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Land reforms in Liberia must learn from and protect communities' customary land and resource rights, urge Grand Cape Mount communities in new report
Instances of conflict between communities and large-scale agricultural concessions have recently brought the issues of land and human rights into focus in Liberia, and throughout Africa. Rural communities in Grand Cape Mount, north-western Liberia, have been at the sharp end of a dispute with Malaysian oil palm giant Sime Darby, that received national and international attention.
Today, these communities will present a new report to the Liberian Land Commission, “We who live here own the land” – Customary Land Tenure in Grand Cape Mount, and Community Recommendations for Reform of Liberia’s Land Policy & Law to ensure that governments, companies and communities learn from the experiences at Grand Cape Mount. In the report, a Grand Cape Mount community member describes how BF Goodrich and Sime Darby rubber and oil palm plantations have impacted the community,
[Before] we are having our bush, our sacred sites, our graveyards. When BF Goodrich came they destroyed all of this…Even the little piece that BF Goodrich left Sime Darby took away…there is nowhere to go hunt…nowhere to make farm…nowhere was left for us.
Communities in Grand Cape Mount are not alone in seeing their customary lands and forests taken and used without their consent in return for little real benefit. About 75% of the total land mass of Liberia is now thought to have been allocated to mining, rubber, oil palm and forest concessions. Left unchecked, this model of development threatens the food security and livelihoods of rural communities, and undermines the security of Liberia as a whole.
Liberia’s Land Commission is currently consulting on a new land policy which has the potential to dramatically improve the prospects for rural communities currently faced with threats to their land and resources.
Motivated by their own experiences to promote a development model that protects human rights and cultural integrity, the Grand Cape Mount communities seek to make a valuable contribution to the national land policy and law reforms through a number of key recommendations directed at Government policy makers:
Customary rights of communities to their land and resources – which include forests, sacred sites and wetlands as well as houses and farms – must be as strong and as protected by national law as private land rights, regardless of whether communities have a deed or not.
It must be for communities to decide for themselves whether they would like to seek a deed to formalise their customary rights or not. Procedures for doing this must be affordable and simple.
Proposals that would impact customary land and resources must only proceed with the affected communities’ free, prior and informed consent.
According to their custom, land owned by communities can be used, left fallow, and lent to a ‘stranger’, but it must not be alienated from the community.
Government land and development policy and law should support communities only through existing customary governance structures and systems, in accordance with the communities’ own development priorities, and in a way that strengthens customary structures to be transparent, inclusive and democratic.
The existing concession contract between the government and Sime Darby in Grand Cape Mount is not consistent with the communities’ human rights, and needs to be renegotiated to respect and protect their fundamental rights to decide the future of their lands and resources and access redress for previous and future breaches of their rights.
“We who live here own the land” concludes with further messages to Sime Darby, as well as to rural communities. To Sime Darby, the community reaffirm the need for the company to: recognise their rights over their customary lands; restore land for food and sacred forest; and deliver jobs and other benefits to all community members, not just employees.
When one community member was asked whether he would chose a job with a company, or to continue farming in the forest, he answered,
I’d choose both.
The Grand Cape Mount communities recommend that other rural communities think carefully before letting companies use their land and forest and that they keep enough land and forest for future generations – to farm, to hunt and fish and for sacred forest so that future generations can “learn all about here”.
The importance of legal advice and getting agreements with companies in writing is also highlighted in the report, to ensure companies’ promises are kept in the future. One community member says,
The farming thing is more than just planting, farming make you live long.
The message from these Grand Cape Mount communities to Liberia is a positive one – a future model for development is possible: one that respects community rights to land and resources and also provides jobs and development opportunities.
For further information please contact:
Alfred Brownell, Green Advocates: +231 886444472, firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.greenadvocates.org/
Tom Lomax, Forest Peoples Programme: +44 (0)1608 652 893, email@example.com http://www.forestpeoples.org/
Notes to editors:
The report “We who live here own the land” – Customary Land Tenure in Grand Cape Mount, and Community Recommendations for Reform of Liberia’s Land Policy & Law is published jointly by Green Advocates and Forest Peoples Programme and can be downloaded here: http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2013/03/we-who-live-here-own-landliberiafinaljan2013lowres_1.pdf. This report is part of Forest People Programmes’ Strong Seat at the Table project, funded by the European Union (EU) and the Rights & Resources Initiative (RRI).
 Paul De Wit, April 2012, Land Commission of Liberia. Land Rights, Private Use Permits & Forest Communities, EU Project FED/2011/270957
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