the moratorium will be lifted.
According to Ville, it is now working on a new policy called ‘The Interim Guide Line for the Sale of Public Land,’ which will include steps for community dwellers claiming land, and the decentralization of the Land Commission.
She said that the decentralization of the Land Commission will address the issues of those who have to travel from a far distance to Monrovia for the President’s signature on their land documents and other land issues.
In five years and with the required resources, the Land Commission wishes to complete the vetting process of tribal certificates in all 15 counties. The office is urging all Liberians to come out with their tribal certificates during this process.