Since the civil war ended in 2003, the combination of returning refugees, population growth, and ongoing land tenure tensions dating back 25 years has led to at least 250 land dispute deaths in Liberia, according to NGOs. Leading reformists are worried the right mechanisms to address land rights are still not in place.
The latest significant clashes over land took place in 2008 on the border between Grand Bassa and Margibi counties in which 15 people were killed. Since then people have continued to be killed in smaller-scale disputes.
Thousands of Liberians who fled across borders during the war have returned in recent years to find their land occupied by others, according to Franklin Gonlepa, land registration project assistant for NGO the Norwegian Refugee Council [NRC], which helps mediate in land disputes.
Most lost their land deeds during the war, or had traditional “verbal” agreements that have since been broken.
Land ownership in Liberia is based on Common Law which requires an owner to have a land deed. But a parallel system of traditional law, based on verbal agreement, is also prevalent. Most Liberians are more accustomed to traditional law, seeing common law as a system imposed by the central government in Monrovia, Gonlepa told IRIN.
The legal costs of launching land claims are too high for many of these returnees, according to the NRC.
The government established a Land Commission in 2009 to tackle conflicts over land sales, secure people’s land tenure and modernize the country’s land laws - supported by international donors including the World Bank. But some say while progress is being made, more needs to be done on a village-to-village basis.
This is where NRC steps in. The organization is currently mediating in over 300 claims in Bong County in the centre-north; and in additional projects in Nimba, Margibi, Montserrado and Lofa counties.
Villagers reach a compromise
In Bong County residents of Gweyea village and adjacent Voloblai town have been on the verge of clashes for years, according to the NRC.
Tensions date back to the 1940s when Gweyea villagers claimed a line of trees marked the border between the two communities, while Voloblai Town residents alleged the border was marked by a stream.
In 1994 during the war, all but one of Gweyea’s residents were killed, and Voloblai Town residents started to move onto their land. As Gweyea’s murdered relatives started to return, tensions rose.
“Land is an emotive issue... In Liberia people are prepared to kill for it. By offering mediation, legal assistance and land surveys we have been able to prevent bloodshed here,” said the NRC’s Gonlepa.
The organization negotiated between leaders and committee members in each village, to negotiate a compromise settlement.
“We didn’t have a map of this area before,” said Camue Tokpah Nyamah, a community leader from Gweyea village. “NRC drew us a map and a boundary was drawn between the two villages, according to what each community told them.”
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced in 2009 that the government would set up a fund to compensate returnees forced to relocate. But many want to mount legal battles to reclaim their land instead, and cannot afford to.
The NRC provides free legal assistance to individuals who approach them.
“I was paralysed during the war,” farmer James Gontay told IRIN. “When I returned from Guinea three years ago I bought some land in Gbarnga [capital of Bong County]. I later found out the person selling the land did not own it. I have no way of making a living in this condition so I couldn’t pay legal fees.”
NRC approached the new owner who gave up the land after Gontay paid up US$250.
Not all want to return. Many Liberians are still too frightened to, with memories of violence fresh in their minds, or most of their fellow villagers dead or moved on.
Hundreds of thousands of Liberians moved to the capital, Monrovia, during and after the civil war, so the capital now houses half the country’s population, straining public services and leading to urban land tensions, say the authorities.
Norwah Kollie now lives in Gbarnga, but returned to Gweyea village in May 2010 for the first time in 15 years to recount her story. She was the only survivor of a village-wide machete attack, and inherited one third of her husband’s land after he was killed.
Customary law does not fully protect women in land disputes, according to the NRC, as they do not hold equal rights to land.
“It [the plot] is too small for me to make a living so I have given it to my sons. There is no money to build me a new house here, so I live in the city now. At least there I don’t have to see my husband’s grave every day,” Kollie told IRIN.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions