By Thembela Kepe, Nyanquoi Suah
On June 7, 2019, crowds of about 10, 000 people filled the streets of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, to protest against alleged corruption, injustice, and other failures of the government (Agence France-Presse News, 2019). These protests struck fear among Liberians, who had seen about 2 decades of civil war during the 1990s and early 2000s that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, million others internally displaced or exiled into neighbouring countries, infrastructure destroyed, and the quality of life severely diminished. While Liberia has now experienced relative peace since 2006, the two civil wars (1989–1997 and 1999–2003) are a reminder of what unresolved conflicts can do to peace in a nation.Keywords land rights, civil war, peace, concessions, land governance, Liberia
A general perception by Liberians is that discontent about the struggling economy, and the unresolved tensions around land and natural resource issues, among other things, could trigger another violent conflict if something is not done to address the status quo. The discontent about land historically goes hand in hand with the general perception among Liberians that through land-grabbing, as part of concessions awarded by the state, foreign companies enjoy stronger and more secured rights to land than local people (Gilfoy, 2015). Countrywide protests and riots by rural people in defence of their land rights that are threatened by land concessions to foreign companies clearly put land among the top possible triggers of another violent conflict such as seen during the civil wars.
In Grand Bassa County, violent clashes between local people and security forces over palm plantation land “brought back memories of the nightmarish lawlessness of the war” (Jerving, 2015, p. 1). Similarly, in Butaw District, riots and suppression by security forces occurred at the Golden Veroleum Liberia oil palm plantation, leading the youth of the area to threaten “consequences” if the land issue was not resolved (Stokes, 2015). These, and many other examples, make the resolution of the land issue a crucial governance priority for the state. Beevers (2015) and De Simone (2015) see land and natural resource governance as central to peacebuilding, precisely because it is assumed that governance will address (land) injustices peacefully.
In this briefing, we explore land conflicts as a threat to peace in Liberia. In particular, we reflect on the increasing tensions between local people in or near land concessions awarded to foreign companies by the state. We seek to understand how local people and the NGOs supporting them respond to conflicts created by overlapping land rights between the rural people and the foreign investors. This briefing seeks to highlight that land conflicts are no different from conflicts over minerals that are common triggers for violent conflicts in Africa and beyond. Our reflections are based on interviews we carried out in June 2019 in Monrovia, with the Liberian Land Authority, the National Bureau of Concession, and NGO representatives as well as with local people in the rural town of Gbah in Bomi County, whose land is being encroached upon by foreign companies who have legal concessions from the state. Gbah was chosen through convenience sampling, based on referrals from key informants dealing with land conflicts, as a community that exemplifies the land conflict between local people and a foreign company’s concession allocation. Following this introduction, the article provides a brief historical overview of the tensions over land as well as land policy and legislation, including the 2018 Land Rights Act (Republic of Liberia, 2018). This is followed by a discussion on how land concessions have exacerbated discontent over land, mainly as a result of land governance by the state. The concluding section reflects on the importance of good governance as an essential part of peacebuilding.
Land Policy and Legislation Context
While Liberia has a slightly different history of colonisation compared to most of Africa, in that it was never colonised by Europeans, many of the land conflicts in the country today can be traced back to the arrival of former American slaves, who settled on the Liberian Coast in the middle of the 19th century (Sawyer, 2005; Unruh, 2009). Tensions between indigenous Liberians and the freed slaves began right away, and land was central to those conflicts. With Liberia being under the control of the Americo-Liberian settlers from the middle of the 19th century, all the way to the late 20th century, indigenous Liberians saw themselves as being marginalised from the so-called government land (Brown, 2017; Unruh, 2009). However, intra- and intercommunity land conflicts also existed and at times were exacerbated by Americo-Liberian’s aggressive control of state land. In recent years, and as a result of these tensions over land, particularly in the context of the two civil wars mentioned above, the landmark land law, known as The Land Rights Act, was signed into law in 2018. Among many things the Act sought to address were to clarify land tenure categories, define the role of the state and other stakeholders in land governance and ownership, and provide local communities secure land rights.
NGO activists and local communities hoped that the land law would resolve land-use tensions between them and foreign companies who receive concessions from the state. These tensions prompted us to carry out interviews about how the Land Act is understood by local communities and whether they feel it can resolve the challenges of land tenure insecurity on their indigenous lands. Thus, interviews were conducted with two members of the Liberian Land Authority, one former member of the Governance Commission, one NGO Director and activist on land issues, and a representative of the Land Concession Board.
These were all done in Monrovia. In the rural town of Gbah, which is entirely surrounded by the oil palm plantation,1 six residents and the town chief were interviewed. For the purposes of the argument given in this policy briefing, six interviews, combined with the media coverage and interviews from NGO activists about the volatility of Gbah on the land issue, provide sufficient evidence for the limited claims made.
Concessions as Central to the Liberian Land issue
In regard to resolving land tensions around concessions, the 2018 Land Rights Act did not retroactively apply to the people who lived in areas that had already been set aside for concessions prior to its signing.2 This is significant because, by 2019, about a quarter of Liberia land area was allocated to rubber, oil palm, and logging concessions to foreign investors (O’Mahoney, 2019). The small rural town of Gbah, which is a little over 1-hr drive from the country’s capital Monrovia, has a long history of tension between its residents and a Malaysian company, Sime Darby, that was allocated a concession on their doorstep. But Gbah also has a prominent history of violence and tension during and after the two civil wars. During the wars, Gbah was frequently occupied by fighters, who used it as a launching ground for attacking government forces in Monrovia.
