Credit: Ailey Kaiser Hughes / Landesa .
February 2013 - A farmer displaced by the Liberian Civil War returned to his family’s land to find that rubber trees had been planted where his rice had grown. A local authority had sold the land to an outsider from a neighboring town. The farmer’s claim was based on generations of use and kinship ties to the clan, while the purchaser’s claim was backed by formal documentation. When the farmer took his case to the Clan Chief, he was told that there was nothing he could do.
Today, such scenarios are common in Liberia. Rural Liberians rely on land for their livelihoods and cultural heritage, but the vast majority lack secure rights to their land. In some communities, local authorities sell land for personal gain without the agreement of community members. In other areas, the Government has granted concessions to mining, logging, and palm oil companies, and has claimed other land for national parks.
Tenure insecurity in rural Liberia is rooted in the country’s often conflicting dual land tenure system. On the one hand, land tenure is based on customary rules that prevail in rural areas. On the other hand, it is governed by formal written law. While the majority of rural Liberians claim land under customary tenure, the Liberian government has considered land not held under a formally registered title to be public land, over which it has full authority.
The lack of legal clarity has paved the way for actions that threaten the tenure security of rural Liberians, including: improper transfers of land claimed under customary tenure to elites; lack of appropriate documentation to protect claims to land; large-scale concessions of land granted to outsiders with limited community consultation; government acquisitions of land; and multiple claims to land stemming from internally displaced persons and refugees returning to find their land occupied by others.
Through the Liberian Land Commission, the government is beginning to address tenure insecurity in rural Liberia. As of February 2013, the Commission’s strategy to reform the country’s civil laws governing land recommends that customary claims be recognized, and that customary rights be given legal parity with statutory rights. Implementing these changes would be a major step toward ensuring security of tenure for rural Liberians.