Liberia is on the cusp of passing a historic law that would strengthen the rights of rural communities to land on which they have lived and worked for generations – much of which has recently been acquired by large-scale commercial acquisitions. The legislature should adopt the Land Rights Act before it goes on recess by August 30.

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (L) smiles during a meeting at City Hall in Monrovia, January 30, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

Land in Liberia is in high demand from foreign and national investors, particularly for palm oil plantations, mines, and timber concessions. According to the World Bank, 1.6 million hectares – that’s almost 2 million football fields – of land in Liberia was sold, leased, or licensed to commercial investors between 2004 and 2009, often with little or no consultation with those directly affected. Many disputes have not only ended up in the courts, but in violence between those who live on the land and investors.

The proposed act would legally recognize communities’ rights to “customary land,” defined as land owned by a community that is used in accordance with customary practices like arable farming. The concept of customary land recognizes communities’ long-term, continuous occupancy and use of land. The act would empower communities to legally own this land. It also establishes safeguards to reduce discrimination against women and other vulnerable groups – who are often disproportionately affected by social and cultural barriers to using and owning community land.  

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf supports the act, and in January, she urged legislative action to secure land ownership rights for rural communities. Civil society groups are also pressing the legislature to pass the law.

The Land Rights Act would finally give Liberian communities much-needed control over the land that they still depend on for their subsistence and livelihoods, and that is central to their identity and their history. The legislature should adopt it without delay.