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 Land Commission Chair wants Constitution strengthened to support Land Reform

The Governance Commission, in December 2014, held a Roundtable on Land Rights and Constitution Review to bring to the core numerous concerns related to “land” in Liberia. The issue of land has always reigned high among complex concerns in Liberia but the country lacked a holistic approach and laws to adequately address this problem. The Land Commission has taken up the challenge and developed a comprehensive Land Rights Policy to address Liberia’s complex problems surrounding the issue of “land”. The Land Commission Chairman, Othello Brandy explained that problems related to land had plagued Liberia overtime because the country had never had a clearly, articulated set of land policy or document that define land or property rights. Dr. Brandy, an expert on the issue of land reform himself, emphasized that for the first time in Liberia’s history, the country now has a fully develop Land Policy that took two years of national broad based consultations.

Dr. Brandy addressed the well-attended Roundtable held in December 2014 and organized by the Governance Commission in collaboration with the Land Commission and the Constitution Review Committee. All three government institutions have also been holding consultations with other Liberian and non-Liberian stakeholders to develop a comprehensive framework that will address Liberia’s myriad land issues as part of the country’s reform and transformation agenda.

The issue of landownership has always been and continues to be a source of conflict in Liberia. It is now a general belief in Liberia that the next major conflict in this country will be a fight over land. The Constitution Review Committee, CRC, has been holding a number of consultations with traditional leaders; Liberians from all works of life including political parties, women and youth groups and the issue of land ownership continues to hold center stage.

Article 22 of the Liberian Constitution stipulates Liberians right to own land in their country.  Dr. Brady supports this constitutional provision and noted that recognizing, and stating those rights must also be supported by a legal document such as the proposed Land Rights bill currently before the National Legislature awaiting passage into law that also explains other complexities associated with land disputes and ownership.

The Land Rights Policy developed by the Land Commission, LC, among other things articulates and explains four distinct land rights categories. These include Private Land, Government Land, Public Land and Customary Land. Definition of these various categories of land have been confusing and unclear, to say the least, and have led to many disputes, feuds, and court actions.

The three categories of land as we just mentioned are private Land, public land, government Land and the last category being “customary land or what we say, community land”. This is a new right category, so to speak and is indeed in recognition of the issues that were raised by our communities during the consultations. In many of these traditional communities’ individuals within those communities still own private lands. …..The fourth category is customary land. Now, this land category of customary land is because for the first time it recognizes the vast majority and it affects the vast majority of our people. This right is different from what was before. In the past government did recognize, in some kind of a passive way, the rights of these communities but it acknowledge ownership rights, user rights, which is different. It was clearly stated in some instances where tribal reserve were granted or were aborigine deeds were granted but with limitation that prevented you from selling, you could use but could not sell”.

Complex issues surrounding land ownership in Liberia

There are numerous contributing factors or causes for land disputes in Liberia today. Key among them are:

  1. Organized fraud perpetrated in land sector – land owners or their representatives selling a spot of land to numerous persons/buyers;
  2. Courts corrupt and lack capacity to handle numerous cases which then encourages bribery and justice for those who can afford and most often injustice for the poor;
  3. Illegal occupation as a result of the civil war and/or death/relocation of legal owner of said property;
  4. Documentation of landed property in disarray, missing or burnt due to civil war, probate court officers/managers of archives, and/or government surveyors lacking proper record keeping (as researched by Dr. Amos Sawyer);
  5. Breakdown of other land dispute resolution mechanisms and institutions;

In the face of all these, the Government has made land reform a top priority in its transformation agenda. President Sirleaf mandated the Governance Commission to lead in designing the approach to land reform, and organize process to address land challenges for long term. GC was also mandated to recommend solutions to immediate/urgent problems related to public land sales for her approval.

During its research, the Commission identified major land challenges predating and postdating the Liberian civil war including:

  • Lack of harmonization of pluralist land law:
    • civil law (statutory & Judicial),customary law
  • Need for modernization of backward, antiquated and inequitable land laws
    • Public land law, hinterland regulations and “settler advantage”, ambiguous laws on forest rights, and issues of inequity (gender, ethnic communities, “strangers”),
  • Need for comprehensive land law based on clear policies
  • Land administration

                a).  Deed registration system:

  • Dominant system in use; contaminated with fraud; to be reorganized conserved and digitalized.

b). Land registration system

  • initiated in  mid-1970s but not completed; need for piloting and later, phasing in system

c). Need to rationalize & capacitate land administration agencies

  • Ministries of Lands, Mines & Energy; Internal Affairs (Local Government);  Public Works; Agriculture; Forestry Dev. Authority; Office of the President; Probate Court); and other agencies – all have land administration responsibilities.
  • Community land rights and agricultural and forestry concessions: Unproductive urban land; Land for small holder agriculture & sustainable livelihoods; Zoning challenges, especially in urban and peri-urban areas; Land taxation issues, especially to discourage large undeveloped landholdings.

Organizing for Land Reform: developing a roadmap

In keeping with its mandate, the Land Commission (in collaboration with the Governance Commission) is expected to lead in deepening understanding of land challenges through research and consultations (collaborate with UL in land challenges research)

  • Recommend policies and legislation to government on land challenges
  • Collaborate with Law Commission on harmonization of land laws
  • Recommend mechanisms/institutions for land dispute resolution including the use of ADR
  • Collaborate with various agencies (local, national international) to develop coordination strategies for implementation of land laws and policies.

It is the general understanding that with all things being equal, the Land Commission in collaboration with relevant partners at both national and international levels can help minimize, if not eradicate, the numerous challenges relating to land tenure and insecurity during this period of transformation in Liberia.

The way forward 

The Land Commission has completed the drafting of the Land Rights Act and is working with relevant partners in drafting the Land Authority Act which lays the foundation for reforming Land Rights for the first time in this country. The Land Commission has also drafted the Land Rights Criminal Conveyance Act which criminalizes the fraudulent conveyance of land in Liberia. Deputy House Speaker Hans Barchue was Special Guest at the Roundtable on Land Rights and Constitution Review. He and ten other Legislators, cabinet Ministers, lawyers, national and international partners and Civil Society representatives all attended the Roundtable.

 

 

 

 

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