MONROVIA (AFP) – Liberia is selling itself slice by slice nine years after a terrible civil conflict finally came to an end, offering valuable resources to the highest bidder even though that could kindle tension among a population that often feels it is being sold out.
The chairman of the Liberia Land Commission, Othello Brandy, says that 57.5 percent of the nation’s territory has been alloted via concessions, for a total of 5.6 million hectares (13.8 million acres), of which a little more than one million hectares represented agricultural land.
Alfred Brownell, a lawyer who founded the non-governmental organisation Green Advocates estimates that at least 120 foreign companies have signed concessions contracts in Liberia, a country the size of Portugal that was colonised by freed black slaves from the United States. “Over the last six years it has been an avalanche,” Brownell said, before explaining that Liberia, a western Africa country that suffered 15 years of war from 1989 to 2003, lacked the expertise to develop by itself.
“There is no capacity of absorption in Liberia, no skills, no trained people,” Brownell noted, “we will depend on foreign experts.” The lawyer defends Liberian communities that are affected by palm oil plantations and warns: “If we get back to war, it will be on land.” The United Nations still maintains a peacekeeping force in Liberia and a panel warned in early December of the potential for land conflicts. Its report underscored “numerous underlying conflicts of title as well as violations of landowners rights,” and added: “This has the potential to undermine peace and security in outlying rural areas.”
But Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, is under pressure to rebuild the nation’s economy, Brandy said. He noted: “It’s like repairing a moving car, extremely difficult.” In most cases, land concessions are negotiated in the capital Monrovia, far from those who are directly affected. Interior Affairs Minister Blamoh Nelson explained that “the government signs for a general territory, areas of interest,” and then the company involved goes to the area to meet “traditional groups and customary leaders to limit the boundaries.”
Nelson acknowledged that local chiefs do not always “understand what they signed.” An early example of a Liberian concession was one signed in 1926 with US tyre maker Firestone which acquired the rights to a half million hectares near Monrovia, but ended up producing “not even a rubber band,” according to Brownell. More recently diamonds, gold and wood earned fortunes for Liberian warlords until former president Charles Taylor was ousted in 2003 and the UN voted sanctions against international trade in “blood wood.”
Sirleaf annulled many controversial deals but has also signed new ones covering agricultural, forestry, mineral and offshore oil resources. “The false assumption is that the government owns the land,” Brownell said. That situation is often seen elsewhere in Africa, the continent now most coveted by foreign investors owing to its vast natural resources. Paul Mathieu, a specialist in land rights for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, estimates that “80 percent of rural land rights are either not documented at all or else only in vague terms because governments consider themselves the land owners.”
In Liberia, agriculture accounts for 61 percent of the nation’s total economic output. In southern Liberia, 220,000 hectares have been ceded for 93 years to the Indonesian group Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) to produce palm oil, and on which around 200 families now live. “Each of them can tell you which tree, which stream is theirs,” said Bestman Weagba, a 65-year-old who refused to abandon his home to GVL, and continues to grow casava, a kind of manioc, and plantains to feed his family.
UN official Olivier de Schutter said that “in more than half the cases, there was no consultation with the population,” and emphasised that such deals are “a windfall for the government.” Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist, has applied a policy that was long favoured by that institution but which has been called into question since, promoting export products and crops even if it means importing food.
But in 2009 she set up the commission headed by Brandy that was tasked with defining property rights, which if adopted would finally guarantee those of local communities across the country. Brandy, who trained as an agronomist, hopes it will help guarantee the country’s food security. “There is still enough land but the window (of opportunity) is closing, this means that this commission is under pressure to do some major stuff,” he acknowledged.