Can the Liberian Government Protect Citizen Rights in the Dark?
July 5, 2016
Recently, the Liberian government arrested senior officials caught in a scandal: the Speaker of the House of Representatives Alex Tyler; Senator Varney Sherman; and a former minister at the Ministry of Lands, Mines, and Energy. According to the indictments, the UK-based Sable Mining Company bribed these officials to insert a loophole into procurement legislation so that the company could obtain the rights to an iron ore deposit.
This scandal was not revealed by a government investigation. Instead, it took an international NGO, working with partners, to unveil a spreadsheet that showed how the company’s law firm paid the bribes.
Liberia’s legislative process is too opaque and remote for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable. Often times, the only way to shed light on the process is by enlisting the international community—and our officials know this all too well.
Consider the Land Rights Act. The draft law, submitted to the legislature in late 2014, would recognize the rights of communities to own and manage their lands, forests, and natural resources.
It would help Liberia forge a lasting peace and promote sustainable and equitable development. But we only have until August. If the law does not pass before the legislature goes on recess, it will likely linger through Liberia’s election and be left to a new administration in 2018.
Our current system of land ownership has driven over a century of conflict and environmental destruction in the country, and lies at the crux of the many challenges we face.
Most of us rely on our lands and forests for survival, but the government’s appetite for investment has resulted in large scale transfer of land to corporations that step on or openly trample the rights of the people living on these lands. Concessions for logging, mining, and agriculture now cover around 40 percent of the country.
It should come as no surprise that conflict—sometimes violent—results when people’s homes and farms are sold out from under them. Until communities receive formal recognition of their land rights they remain vulnerable to land-grabbing, effectively making them refugees in their own country. This not only violates human rights, but also threatens the security and stability of Liberians.
The 2014 version of the Land Rights Act would address this. The original bill—unprecedented in West Africa—would allow millions of Liberians to gain strong rights to own the land they have lived and worked on all their lives. Many of these land claims predate the Liberian republic.
The Land Rights Act would finally allow these communities to legally own their territories, manage their resources, and actively negotiate for fair agreements with investors.
Despite explicit endorsement by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and civil society, however, the Land Rights Act has not moved through the legislature. Instead, public and private comments lead us to believe that the draft law has been significantly altered—but we do not know for certain because the legislative process is too opaque.
I have been active in the land reform process since 2010, and was part of the consultations to draft the initial Land Rights Policy. Since the public hearings of August 10, 2015, when civil society organizations were invited to participate, there has been no consultation and we have not been shown the new draft.
Only in Liberia can staunch advocates campaign for a law that may have been rewritten to undermine rather than support what we have been working on for years. The wrong law, one that allows private ownership to run rampant over community claims as they have in the past, could eliminate the entire principle of customary land rights in Liberia.
PROMISE OF LAND ACT
Public statements by lawmakers indicate that changes in the draft law may affect communities’ rights to get a fair price if they elect to sell their lands, and allow local elites to sell community lands without the consent of the rest of the community. The new draft law might expand government land and threaten communities’ abilities to use their resources and protect their forests. We just don’t know.
For the Land Rights Act to fulfill its promise, customary ownership must be formalized and granted the same legal protections as private ownership. Communities must be allowed to identify and delimit their own territories and directly manage their land and natural resources.
The extraction of minerals and the extension of concessions should only proceed with the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of communities. If these principles are undermined, so too will be Liberia’s ability to secure lasting peace and economic development.
The legislature should pass the July 2014 version of the Act, the most comprehensive law to protect community land rights. The original draft was produced through a consultative process, by a national commission that examined land related issues for more than six years. President Sirleaf should lead the charge and not wait for others to move our country forward.
However, it is also past time for the government to release the new or revised draft law and consult with civil society. A public debate that is not transparent cannot be democratic. And as we see again and again, corruption takes place when the legislative process stays in the dark. Liberia has an opportunity to lead on rights, not corruption; we cannot afford to let this slip away.
Source: By Ali Kaba, Sustainable Development Institute, Liberia - Thomson Reuters