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Strengthening Social Cohesion in Sinoe County

The scale of violent uprisings in Liberia’s concession areas is becoming alarming with fights between Concessions and communities on one hand over land related issues, and community benefits from investment opportunities and inter-community struggle over land boundaries/ownership/tenure on the other. A sustained process of open dialogue between community and investors is required to facilitate effective communication, peaceful co-existence, and improve cohesion within project affected communities particularly Sinoe county.

As part of concrete efforts geared toward enhancing peace-building and social cohesion, the Governance Commission (GC) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recently sent a team to assess the issue of social cohesion in Sinoe County, with particular interest in the Butaw District. Why Butaw (some may ask)? Butaw District was identified because, among other issues, of the May 2015 conflict between the community and the Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) Company which led to vandalizing of the Concession’s property, and detention of some of Butaw youths. 

The team members included Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, Jeremiah Witherspoon, McNeil Wilson and Janet Johnson of the GC, and Mahamed Boakai of UNDP. While in Sinoe (July 22-25, 2016), the team held consultative meetings with relevant stakeholders to discuss major contending issues and identify entry points for the project titled “strengthening social cohesion and building peace between communities and concessionaires”.  Groups consulted were local political and administrative leaders of Sinoe including Superintendent Prosper Brown, the Assistant Superintendent for Development and four Statutory District Superintendents from Kpayahn, Tarjewohn, Juahzon, Jayday, representatives of Civil Society organizations (CSOs), Butaw citizens (60 plus people including traditional chiefs), the Management of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), and the Management of Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO).

The Team observed that the results of these land deals/transactions between local people and investors have been mixed across the country, and for the most part, regulatory issues have negatively affected the stability of contract and security of land for investors and local communities respectively. The results have been conflicts over land areas between communities wishing to lease land to investors on one hand, and between communities and investors over issues of employment, preservation of cultural sites, water resources, and social benefits to communities. The inability of both investors and communities to address these issues on a win-win basis have led to violent uprisings on plantation sites resulting to damages of millions of dollars’ worth of properties, and injuries to people.

Sinoe County has 17 districts, a population of 104,932 (2008 Census), and remains one of the least populous counties in Liberia. A significant portion of Liberia’s forests is located in Sinoe County making the County one of the premier producers of timber in the country. However, this has also been a source of numerous challenges the County continues to face, namely, land disputes over tenure and ownership, and inequitable distribution of the benefits. As a result, issues of trust and social cohesion again pose serious challenges to both production and social cohesion in the concession areas of Sinoe.

Taking into consideration the need to stabilize relations between communities and investors for the sake of empowering communities and maximizing social benefits of investments on their land, the Governance Commission, with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is implementing a local peace building and community cohesion pilot project in Sinoe County under the title “Strengthening Social Cohesion and Building Resilience through Communications and Community Dialogues in Sinoe County”. The project seeks to examine opportunities and entry points for strengthening trust and social cohesion amongst the communities, concessionaires and other local stakeholders. The project will draw from the lessons learned from the successful community engagement in responding to the crisis of Ebola, and the numerous crisis that have emerged out of the shaky relations between communities and concessions as was the case leading to the Butaw uprising of May 2015.  

The President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, recently asked the Sinoe Peace Initiative to look into some of the conflict issues and advise her accordingly. Major investors in the county, including Golden Veroleum (GVL) are expected to be an essential part of the pilot project through their participation in consultations and material support to community micro projects.

Major findings and Recommendations of the GC/UNDP Assessment Team 

After the successful fact finding mission to Sinoe, the GC/UNDP Assessment Team came up with a report to include the following findings and recommendations.

  1. Concession Agreements and Local Community

 a). That the signing of concession agreement are done without consultations with communities nor adequate information as to the benefits to communities; and that social responsibilities of investors (which are at the root of the problematic relationship between companies/concessions and the people) are not clearly spelt out. . In the case of the Golden Veroleum Liberia, both County Superintendent and local chiefs had no role to play in the negotiations over the land for investment project in Butaw.

b). Information on how the investment would benefit the people of Butaw, and Sinoe in general were not properly communicated. Promises of investment and social development of the community were also broadly passed on to communities without specific details. This created high expectations among community members. 

Recommendations: the Team recommended that:

  1. Future land concession negotiations should involve communities and county officials, and that total land areas available locally must be known and surveyed before investment deals are signed.
  2. Communication and mediation programs are urgently needed in Sinoe County to facilitate co-existence between project affected communities and investments. The focus of this project should be to facilitate the existence of structures for dialogue and information sharing between investors and communities, and to ensure that terms of MOUs are understood properly by local activists.Conflicting Land Boundaries
  1. There seem to be lack of understanding and knowledge on the actual boundaries that exist between communities. While tribal communities and clans have traditional knowledge of their total land areas, they do not have real figures in acreage; neither do they have land titles (in most instances. The lack of titles/deeds to land have made it even more difficult for investors willing to do business with communities to determine the total land area owned by the interested communities. This situation affects both the EPO and GVL concessions in Sinoe.
  2. The interests of investors in communities without titles to their land but willing to lease land areas have awaken new levels of land disputes between and amongst communities in Sinoe County. If these contestations over land are not resolved and communities given titles/deeds that demarcate their total land areas, the potential for inter-tribal or inter-clans violence cannot be overstated.

