Land Disputes a Festering Problem in Post-War Liberia

Liberia 2010

By Sunni Khalid

January 14, 2011

Also aired on WYPR, an NPR affiliate.

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Walking along a footpath near the village of Lukapa, a short walk away from the border with Guinea, is like walking through the Garden of Eden. Exotic birds chirp from the treetops of a green forest canopy. To one side, a group of teenage girls, sings as they work, totally hidden by the curtain of 10-foot tall sugar cane stalks, which they cut with machetes. A gaggle of goats and chickens run through the verdant landscape.

The authority in these parts is a petite woman with soulful brown eyes. Chief Nombley, holds court in front of her modest, one-story mud brick home, in a clearing, surrounded by three thatched-roof huts.

She and her 135 villagers are dirt-poor subsistence farmers, but, she explains, they regard themselves as rich because they own land.

"Land is so important to us because it is the source of our income. We have a lot of children. We don't have any source of income, except for the land that we farm. We plant plantains, cocoa and other things. We farm for the feeding of the home. And our livelihood depends this land. So, if we don't have it, we are very much vulnerable."

A bedraggled, gray-haired man in a tattered shirt walks into Chief Nomley's front yard. He's Nyahn Cooper-Deppi, a farmer and a neighbor. He's come to ask the Chief for her help in solving a dispute with a family he claims is encroaching on his land.

"The people of the next town are taking advantage of the condition and coming into my land with farming. I have talked to them on many occasions, trying to stop them. But they refuse to listen. And many times, they are threatening to even come into this place with violence. But I have always told my family members that violence can't solve the problem."

Land disputes are a common, serious and growing problem in Liberia. And it is one that the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with limited resources, is hard-pressed to solve.

The writ of the central government in Monrovia barely extends here in Nimba or Liberia's 14 other counties. Non-governmental organizations, like the Norwegian Refugee Council and others, are attempting to fill the void in resolving land disputes, which involve not only families, but more than a half-dozen local ethnic groups.

Rural areas have long been neglected by the central government, which provided few services even before the civil wars. Traditional attitudes towards land and a lack of education have made a bad situation worse.

"Illiteracy is a very big problem because there are people who feel that, especially in the rural setting, that land is actually their entitlement."

Nyahn Flomo is a Project Officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaks from a tent at the organization's headquarters in Ganta, the capital of Nimba County. Speaking over the roar of a generator, he says people are confused about land ownership.

"Anybody who wants to buy land has to buy it from the government. And there are people who say, No, we have been living on the land.' And so, we can't buy what is our entitlement."

An estimated 150-thousand Liberians were displaced by the civil wars, many of them in the rural areas, where much of the fighting took place. Those who fled outside the country, and those displaced internally, have produced a situation of hundreds of cases of land disputes, between the original occupants and newcomers.

But Flomo said the lack of official records and, resistance to government land policies has produced confusion and tension.

"As a result of the war, many of those records were destroyed. And now, a lot of people are trying to re-organize the records, even at the county level .So, when it comes to the land documents, there is a huge gap that must be filled."

Juliette Syn is an American attorney, who works with the NRC. She says even where records exist, boundary lines are unclear.

"The way land ownership was recognized before didn't necessarily have lines drawn on a map. And when they did start selling plots of land, there wasn't always a process of saying, Here is your boundary with your neighbor.' Very often, people would buy the land and the person they bought it from would say, Well, here is your neighbor over here and somewhere over there is your boundary. So, you have many people with valid, competing claims."

And that's the easy part. While much of the land in the rural areas is undeveloped, the traditional systems reserve empty land for children, grandchildren and other relatives - making families dirt-poor, but land-rich.

Ethnic affiliations complicate matters further. In Ganta County, there are at least four different groups, the Gio, Mano, the Krahn and the Mandingo. The Mandingos live on both sides of the porous border with Guinea. They are also Muslim, and that has prompted charges from rival Christian ethnic groups that all Mandingos are "foreigners," and thus not entitled to own Liberian land.

There's also a political component. The Mandingos were seen as backing former President Charles Taylor's regime and made inroads into Nimba County when he was in power. Now, Taylor is being tried for war crimes at The Hague. And those ethnic groups that opposed him are attempting to regain what they feel the Mandingos took from them, according to Nyahn Flomo.

"They blame the Mandingos for the destruction of this area. So, most of them are occupying land that once belonged to the Mandingo people, are feeling that they don't deserve land because, otherwise, they wouldn't have brought war here."

Most disputes have festered non-violently, with competing parties living side-by-side in uneasy coexistence. But there have been recent cases of bloodshed, where whole communities have been involved in land disputes in Ganta and elsewhere. And weapons used in the civil war, like AK-47s - which were supposed to be surrendered during the national disarmament - have been used.

Serious violence flared in Ganta in 2003 and 2008. On both occasions, U-N peacekeepers had to be called into separate the warring factions.

Back in Lukapa, Chief Nomley can only offer a few words of advice to Nyahn Cooper-Deppi. She will not intervene. And NRC staffers ask if he wants to submit his land dispute to their mediation.

County supervisors, appointed by the government, fear that on-going disputes over land could spark even more violence, destroying gains made by eight years of peace.

Peace in the rural areas is crucial to increasing food production that - with the government's plan to build new roads and improve existing ones - could give farmers greater access to markets and cash in their pockets. But first, Liberians have to sort out which land belongs to whom, patiently and peacefully.

Sunni Khalid is a senior reporter in WYPR's News Department. He has reported this series, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds," on a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP).