Depending on the season, the journey to Rivercess County requires either bumping along dirt paths or navigating endless stretches of mud. In the heart of Liberia the dense tropical forests, some of the last intact in West Africa, are omnipresent.
Historically, Liberia's forests have been sought after by foreign investors for valuable natural resources, and illegally cut and sold to fund civil wars. But they still remain the lifeline for local communities who are dependent on them for their sustenance, livelihoods, and traditions. Today the fate of these very forests, and its inhabitants, lies in front of Liberian politicians.
The Land Rights Act, a historic and unprecedented law, would recognize the customary land rights of millions of Liberians to own the lands their ancestors have lived and worked upon since before the formation of the Liberian state in 1847. The law would provide land deeds in the name of rural communities and allow for local decision-making over land, forests, and natural resources.
With an embattled legislature set to go on recess, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has pushed to extend the current legislative session for another month. This could provide an important opportunity for the country's leaders to finally pass the the act, which has been stalled since 2014. Otherwise there's a risk it will be delayed until after late-2017 elections, leaving the rights of millions in an indefinite limbo.
A few years ago, Liberia's lush landscape was my workplace, and classroom. Partnering with a Liberian civil society organization, my teammates and I wrestled country roads to organize alongside rural communities to protect their ancestral lands. Collaborating with villagers and the Liberian Land Commission, we worked together to harmonize clan boundaries and draft by-laws for the collective management of forests and natural resources. Back in the capital city of Monrovia, we echoed calls from the countryside for land reform.
Allowing local communities to manage their land is the most effective way of ensuring environmental sustainability, according to a study by research and advocacy organizations, World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative, where I work now. Researchers found that "when Indigenous Peoples and local communities have no or weak legal rights their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation and thus become the source of carbon dioxide emissions."
With the world's leaders signing a landmark climate change agreement in Paris last year, Liberia's tropical rainforests arguably hold great importance—for millions of Liberians who depend on them, but also for the rest of us. The study concludes, "The failure to establish and protect the rights of these forest communities has been costly not only in human terms but for earth's climate. Globally, 13 million hectares of forests are cleared every year— the equivalent of 50 soccer fields a minute."
Passing the Land Rights Act has implications beyond the forest. Recent reports have suggested that if the 2014 version of Land Rights Act is not passed, the country risks falling back into protracted violence and conflict. Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified insecure land tenure, acquisition, and distribution as major causes of the country's 14-year conflict.
Now, nearly 50 percent of Liberia's land mass is promised to foreign companies and investors for logging, mining, and agriculture. A recent report said that the Government of Liberia has "surrendered 58 percent of its primary forests to timber companies, and granted logging permits, most of them illegal, over nearly a third of the country."
And that hardly tells the full story. Accompanying these agreements are accounts of deforestation, corporate land grabbing and human rights abuses.
"It is discouraging to see the lack of political will to pass the Land Rights Act. At the same time, the legislature has the potential to do something transformative to protect the people and the environment," said Ali Kaba, Program Manager and Senior Researcher at the Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberian non-profit working on land reform advocacy.
Since its founding, Liberia has operated on unclear terms of private and community land ownership. The Liberian government has effectively treated all un-deeded lands as government land, even though local communities live on more than two-thirds of Liberia's land. This system of land ownership has allowed foreign companies to tap Liberia's rich natural resources for timber, iron ore, rubber, and most recently, oil palm plantation, with critics claiming little benefits reaching the population.
In 1926, the government signed a 99-year lease with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company for one million acres of land to create the world's largest rubber plantation. Since then, Liberia has gone through what scholars describe as chapters of "growth without development", where capital has been generated but not properly invested back in the country or its people.
Rubber, however, pales in comparison to oil palm, a major driver of deforestation and illegal logging. In the late 2000s, Liberia signed a series of agreements with oil palm companies to cultivate vast plantations. The two largest concession areas alone, with companies Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum, total over 1.5 million acres that include extremely dense forests, containing valuable tree species and endangered animals. And the oil palm industry is fraught with tension, with many communities claiming their land has been taken without their free, prior, and informed consent. These ongoing conflicts have only intensified calls for secure land rights.
Last month I returned to Liberia amidst many hopes and fears regarding what the future may hold. Reflecting back on our collective efforts, I could still picture logs strewn across a barren field like the bones in an elephant graveyard—the result of illegal logging of virgin rainforests. Liberia's leaders have an opportunity to make such sights, visions of the past. Their action—or inaction—will have consequences for generations to come.