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Opinion: It’s Time to Put Local Communities in Charge of Liberia’s Forests

Matthias Yeanay is the Facilitator of the NGO Coalition of Liberia. He holds a BA in sociology and demography and holds a certificate in Improving Forest Governance. Roland P. Harris is a Civil Society Independent Forest Monitor and a member of the NGO Coalition of Liberia.

MONROVIA, Oct 22 2015 (IPS) - Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently affirmed her commitment to the land rights of Liberia’s local communities, who rely on the forests for their livelihoods and have cared for them for generations.

“Any successful paradigm shift for forest management in Liberia must have local communities at its centre,” Edward McClain, Minster of State for Presidential Affairs, said in a speech delivered on the President’s behalf. A draft Land Rights Act would make this possible, but the current session of Parliament ended without the Act’s adoption.

The land by Boegbor, a town in district four in Grand Bassa County, Liberia has been leased by the government to Equatorial Palm Oil for 50 years. Credit: Wade C.L. Williams/IPS

The land by Boegbor, a town in district four in Grand Bassa County, Liberia has been leased by the government to Equatorial Palm Oil for 50 years. Credit: Wade C.L. Williams/IPS

We are eager to see the President’s vision implemented, and hopeful that the Land Rights Act will be adopted in the next Parliamentary session, as Liberia’s local communities are still contending with violent conflicts caused by palm oil plantations and illegal logging on their lands.

Such developments benefit large corporations but fail to deliver on the promise of shared economic development. Over half of Liberia’s territory has been sold to logging companies by the government, threatening the life-line of the communities that rightfully own Liberia’s forests.

These conflicts are not unique to Liberia. Around the world, contested lands fuel violence and threaten the commitments made by governments and companies. New research shows that out of eight fragile states in Africa, the governments of six claim ownership of nearly 100 per cent of the land in each country. Weak community rights also contribute to mass deforestation, as communities are generally better equipped than governments to care for their forests.

Despite growing attention around the world to these issues, the gap between how much land governments recognize as belonging to communities and the amount of land that communities govern in practice remains substantial.

As Ebola recedes, unsustainable demand for timber has returned to Liberia’s forests, but President Sirleaf’s comments give us hope that the government will side with local communities moving forward.

The President signed an agreement with Norway, which has promised up to $150 million over six years to help Liberia keep its forests standing. This agreement could provide much-needed funds for Liberia to provide basic services to its people, and stem the tide of mass deforestation.

Liberia’s leaders are turning towards conserving the forests rather than selling them off, and they recognize that the key to successful forest management is putting local communities in charge of their own forests. It only makes sense that the people who have managed the lands and forests all their lives, and whose communities have managed them for generations, are best-equipped to care for them. Research shows that when Indigenous Peoples and local communities have secure land rights, forest are more likely to stay standing.

The draft Land Rights Act would operationalise many of the commitments Liberia’s government has made. It would recognize Liberia’s local communities as the rightful owners of the country’s forests without requiring them to present an official deed, a significant development given that these communities inhabit a large percentage of Liberia’s land.

By extension, the legislation would protect the forests that communities have been the guardians of for generations. President Sirleaf has expressed her strong support for it, and it is now up to Parliament to take action. We expect them to take this important step towards securing Liberia a future of peace and prosperity.

But recognizing land rights is not enough. Communities already have legal title to over 30 per cent of Liberia’s land area, one of the highest percentages of community ownership in West and Central Africa, but a lack of technical capacity, government coordination and due process has led to legally titled communities losing their land to make way for concessions or conservation areas. Most were never compensated for their losses.

The reality is that local communities want to be the architects of their own development and manage their own forests, but they need more logistical and technical support to ensure that they will not be trampled by big business.

Negotiation of community forest management agreements should be done by the communities themselves with technical support from Liberia’s Forest Development Authority, civil society and other institutions with interest in the forestry sector. This will enable the communities to adequately harness benefits, including sustainable management of the forest as well as economic, social and infrastructure development at the local level.

We hope the new law will make it easier for communities to make fair agreements with corporations. They want the power to require companies operating on their lands to employ community members in key decision-making roles, and to ask companies that violate their wishes for them to leave. But faced with the prospect of negotiating commercial contracts on their land, many communities find themselves on the losing end.

Liberia is poised to clarify land rights at the local level, a move that could make history and make the country a leader in land reform in Africa. For this move to be successful, the government’s policies must not forget the vital role played by the local communities. It is the rightful owners who have kept Liberia’s forests standing.

This new vision for Liberia’s forests may be threatened from many sides, but with the power of the people and the power of President Ellen Sirleaf, how can it fail?

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