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Thursday, July 02, 2015
Land Grabs In Liberia: The People Rise Up
The Liberian government’s refusal to recognize and respect rural people’s customary land rights is marginalizing and destabilizing local communities. The state has handed out millions of hectares to investors in recent years. Now emotions are flaring into full-scale conflict.
The recent violence by community members against the Malaysian oil palm company, Golden Veroleum, in the presence of state officials in Butaw, Sinoe County, has once again thrown the spotlight on the violence between communities and concessionaires. One interesting take-away from the incident is that tensions between communities on the one hand and government and concessionaires on the other hand are growing, creating what has the potential to become a ticking time bomb.
Since 2010, serious incidents of community-investor land-related violence necessitating armed state security force’s involvement have erupted in many concession areas. Maryland, Nimba, Cape Mount, Sinoe, Grand Bassa, Margibi, Rivercess, Monsterrado, Bong – ten of the fifteen counties – have all reported violent land related conflicts (destruction of properties worth millions of dollars, allegations of torture by community members against state security forces, false imprisonment and other human rights abuses, and death), between communities, investors and the state. To put it more bluntly: growing tension stemming from large-scale land concessions indicates that violence and community anger may become an increasing consequence of bad faith concession operations in host communities and murky land transactions.
One of the central causes of this community anger and violence is state denial of communities’ and families’ customary land rights. (The vast majority of Liberians rely on land held, managed and used according to customary norms and practices for their livelihood.) The state’s failure to protect and defend communities’ customary land rights stems from an age old practice, mixed with an appetite for quick, cheap land and resource rental fees, that the state – and by this I mean those in charge of administering affairs of the state – has an unaccountable control over the country’s resources, including its citizens.
Firestone’s land deals and the Fernando Po crisis are good historical examples to draw from. Importantly, in recent times, between 2005 and 2013 alone, the government has ratified or signed into agreement several land based concessions, ceding away to concessionaires almost half, about 4 million hectares of the country’s land, often without proper consultation with the people and communities living and making their livelihoods from the land being handed out. The Liberian government’s refusal to recognize and respect rural people’s customary land rights is marginalizing and destabilizing local communities. It has also contributed to poor working and living conditions and weak protection for workers and their families in concession enclaves, brewing distrust between communities and investors. Indeed, it is within these four million hectares that we are now seeing emotions flaring into full scale conflict and violence. .
Furthermore, over a century of elite privilege has built in the state a patronage system to support an elite welfare system that rewards friends and families of the powerful, thus personalizing the state. One area this can be easily seen is around state processed private land claims. Laws like the now suspended Public Land Sale Act and accompanying instruments like Tribal Certificates and Presidential Signature to personalize public land (into private deed) have favored a few elites with close proximity to state power. Most large-scale public-to-private land transfers have tended to favor government actors. The recent infamous Private Use Permits (PUPs), which claimed almost a third of the country’s land space, is an extreme example of what is already unfolding all over the country. It is quite common to see members of the executive (president(s), ministers, directors of state-owned enterprises, county superintendents), representatives and senators, and members of the judiciary, along with their friends and family members, laying claims to huge tracks of lands all over the country.