While it is not uncommon in other rural towns also, it is reported that even after the war, armed men, almost all former fighters, roamed the streets and were often called upon by residents to resolve disputes including those relating to land (Brooks, 2020). Today, many members of the communities have experience as fighters in the two civil wars that devastated the country. This background served as context for our interviews in this town.
Sime Darby Plantation Inc. had a 220,000-hectare concession to grow oil palm in Liberia, and at least 10,000 of those hectares are on land in and around Gbah since 2009. From our interviews and other knowledge from news sources, the residents and the company had two ironic tensions. First, local people have credited the company for boosting the economy of the area through providing employment as well as helping attract other needed services to the town such as banks and shops. The discontent on this issue is that the company was not employing as many people as there was need; rather, they were laying off employees. Second, and related to the first conflict, the Sime Darby Plantation was expanding its plantations to include land that the residents used for crops and cultural activities.
The relationship between the two tensions is that access to land is an important livelihood for those people who could not be employed by the company. However, the Land Rights Act of 2018 does not protect local people from losing land to concession companies, such as Sime Darby, if the deal was signed before the Act. Sime Darby was awarded the concession in 2009, for 63 years, and cannot be undone at this stage. Local people argue that the Act, instead of protecting their rights to farm, protected land tenure security for foreign investor companies. For this reason, interviewees argued that the land conflict that exists in Gbah, and also seen in other parts of the country, could trigger violent conflict, which no one has an idea of at what scale it could grow.
Of major concern on the land for farming in Gbah is the fact that Sime Darby took over and planted oil palm trees in the swamps that were previously used by locals to plant rice, their staple food. The residents complain that they are forced to migrate to nearby counties, where they could grow rice. Local people are not pleased that in almost a year since the Land Rights Act was passed, they have not been consulted or have it explained to them as an affected community. Related to this, they are also not happy that the state has not intervened on their behalf to get the Sime Darby to leave their farming land alone.
What has become clear is that part of the conflict between local people and foreign companies is the way the land concessions have been allocated. Our interviews with a member of an NGO revealed a systemic problem with land concessions in Liberia since the end of the war. Land activists supporting the communities argue that the end of the civil wars led to a rush of foreign investment, which translated to land rush or land-grabbing. The Liberian government was eager to bring this investment and thus awarded these land concessions from the capital, Monrovia, using inaccurate maps, thus without ever doing any ground-truthing to establish land tenure rights and use in the targeted localities. Additionally, there is rarely any consultation with the affected communities. Both the NGO representatives and the concession board (NBC) admit that a large number of concessions have been awarded carelessly, often resulting in two forms of overlapping rights. The first form is where two or more companies end up being allocated the same piece of land.
The second form of overlapping rights is what we have discussed in the case of Gbah and Sime Darby. In most cases in this second example, the investors simply carry out their operations on land that is shown on the map as their concession, only to discover that local people claim the same land, and in many cases, rural landholders are actually using it for farming. The concession board’s interviewee admits that they get involved at the conclusion of the process, not at the beginning, where concession land is identified.
The Liberia Land Authority is responsible for allocating the land but then send the copy of the agreement to NBC for moving the process forward. The concession board has commissioned surveys, using cadastra, to identify the overlaps, but there is no clear strategy of how these are going to be resolved. Considering this conclusion, as well as the fact that the new Land Rights Act does nothing to restore to local people concession land that was allocated to companies before the signing of the Act, there are reasons for pessimism about resolving land tensions in Liberia.
Liberia’s violent civil wars that ended in 2003 remain a vivid reminder about how disagreements, small or big, about governance and other livelihood issues can turn into violence very quickly. While minerals and oil are commonly seen as key triggers of civil war in Africa, land injustices, which affect local people’s livelihoods, power, and identity, should not be dismissed when considering how disputes transition to war on the continent. The case of Gbah residents’ conflict with Sime Darby about overlapping rights between the two is clearly a land governance failure by the state, particularly how they manage concessions. The consequence is injustice to local people whose land rights are threatened. These land governance failures by the state contradict one of the key peacebuilding principles, which is to resolve injustices without violence, while also building conditions for social change that makes violence an unattractive option. Current land conflicts that lead to riots and violence between local people and security forces threaten peace in Liberia. It is important that studies of violent conflict are not dismissive of land disputes, particularly those threatening local people’s livelihoods and involve the state as a key player. The current poor land governance, as shown by the case of overlapping land rights in land concessions, is therefore a clear failure of the state to build and maintain peace in Liberia. Peace is not necessarily built on economic imperatives but on paying attention to what matters to people as well as perceptions that people hold about who cares or not about their interests.
Main Photo: /Land Portal, credit
We would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for very useful comments, as well as all the people we interviewed for this paper in Monrovia and Gbah, Liberia
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
1.At the end of 2019, a new company, Mano Palm Oil Industries, took over from Sime Darby, continuing the concession.
2.The affected communities would only be considered by the law once the concession period is over.
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Thembela Kepe is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, Canada, and a visiting professor at Rhodes University. He has done extensive fieldwork in South Africa as well as in other African countries in the areas of land rights, political ecology, and land-based livelihoods in rural areas.
Nyanquoi Suah is a development economist and researcher. He has worked in the field of development with governments and nongovernmental organisations in Liberia, Ghana, Mexico, and Canada. His research focuses on civil conflicts, fragile communities and social inequalities, land rights, and climate and disaster resilience. First Published March 3, 2021 [Research Article] Journal of Peacebuilding & Development