Recommendations: Sinoe presents an urgent case for land dispute resolution and boundary harmonization. a). An intra-county boundary harmonization and land dispute project is urgently needed in Sinoe County to stabilize relations between communities and ensure security of both land tenure and investments. b). Communities need mechanisms put in place to ensure that their land areas are surveyed, agree upon common boundaries and be given legal titles/deeds to private owners, under the Land Rights Policy of Liberia.

  1. Legitimacy of Local Leadership
  2. Recent reforms in the land-based investments such as forestry and plantation agriculture have given premium to the negotiation of land leases with communities. All of the concession agreements have requirements for investors to sign MOUs or social agreements with project affected communities. This is also well articulated in the Community Rights Law of 2009. However, provisions are not clear on the representations of communities in negotiations with investors. Ad hoc structures have been established over time in communities to represent the interests of the communities in engaging with investors. While investors are represented by highly-skilled negotiators and lawyers, communities are poorly represented and in some cases individuals based in Monrovia with selfish interests (as alleged in nearly all of the meetings) hijack the process and make poor representations for the communities.
  3. In addition, competing interests in the communities frequently challenge the legitimacy of each other, making it difficult to know who actually represents the community. This case is replete in Sinoe County, and very pronounced in the Butaw District where division amongst competing local organizations partly fuelled miscommunication and sparked the May 2015 uprising. Local county officials including superintendents are not allowed to represent communities, but only to observe MOU processes as witnesses. They also have no powers to enforce implementation of the terms of the MOUs.

Recommendations:

  1. While reforms in land and local governance are still ongoing, the need to empower the local statutory and traditional authorities, as well as women groups to serve as legitimate representatives of local communities cannot be overemphasized. It is recommended that in the case of customary/tribal land ownership, local tribal land officials (or recognized designee) be the sole negotiator(s) and custodian(s) of the land lease negotiation process. This process should at all-time be facilitated by the county and district officials who should ensure that the community is adequately represented in negotiations; advise the process throughout to ensure that the terms of the concession agreement are adhered to, and that the community’s interests are properly represented and rights respected. The establishment of ad-hoc community representative groups and fronting of local activist organizations as legitimate representatives of communities in engagements with investors must be discouraged.
  1. Civil society organizations in Sinoe need urgent capacity building trainings if they are to be considered responsible partners and serious contributors to Liberia’s development agenda. The Team observed that the Sinoe CSOs do not have much knowledge as to their roles and responsibilities in a democracy, nor the GOL/CSO partnership Policy and Accord initiatives between government and CSOs. There is urgent need for them to receive copies and information to enhance CSO operations/work in Sinoe County. Giving CSO appropriate training will capacitate them to engage communities better instead of inciting communities against government and investors.
  1. Division in Butaw

The division among the people of Butaw will continue to undermine social stability and development of the area until measures are put in place to have a unified local organization. The division in Butaw is between two competing organizations – Ablorteh and the Butaw Welfare Development Association with both claiming the right to represent the people of Butaw. The lack of a functioning recognized traditional/statutory authority to ably represent the people’s interests led to the emergence of numerous organizations claiming leadership authority in Butaw. While it is recommended that these 2 organizations be replaced with traditional/statutory structures, their role in maintaining peace in Butaw and advancing better relations with the plantation is crucial. The division among the people has led to serious mistrust and continues to undermine their social cohesiveness. Tribal leaders and elders have all taken sides in this schism.

Recommendations:

  1. In the face of alarming division among the people of Butaw, stable relations and trust among them and with GVL and other investors can only be possible through dialogue and mediation initiatives. A dialogue, communication and mediation program is needed to facilitate exchanges, engagements, and peaceful co-existence among the competing organizations, tribal leaders and elders who have taken sides.  This project will go a long way in building trust, encourage social cohesion, and enhance communication among stakeholders.
  2. The facilitation process should also engage youth and deliver training in leadership, community mobilization and peaceful activism.

In Conclusion, the report emphasized that Land dispute has been a recurrent source of tension in both rural and urban communities in Liberia. The passage of the land rights act and demarcation of boundaries between customary communities, districts and counties are major concerns to citizens and investors in Sinoe County. “While we believe that these are also provisions of the land rights act, until these provisions are disseminated to the public - land disputes will continue to serve as a major factor for conflict in rural areas”.

Full text of the GC/UNDP Assessment Team to Sinoe County is on the GC website: www.governancecommissionlr.org.

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