Monrovia – The Land Rights Law (LRL) is a milestone legal instrument, but if “gaps” within the law are not bridged and its “contradictions” to the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands not addressed, the law could undermine Liberia’s land reform process. This is according to two policy briefs by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) released last Thursday in Monrovia.
Experts and officials all agree that there will be challenges in the implementation process of the law, but the policy briefs shed light on what those specific challenges will be.
“There are implementation challenges, including unequal access to information, asymmetry power, relations between customary communities and urban areas and gaps in the LRL that could potentially derail Liberia’s hard-fought gains in land reform,” said Olympas Jackley in a statement on the release of the policy briefs for the SDI.
The two briefs are entitled: “Implementing the Land Rights Law of Liberia, a Critical Test for Stakeholders” and “The Practical Potential Conflicts and Implementation Challenges for the CRL and the LRL.”
They are calling for amendment of certain portions of the as well as the need to formulate its regulations.
“We think that the drafting the LRL regulation provides an opportunity for dealing with some of the concerns that have been raised,” the statement further read. “SDI wishes to state its willingness to work with the government, provide technical support towards development of the Land Rights Regulations, and engage other process that may be initiated in this direction,” it added.
The LRL was passed into law in 2018 after more than six years on Capitol Hill and has been hailed across the world for addressing one of the root causes of conflicts in postwar Liberia—land—while the Community Rights has been praised for giving rural communities benefits of their forest resources, one of three pillar of Liberia’s forestry reform (the others are commercial and conservation).
One of the highlights of the LRL is that it recognizes customary land right that gives rural communities ownership for the land on which they have lived for generations. The SDI policy briefs, however, say that the law has “significant gaps and loopholes that can easily be exploited.”
“For example, there is a need for regulatory clarity on the transfer of [customarily] claimed land into any other category of land, including tribal certificate, concessions, private land, public land and protected areas,” the policy briefs say. The formulation of regulations, the policy briefs add, should be done with the import of all stakeholders, including communities.
The policy brief on land rights calls for public awareness on new land ownership rights, especially on the provisions on the protection of rural communities. “It is a crucial step in creating an environment where the Land Rights Law…will be effectively implemented,” it says. It also calls for robust monitoring system to evaluate the implementation of the law.
Ali Kaba, SDI’s lead campaigner on land rights, said during the release of the policy briefs that SDI was not shifting blames on anyone but finding safeguards to prevent future land conflicts.
“Our thinking is the crisis will increase, because part of the reasons the law was crafted was to address issues of rural marginalization in respect to managing resources in the country but also conflicting, overlapping rights,” he said.
“It is a good law; however, there are loopholes, there are gaps and there are contradictions,” he said.
Conflict with Forestland
The policy briefs find a number of areas where the LRL conflicts with the CRL.
One area is the definition of “community forest” in the two laws. The LRL defines community forest as comprising timbers, while the CRL defines it as a place with forested or partially forested lands.
“In the Community Rights Law it broadens it, but in the Land Rights Law there will be in the future competing claims to the land,” said Jonathan Yiah, SDI’s lead campaigner on community forest rights, during the release of the policy briefs.
Community forestry is a key sector under forestry reform in Liberia. The CRL followed the National Forestry Reform Law of Liberia of 2006. Since the creation of the law in 2009, there has been a surge in the number of communities seeking ownership for forestlands. Thirty-six communities have obtained the right to their forestlands already, covering a land size of more than 700,000 hectares. Some 122 others are in the process of acquiring theirs.
“You can see that there is high anticipation to increase the size of community forest,” Yiah said of the CRL. “But now that the Land Rights Law has come into play—if it is implemented to the letter alongside the Community Rights Law—this is one of the areas we will see the real challenge.”
Implementing the LRL and the CRL could also lead to dispute within the government of Liberia, the policy brief on forestland finds. The LRL gives the Liberia Land Rights Authority the mandate to resolve disputes on survey and boundaries, while the CRL gives the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) similar function. The policy brief on forestland calls for regulations to make clarification for interagency collaboration on the LRL.
There are also issues with the community governance structures in both laws, the policy briefs find. The governance structure under the CRL includes a community assembly (CA) and a community forest management body (CFMB), while the LRL calls for community land development and management committee (CLDMC). However, both structures don’t complement each other, the policy brief finds. Instead there are differences in the law regarding eligibility of membership and administrative officials, it adds.
“Another issue here is the potential for power struggle between the CA and the CFMB on one hand, and CLDMC on the other,” it says.
There is also conflict between the two laws over compensation for members of community governance structures. The CRL allows for salaries of members of the community leadership, but the LRL prohibits such payment.
Of that the policy briefs on forestland says, “The difference in funding and remuneration might exasperate vulnerability to lobbyism and protectionism within the two communal administration, while the [Land Rights Authority] might become chronically starved of funds and overwhelmed by its tasks.”
It also finds the steps and financial requirements communities must meet to legal own their lands make it easier for collusion with private companies and political elites. “This conflict of interest may both delay the coming into effect of the LRL and leave land conflicts unresolved,” it says.
The policy brief on forestland recommends that the FDA and the Land Authority should work together to assist communities with forestland rights stay together under the 2018 LRL and at the same time retain their status under the 2009 CRL.