Liberia has passed a landmark law that will help communities fight foreign land grabs by giving them ownership of ancestral territory, officials and activists said on Thursday.
President George Weah signed the Land Rights Act into law on Wednesday after four years of debate in the legislature, his office said in a statement.
The topic has been contentious since most of the population has no formal rights to their land, and the state has signed away more than 40 percent of national territory in concessions for logging, mining and agriculture, according to rights groups.
“This is a landmark victory not only for the government, but for the entire citizenry of our country,” said James Otto, a campaigner at Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).
“For the first time in our history, a law is finally saying that communities that have lived on their land forever and ever are now owners of that land,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Following the West African nation’s second civil war, which ended in 2003, the previous government accelerated policies that granted natural resource concessions to foreign companies.
Foreign palm oil concessions were at the heart of reforms which were credited with making Liberia attractive to agricultural investors – but also caused violent conflict.
The Land Rights Act was one of Weah’s first major moves since being elected in December. In a statement, the president called it a “key component” of his plans to develop the country.
However, the head of the government agency in charge of land policy said implementation would be difficult.
“The Liberia Land Authority has been given the authority to implement the act but we do not have resources, we do not have the technical expertise to implement this law,” said executive director Stanley Toe.
“The excitement will soon go but the biggest work lies ahead.”
Under the law, communities can claim ownership of customary land by presenting evidence such as oral testimonies, maps, and signed agreements with neighbors, the government said.
A maximum of ten percent of the customary land in each community will be set aside as public land, it added, and a nationwide survey will be conducted within two years.
Another section of the law grants limited land ownership rights to foreigners, missionaries, educational and charitable organisations as long as the land is used for the purpose given at the time of purchase.
Previously, the Liberian constitution provides that only “people of colour” can become Liberian and only Liberians can own property.
Weah, in January described these clauses as ‘unnecessary, racist and inappropriate for the 21st century’, pledging to push for all races to apply for Liberian citizenship and for foreigners to be allowed to own property.
Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, was established by freed slaves from the United States and declared independent in 1847.