LIBERIA: Land Is Wealth and Cultural Identity

Zwannah Massallay

Throughout history, land has been recognized as the primary source of wealth, social status, and power. It is the basis for shelter, food, and economic activities; it is the most significant provider of employment opportunities in rural areas and it is an increasingly scarce resource in urban areas. This article seeks to address the importance of the National Land Conference and the new land reform law in Liberia.

History of Liberia’s Land Rights Act (LRA)

In 2009, the then Land Commission was instituted as an ad-hoc body by the Government of Liberia which aimed to draft and compiled policy documents to address the countless land conflicts across the country.  At the time, stakeholders attached no significance to the document, they felt it should be treated as a policy. However, after the successful completion of said document, it was presented to the National Legislature for review, public hearing, and enactment into law in 2014, during which a cross-section of key actors including Civil Society groups and donors saw its viability and was able to reach consensus.

They recommended that said policy should be passed into law.   The then Land Commission was mandated by the National Legislature to revisit the policy document and transform same into an Act that will be referred to as the “Land Rights Act” for its possible passage into law. Additionally, the then Land Commission will also have an Act referred to as the: “Liberia Land Authority Act” for its passage as the government’s arm with the statutory mandate to implement the would-be Land Rights Law for the state.

The Land Rights Act was prepared and presented to the Legislators for its passage in 2015. The passage of this bill seemed to have been intentionally delayed by the Legislators and this gave birth to the: “Civil Society Working Group on Land Reform in Liberia” in 2016.  Since the formation of this Civil Society Body, it has focused clearly on two key components:

1)    To ensure a people-centered Land Rights Bill is passed into state law for all classes of citizens

2)    To ensure a down-to-earth awareness is carried out across the country, followed by its full implementation thus leaving no stone untouched.


The Civil Society Working Group on Land Reform in Liberia called the “Working Group” is a legally established group and has also been serving as a pressure Group to propagate the passage of the Land Rights Law over the years. This Working Group which started with two (2) institutions, Rice and Rights Foundation (RRF) and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), membership rose from two (2) to thirteen (13) institutions in the same year of its establishment in 2016. From 2017 up to 2018, its membership grew up to thirty (30) organizations, but has two major objectives as mentioned above.

During the 2017 presidential and legislative elections where the entire members of the House of Representatives’ tenure had ended and going for re-election, they used the “Land Rights Law” as propaganda to campaign to their electorates. Those Representatives going to seek their people’s vote revisited the Land Rights Act before its passage and took off all the core principles protecting Customary Land and on the contrary put in those components that interest them or the elites. Upon this action, they passed the Law and forwarded same to the Liberian Senate {Upper House] for its concurrence. The Working Group asked for an identical bill which was passed by the House of Representatives [Lower House] for verification purposes and after it was discovered that everything in it has changed only in the interest of the elites, immediate actions were taken.

The Working Group did a formal communication to the Liberian Senate asking it to hold on with the Bill before its passage. The revised law which has nineteen (19) chapters and seventy (72) articles, was reviewed by both the Liberian Senate and the Working Group in the office of the Senate Pro-Tempore for two days and was proven that the Lower House was tampering  with the bill. Cllr. Jimmy Pierre was hired by the Liberian Senate to do the legal review of the Bill and make all necessary and well-meaning inputs along with the Working Group. At this point, the Working Group which was ably represented by: Atty. Yea Parwan, Dr. Emmanuel Urey, Ali Kaba, and Alphonso Henries worked with Cllr. Pierre at his Carey Street Law Firm for Four (4) days to put those basic provisions in the Bill that protect Customary Community’s interest. Basically, this is the version that was finally passed by the Upper House and signed into handbill in 2018.     

In September 2018, President George Weah signed the Land Rights Act into law. The law is ambitious and clearly asserts the rights to what is known as “Customary Land”, territory that can be claimed through oral testimony and community agreement.

In rural Liberian communities, the land is the economic asset and instrument for prosperity, identity, and food.  The passage of the Land Rights Act in 2018, recognized the land rights of Liberian holding land under customary tenure for the first time since the country was established.

The land Rights Act guarantees women who are community members to have equal rights to customary land which means they can use and manage land just like men. Women who are community members are also entitled to own their residential land, which is private land and cannot be taken away.

Article 7: of the 2018 land Rights Act describes the categories of Land Ownership.

Every land shall be classified as and held under, one of the four (4) categories enumerated in Article 7, subsection 2 of this Act.

The four (4) categories of land ownership in Liberia are Public, Government, private, and customary lands.

Subsisting with the four (4) types of land ownership is a unique land use category called protected area which may be created and co-exist within each of the four lands ownership categories.

A land classified or held under any one category of land ownership may be converted to another category; provided that conversion may be through a process not complaining about the conditions and requirements of this act shall be void.

Interestingly, amongst the four types our focus is concentrated on customary land.

Customary land is acquired and owned by a community by its customary practices and norms based on a long period of occupancy and/or use.

The law says the existence and ownership of customary land shall become enforceable as of the effective date of the 2018 Land Rights Act.

Customary land, before the effective date of this Act, was deeded to the community according to law.

