Authored on09 March 2021
In Liberia, issues around land and natural resources are at the core of peace, prosperity, and reconstruction . After the civil wars (1989-1997, 1999-2003) – fueled in part by conflicts over land and natural resource rights and funded with timber and diamonds—the country underwent a long comprehensive reform period that resulted in the Land Rights Act of 2018. The new land law is celebrated as a milestone in the whole region, promoting equitable access to land and resources, tenure security, investment, and development.
In 2018, the members of the 54th Legislature passed the long-awaited Land Rights Act that enacted the most progressive pro-community land reform law on the continent. It recognizes and protects customary land tenure and women’s rights to land.
The country's land-tenure system used to reflect a long-standing division between the descendants of freed slaves from the US and Caribbean (about 5 % of the population) and rural indigenous populations. The Americo-Liberians, also called the “urban elite”, rather use a Western statutory system of land ownership while indigenous communities mostly draw on customary tenure. This divide is slowly dissolving, however. Livelihoods largely depend on small-scale agriculture and artisanal mining. At the same time, there are a number of (contested) large agribusiness and mining operations.
Some of the main land issues in Liberia today are the displacement of local communities related to government land concessions for logging, mining, and large-scale agriculture; urban poverty; and women’s land rights.
Land legislation and regulations
Liberia’s dual land tenure system originates in its unique history. It combines both statutory law that is primarily applied in the urban coastal area and customary law in the rest of the country. The latter draws on a web of local lineage-based systems of governance while statutory tenure was introduced by the American Colonization Society in the early 19th century. The Society acquired land from chiefs - often without consulting the actual landholders or their consent - along the coast for freed US slaves to settle in the 1820s. Every settler received 10 acres of farmland or 25 acres for families held in fee simple with permanent and fully transferable rights .
In 2018, the members of the 54th Legislature passed the long-awaited Land Rights Act that enacted the most progressive pro-community land reform law on the continent. Following the Land Rights Policy (2013) and The Land Rights Bill (2014), the Act formally recognizes and protects customary land tenure and women’s rights to land. Yet, as an institution established in early 2017 as a result of the 2016 Land Authority Act, the Liberian Land Authority faces various challenges including the need to train staff, develop regulations and identify funding in the implementation of this landmark law .
The Liberia Land Authority handles land disputes and coordinates cadastral mapping . The Land Authority shall also provide support in clarifying and streamlining the various institutional roles and mandates between the capital Monrovia and the county level authorities . The Ministry of Mines & Energy is responsible for managing all activities concerning minerals, water, and energy resources.
Land tenure classifications
Every Liberian citizen has the right to own real property . Freehold tenure, known as individual fee simple title, was introduced by the first Americo-Liberian settlers. According to the Land Rights Act, land is classified along four categories: Government Land, Public Land, Private Land, and Customary Land.
Government Land is owned and used by the state for ministries, agencies and branches of the Government, military purposes, public education facilities and hospitals, airports, museums etc. Prior to the Land Rights Act, Public Land was appropriated by the state although in most cases indigenous Liberians claimed it for generations under customary tenure . Public Land is now defined as any land that is not Government Land, Private Land or Customary Land. Private land is owned or otherwise held by private person(s) under the provision of the Land Rights Act and other applicable laws of Liberia. Customary Land is owned by a community or managed in accordance with customary practices and norms, such as residential areas, agricultural land, wetlands, communal forests or fallow lands. The proof of customary ownership includes oral testimonies that verify a longstanding relationship to the land in question. A person without a formal title may still have the right to own or use land on the basis of a lease agreement, easement, or license .
Historically, tenure insecurity has been a major challenge in Liberia with more than 43% of the adult population feeling insecure about their land and property . It remains to be seen if the implementation of the Land Rights Act will improve tenure security.
Community land rights issues
For the last two centuries the formal recognition of customary land rights was highly contested and spurred conflict and violence. From the arrival of the first Americo-Liberian settlers, state policy evolved from recognizing customary tenure to barely respecting usufruct rights. Before the Land Rights Act was passed, all land that was not privately owned, including community land, belonged to the government and could be granted to investors as part of a concession. Very few communities could afford to buy their lands back from the state to receive legal ownership and protect their land from investments.
Today, the new land law protects customary tenure, providing tenure security for most of the rural population. Communities may obtain a customary land deed to formalize their ownership; however, it is a complex set of steps. In theory customary land may be recognized based on oral testimony but it remains to be seen how this land would formally or statutorily be recognized in practice. Customary land now also includes the ownership of forests, carbon credits, water, and other natural resources, except for minerals beneath the land . A maximum of 10% shall be set aside as public land for infrastructure purposes.
