Protecting Community Lands and Resources: Evidence from Liberia

In recent years, governments across Africa, Asia and Latin America have been granting vast land concessions to foreign investors for agro-industrial enterprises and resource extraction. Often, governments make concessions with a view to furthering development and strengthening the national economy. Yet in many cases, these land concessions dispossess rural communities and deprive them of access to natural resources vital to their livelihoods and economic survival. Even when communities welcome private investment, projects are often undertaken in ways that lead to environmental degradation, human rights violations, loss of access to livelihoods, and inequity.

Liberia currently has one of the highest land concession rates in Africa. Between 2004 and 2009, the Liberian government either granted or re- negotiated land and forestry concessions totaling 1.6 million hectares – over 7% of the total national land area. Today, even with a moratorium on public land sale in place, private investors continue to seek and acquire land concessions throughout the country: in 2010 alone, more than 661,000 hectares were granted to two foreign corporations for palm oil production. A recent 2012 report finds that currently, “Land allocated to rubber, oil palm and forestry concessions covers approximately 2,546,406 hectares, or approximately 25% of the country.”

In the coming years, if concession grants are not carefully controlled, the amount of land still held and managed by rural Liberians will significantly decrease. This will have adverse impacts on already impoverished rural communities. In Liberia, strong legal protections for community lands and natural resources and a clear, simple, and easy-to-follow legal process for the documentation of customary community land rights are urgently necessary.

Community land titling processes, which document the perimeter of the community according to customary boundaries, are a low-cost, efficient, and equitable way of protecting communities’ customary land claims. Such efforts protect large numbers of families’ lands at once, as well as the common lands and forests that are often the first to be allocated to investors, claimed by elites, and appropriated for state development projects. Importantly, formal recognition of their customary land claims gives communities critical leverage in negotiations with potential investors.

To support the Liberian Land Commission’s efforts to strengthen the tenure security of customary land rights, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) undertook a two- year study entitled the “Community Land Titling Initiative” in Rivercess County, Liberia.5 The first study of its kind worldwide, the intervention’s goal was to better understand both the type and level of support that communities require to successfully complete community land documentation processes, as well as how to best facilitate intra-community protections for the land rights of vulnerable groups.

The intervention’s primary objectives were to:

  1. Facilitate the documentation and protection of customarily held community lands through formal community land documentation processes;
  2. Understand how to best and most efficiently support communities to protect their lands through legally established land titling processes;
  3. Devise and pilot strategies to guard against intra-community injustice and discrimination during community land titling processes and protect the land interests of vulnerable groups;
  4. Craft country-specific recommendations for the improvement of community land documentation laws and policies in order to improve fairness and make titling procedures easier for both communities and land administrators to follow.
  5. To fulfill these objectives, SDI randomly selected 20 communities in Rivercess County and then randomly assigned these communities to one of four groups, each of which received a different level of legal services support. The various levels of support provided were:
  6. Monthly legal education;
  7. Monthly legal education and paralegal support;
  8. Direct assistance of lawyers and technical professionals; and
  9. A control group that received only manuals and copies of relevant legislation.

Due to the President’s moratorium on public land sale and the suspension of all public land sale processes (as set out in the Public Lands Act 1972-1973), the 20 study communities followed a skeletal documentation process set out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between IDLO, SDI and the Land Commission of Liberia. These steps included:

  1. Establishing Interim Coordinating Committees responsible for leading their communities through the land documentation process;
  2. Harmonizing community boundaries and documenting all agreed boundaries;
  3. Drafting and adopting community by-laws to govern intra-community land and natural resource administration;
  4. Drafting and adopting community land and natural resource management plans; and
  5. Electing a governing council.

SDI’s field team observed and recorded the communities’ progress through the requisite steps, noting: all obstacles confronted and their resolutions; all intra- and inter-community land conflicts and their resolutions; and all internal community debates and discussions. A pre- and post-service survey of over 700 individuals and more than 100 structured focus group discussions supplemented the field team’s observations.

This report details the communities’ experiences undertaking the land documentation activities and summarizes the initial impacts of these efforts under the following subject headings: conflict resolution and prevention (encompassing boundary harmonization and demarcation); intra-community governance (encompassing by-laws/constitution drafting); and conservation and sustainable natural resource management (encompassing land and natural resource management plan drafting). It briefly reviews the obstacles and hurdles confronted during the community land documentation the process, and then describes conclusions relative to the optimal level of legal intervention necessary to support communities’ successful completion of community land documentation efforts. The report also details findings concerning how best to facilitate intra-community protections for the rights of women and other vulnerable groups during the land documentation process.

The report concludes by setting forth findings and recommendations intended to inform policy dialogue and to provide useful information for the Land Commission, the government of Liberia, and all interested stakeholders seeking to develop laws and policies for community land documentation.