It is also important to know that the land is considered to be customary land by common and longstanding understanding among members of the community. This includes land that has been used or possessed exclusively or continuously by the community or some of its members for social-cultural and economic purposes for a minimum period of forty (50) years as can be established by oral testimonies of members of the community and members of neighboring communities.

In regard to the protection of customary land funding partners include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish Government, the European Union, Tenure Facility, Land for Life, the World Bank, Landesa, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and International Land Coalition respectively have been providing, financial, logistics and Technical supports to customary communities across the country.

The progress the laws have made:

The Working Group which is a consortium of thirty-three (33) organizations and met regularly every Tuesday at 2:00 at its 9th street based Office, established its networks in rural Liberia through the National Civil Society Council. The Working Group’s uncompromising advocacy through petitions, policy briefs, newspapers articles, press conferences, regular visitation at the Lower and Upper Houses during sessions, etc. to get this people centered Land Rights Law pass in October 2018 was key.

The fact remains that there were some disagreements between the Working Group and the Liberia Land Authority (LLA) and at some points, the Lawmakers, but relationships amongst these institutions got better every day in the interest of the state.

The challenges in implementing the Land Rights Law:

There seems to be an increase in land grabbing across the county allegedly by some elites or officials of the Government of Liberia.

This situation is seriously undermining efforts to implement the Land Rights law of 2018, a law that was enacted to enhance customary land ownership and governance across the Country.

The Land Rights Law of Liberia which was enacted by law to create the space for holistic benefit sharing thereby ensuring accountability and transparency in the management of community land is been disabused by many elites and officials of government.

Chiefs and government officials who in the practice of land grabbing are not following the due processes in the acquisition of customary lands across Liberia as set forth under the Land Right Law of 2018.

It is alleged that the majority of those lands are acquired through the influences of local chiefs and that many chiefs donated huge amounts of customary land; some without knowing the land space their community owned.”

In September of 2018, Liberian President George Weah signed into law, an Act to establish the Land Rights Law of the Republic of Liberia. This Act defines and delineates the different categories of land ownership and rights recognized in Liberia and prescribes the means by which each of the categories of land may be acquired, used, transferred and otherwise managed.

Traditional and cultural norms continue to stall women’s participation in the land decision-making process. It is also a major challenge in implementing the law.

At its embryonic stage, we see awareness as a hindrance to the implementation of this Law. Three years have gone since the law was passed, and it is expected that awareness by means of using local dialects, jingles, newspapers, local Radio, Community Forums, Town announcers, Billboards, placards etc. in rural and urban communities are carried out. Land grabs by elites are still ongoing and no one seems to listen to the victims. The Judiciary System is not on board with the Liberia Land Authority (LLA) when it comes to interpreting the Land Rights Law. Remember, Land Authority may know the law, but does not have enforcement and arresting powers; it is the court that has the power. Many lawyers and Judges may not be knowledgeable about the Land Rights Law; how can they defend or interpret it?  Laws are guided and implemented by regulations, but up to present the various regulations to guide the implementation of the law are not available. Land Authority itself is carrying on confirmatory surveys and issuing deeds to rural communities in the absence of the regulations and as well transforming Tribal Certificates into deeds without and vetting process at the detriment of the community

Recommendation/ way forward

If the law must be implemented to the satisfaction for which it was passed and for funding partners and contributors to achieve their goals, there must be a coordination and collaboration framework established between local government administrations and County Land Offices

And also the full participation of all community members to work to transform decision-making processes of natural resource management so the benefits are shared equally, to create space for the participation of local communities in decision making processes on natural resources.

Moving forward, the Liberia Land Authority must be willing to work with city governments to develop policies on land use management plans. This will enable the nation to have an understanding of where residential areas and public facilities.

Today, we live in a country where all settlements in the urban areas are considered informal settlements simply because there have been no policies on land use management plans. Sadly, this is an old aged problem that continues to increase the risk to public life safety.


And to also continue to look forward to funding partners and contributors’ logistics, technical, and financial support to enable the implementation of the land rights law.

I want to call on those chiefs, and government officials in the practice of land grabbing to follow the due processes in the acquisition of customary lands across Liberia as set forth under the Land Right Law of 2018.

Elites or government officials acquire a large portion of customary lands for whatever purposes, the processes must follow the set aside procedures under the law. If the set-aside process of acquiring customary land is not considered, it will undermine the existence of the 2018 Land Rights Law.  The law provides opportunities for collective decision-making process involving the whole community regarding the management of land must be duly recognized. Donor partners and Government should ensure the aspect of awareness is adequately addressed. This, we believe will further prevent land grabs across the Country as it is often said knowledge is power.  That those regulations guiding the implementation of the law be prioritized and key actors come together for technical review and validation so that it becomes the working tool in the field. The various County Land Administrators need capacity building at all levels and County Land Boards should be setup very soon so as to address the issue of decentralization.

The Author:

 Zwannah Massallay is a staff at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)

Contemporary Thinking Economist and an emerging Natural Resource Governance Specialist

Contact: 0888880407/0770907633


Visited 130 times, 1 visit(s) today

Comments are closed.