In order to apply for a collective community land deed, communities must form a Community Land Development and Management Committee (CLDMC) representative of the community in terms of gender balance, youth etc., and discuss and adopt proper land and resource by-laws.
Land use trends
In Liberia, 51.2 % of the population live in cities, most of them in the capital Monrovia. The grassy plateau and swamps in the interior are the main agricultural areas where families mostly grow cassava and rice. In 2017, agriculture, forestry, and fishing contributed to one third of the GDP and employed 43 % of the working population .
The country is part of the Upper Guinea forest in West Africa and home to valuable timber species and a rich flora and fauna. Deforestation for mining, agribusiness, logging, and due to slash and burn practices of small-scale farming is a major issue. Between 2002 and 2019 Liberia lost 96 % of its primary rainforest .
In addition, Liberia is rich in iron ore, gold, diamonds, rutile, clay, and silica sand. With interruptions, iron ore has been the key natural resource for generating state revenues for more than 50 years. There are numerous large-scale palm oil and rubber plantations with adverse impacts for local residents and the environment.
Private land can be acquired from the owner, the State, or a community after the verification of deed from the Liberia Land Authority per the Land Authority Act. Customary land is primarily accessed through group claims held by families, quarters, or towns. Within these claims, individuals may acquire seasonal or permanent rights, for example for crops, trees, or house plots . Paramount and Clan Chiefs decide whether a request is granted.
Before the Land Rights Act was passed, communities, families, or individuals could apply to convert public land into private land. To do so, individuals or groups needed to acquire a public land certificate, often referred to as a tribal certificate. The procedure was costly, inconvenient, and lacked transparency .
According to the Constitution of 1986, the government shall manage the national economy and the country’s natural resources under conditions of maximum feasible participation, equality, and social justice  .The government can lease any portion of public lands to foreigners and corporations for agricultural, logging or mining purposes for 50 years which are renewable for another 50 years .The practice of converting land that was not formally titled into Public Land laid the ground for large concessions on customary land.
Over the last 30 years, the government used its expropriation authority to promote large-scale investments in iron-ore, rubber, and palm oil projects and signed away about 73% of the country’s land in concessions of up to 220,000 ha .The Land Rights Act protects customary tenure and improves the communities’ bargaining power in negotiations with investors, but it does not cancel existing agreements. Until today, Liberia’s economy is commodity-driven .
Most concessions have been contested and led to eviction, loss of livelihoods, poverty, or violence . The pressure from foreign investors and the government also had an impact on existing land-related issues concerning community boundaries or use conflicts .
Women’s Land Rights
According to the constitution, women and men share the same rights of acquiring, possessing and protecting property . Women’s access to and decision-making power over land and resources have remained highly vulnerable and limited throughout the country, however. Generally, it is the women’s responsibility to feed the family which is why the adverse impacts of large-scale agribusinesses disproportionately affect women. Since the two civil wars, female-headed households are very common .
Both statutory and customary marriages and respective inheritance rights are protected by various laws, such as the Domestic Relations Law of 1973, the Descendants Estate Law of 1973, and the new Land Rights Act. According to the Equal Rights of Customary Marriage Law of 1998, women in customary and statutory marriages shall share the same rights duties, and responsibilities . Only since the Land Rights Act, unmarried women’s rights to land are protected. The land law provides stronger protection for women’s land rights, such as provisions for female participation on local land management committees. Moreover, per the law both spouses are considered as equal members of land-owning communities.
Despite the existing legal framework, inconsistencies and local customs make these laws difficult to apply and women’s including spouses access to justice is limited, especially in rural areas. For example, in civil law a widow is entitled to 50 % of her husband’s property for a lifetime, while in customary marriages widows only receive one third until they remarry. By civil law, married women can acquire, use, dispose, and make contracts with regard to property including land. In a customary marriage, she must get consent from her spouse . Until today, women in Liberia access land primarily through marriage. Moreover, the management of joint property remains problematic in a patriarchal society .
Urban tenure issues
Between one third and 50 % of the population lives in Monrovia mostly in informal settlements with few or no basic services and facilities. As most settlements are illegal, residents may face eviction by the state at any time. In 2015, UN-HABITAT has supported the country’s efforts to develop a National Urban Policy that shall address the issues of property rights, lack of infrastructure and social services, and aims to strengthen small and medium-sized cities .
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
Liberia was chosen as a pilot country for the incorporation of the Voluntary Guidelines which is reflected in the Land Rights Act.
Timeline - milestones in land governace
Early 19th century - Introduction of statutory land tenure
The American Colonization Society acquired land from chiefs along the coast for freed US slaves and introduced a Western statutory system of land ownership.
1847 – Declaration of Independence
A group of settlers declares the independent Republic of Liberia with a US-inspired constitution.
