From the early part of the 19th century until 1980, Liberia was led by a small minority consisting mostly of former slaves from the United States and their descendants. During this 150-year period, most customarily owned land was controlled by this class or the government, with most Liberians left out. This history contributed greatly to the coup d'etat in 1980 that put Samuel Doe in power, the first leader of Liberia not from U.S. origins.
This land history also contributed greatly to Liberia’s two civil wars, which raged from 1989-2003. In their wake, the country was left devastated, with millions displaced and several hundred thousand dead. Recovery and development were needed throughout the economy and society.
An essential part of this recovery and development involved responding to problems around land rights. Most people with land had their rights recognized through custom and local knowledge, but not by law. Meanwhile, foreign companies held concessions from the Liberian Government for large amounts of land for investments in agriculture, forestry and mining. However, concessions and customary land rights often overlapped. Underlying this was the fact that land issues can trigger strong emotions and lead to violent conflict in places like Liberia where stability is fragile.In 2018, Liberia took a major step forward in addressing its land issues to the benefit of its people by passing the Land Rights Act. The Act was the product of almost a decade of effort by the people of Liberia to first develop a Land Rights Policy, and then use that policy to write the legal provisions in the Act. Extensive public outreach formed a key component of developing the policy, both to solicit ideas for improving the policy and to build support for the policy and eventual Act.
The Act’s key provisions include:
- Providing a clear legal description of the nature of private land ownership;
- Giving legal recognition and strong protection to customary land ownership as well as thorough legal guidance on the nuances of customary land ownership, and requiring a nationwide “confirmatory survey” to identify customary land and its boundaries;
- Providing a thorough legal description of co-ownership of private land, an important dimension of ownership which is often not well articulated in law;
- Protecting a family’s customary right to land for housing; and
- Addressing the interplay between customary land rights and concession rights to the same land. This includes requiring that a customary community affected by a concession shall have, at a minimum, a 5 percent interest in the concession, and providing that upon the expiration of the concession the land reverts to the customary community. Concessions are prevalent in Liberia, so these provisions are of great importance.
Making major policy and legal reforms typically is a steep challenge – as shown by the time and effort it took to develop and adopt the Land Rights Act in Liberia. But this example also shows that policy and legal reform are worth supporting, and that by doing so MCC can make a positive difference to boost investment, increase economic growth, and reduce poverty.