1956 - Public Lands Law
The State can grant any public land which includes all customary land to investors as part of a concession. Only very few communities were able and had the financial means to receive legal ownership - the Tribal Certificate - over their customary land.
1986 - Constitution
Replacing the Constitution of 1847, the new Constitution continues to disregard customary tenure rights.
1989-2003 – Civil wars
Both wars were triggered by conflicts related to land rights and were largely funded through illegal timber and diamond trade.
2015 – Efforts to develop a National Urban Policy
UN-Habitat has supported the government in developing an urban policy that will address issues of property rights, infrastructure and social services improvement, and strengthen urbanization in small- and medium-sized cities.
2018 - Land Rights Act
Following the Land Rights Policy (2013) and The Land Rights Bill (2014), the new law recognizes and protects customary land rights and women’s rights to land.
Where to go next?
The author's suggestion for further reading
For more information on the land rights-peace nexus in post-conflict Liberia see Unruh’s paper.
Enaruvbe allows insights into the impact of mining and armed conflict on land use patterns.
The Resource Rights Initiative takes a closer look at the country’s industrial palm oil businesses and related questions of development, inclusion, and benefit-sharing.
 Unruh, John. 2009. Land Rights in Postwar Liberia: The Volatile Part of the Peace Process, Land Use Policy 26, 425-433.
 USAID. 2012. Land Policy and Institutional Support project customary land tenure in Liberia: findings and implications drawn from 11 cases. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/mokoro5930/land-policy-and-institutional-support-lpis-project-customary-land
 Roush, Tylor. 2018. and for all: Liberia embraces comprehensive land reform with historic passage of the Land Rights Act. 19th September. LANDESA. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/land-all-liberia-embraces-comprehensive-land-reform-historic-passage-land-rights
 Marquardt, Mark; MacArthur, Pay-Bayee. 2011. Study on Assessing the Potential Role of Land Title Registration in Liberia. URL: http://www.landlib.org/doc_download/Marquardt%20Pay%20Bayee%20Final%20Report3.pdf?a4705305cd27e04fb1f66830e7e0ef9d=NjI%3D
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 1986. constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Article 22.a.
 Government of Liberia. 1956. The Public Lands Law.
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 2018. Land Rights Act, Article 2 and 6.
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 2018. Land Rights Act, Article 6.
 Namubiru-Mwaura, Evelyn L.; Knox, Anna; Kaiser Hughes, Ailey. 2012. Land Policy and Institutional Support (Lpis) Project. Customary Land Tenure in Liberia: Findings and implications drawn from 11 case studies. USAID. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/land-policy-and-institutional-support-lpis-project
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 2004. Public Lands Law - Title 34 - Liberian Code of Laws Revised.
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 1986. constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Article 7.
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 2004. Public Lands Law - Title 34 - Liberian Code of Laws Revised, § 70.
[<17] Land Matrix. 2020. Country data: Liberia. URL: https://landmatrix.org/data/by-investor-country/liberia/?order_by=
 Rhein, Matthias. 2014. Industrial Oil Palm Development : Liberia’s Path to Sustained Economic Development and Shared Prosperity? Lessons from the East. Washington, DC : Rights and Resources Initiative, 41. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/industrial-oil-palm-development
Enaruvbe, G.O. et al. 2019. Armed conflict and mining induced land-use transition in northern Nimba County, Liberia. Global Ecology and Conservation 17. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/armed-conflict-and-mining-induced-land-use-transition-northern-nimba-county-0
 Hahn, Niels. 2013. The experience of land grabbing in Liberia. In: Allan et al. (Ed): Handbook of Land and Water Grabs in Africa Foreign direct investment and food and water security. Routledge, 71-87.
 Unruh, John. 2009. Land Rights in Postwar Liberia: The Volatile Part of the Peace Process, Land Use Policy 26, 425-433.
 Government of Liberia (GoL). 1986. constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Article 11.a.
 Liberia Ministry of Gender and Development. 2009. Liberia National Gender Policy Ministry of Gender and Development (2010 – 2015). Monrovia.
 The Equal Rights of the Customary Marriage Law of 1998, § 2.1 & 3.2. and The Decedents Estates Law, 1973, § 2.1.
[<24] Elisa Scalise and Leslie Hannay. 2013. Land Policy Reform for Women in Liberia. Focus on Land in Africa.
 Domestic Relations Law of 1973, Sub § 3.4. Article 2 & § 2.6.
 Elisa Scalise and Leslie Hannay. 2013. Land Policy Reform for Women in Liberia. Focus on Land in Africa.
[<27] UN-HABITAT. 2017. A National Urban Policy for Liberia: discussion paper. Nairobi. URL: https://www.landportal.org/library/resources/national-urban-policy-liberia