Land Governance Support Activity (LGSA) Report: A Strategy for Further Reform of Liberia’s Law on Land

In 2007, Liberia’s Governance Commission had already identified land governance as a seriously problematic area. The commission was impressed with the range and difficulty of issues posed, and so recommended a special commission on land issues be created, with a five-year time frame. A law to establish the Land Commission was enacted in 2009, and it tasked the commission with reform of land policy and law.

Early on, the Land Commission made four important choices. The first was that the commission would not move directly into legal reform but first develop land policies and, even earlier, do a major national consultation to “ground truth” tenure problems that had been raised. Then, based on the requirements of those policies, legal reforms could be proposed. Second, the Land Commission decided to break down the task of land policy reform into a number of more specific, more manageable policy domains. The five policy domains pursued were land rights, land administration, land use, land dispute management, and gender and land. A task force was organized to assess each domain and recommend policy and law reforms. Finally, it was decided that the commission would not think in terms of a single Land Policy or a single Land Law, but of more specialized policies and laws related to the policy domains.

Five years later, the Land Commission has developed and seen approved a Land Rights Policy and a Land Administration Policy. The Land Rights Policy has been the basis for development of a historic Land Rights Law, currently before the legislature, that would for the first time provide legal recognition to the custom-based land rights of many Liberians, as well as update an antiquated body of legislation on the common law of real property. The institutional recommendations of the Land Administration Policy have provided the basis for a proposed law that seeks to consolidate the badly fragmented land governance authority in Liberia into a single new land governance institution, the Liberian Land Authority, in the hope that it could tackle the confusion and mismanagement that have characterized Liberia’s land resource management and land administration.

Similar policies and proposed laws were not produced by the other task forces, for a variety of reasons explored in the body of this report. There is, however, a virtually final policy on land disputes prepared by that task force and not finalized because a legal review has still not been carried out. That report includes a recommendation for a law that would provide for and legitimize non-judicial procedures to resolve land disputes and augment processes currently provided by the government’s judicial system. The Liberian Land Authority should finalize this report and follow up on its recommendation for a law. It is important, in planning for future policy and law work, to learn from the experience of the Land Commission to date. Some of the more important lessons are:

  1. Policy reform efforts profit greatly from the broadest possible participation by the public and by diverse groups of stakeholders, both governmental and nongovernmental, in the development of policies.
  2. Public consultation may at the outset need address not a predetermined issue but instead consult with the people on what they—not officials or consultants—perceived as problems. The person who wears the shoe can tell us if it fits.
  3. Because land-related competences are often dispersed among several government agencies, a government agency seeking input on a policy reform proposal will need to draw in a number of other agencies. Participation is often by mid-level or technical staff, and there is a need for further efforts to make sure ministers and other heads of agencies or organizations are fully briefed.
  4. Public consultation is critical in policy development in all cases, but the extent and nature of the public consultation required should vary depending on the potential depth and breadth of the impacts of the policy change, including those on disadvantaged groups or groups likely to be impacted differently.
  5. There is no standard way to validate a policy in Liberia, but higher-level validation—by president, cabinet, or legislature—increases the authority and durability of a policy and should be pursued wherever possible.
  6. Participation in the drafting of reform laws is difficult to maintain because of their more technical nature. A drafting committee supervising a draftsperson will be needed. It is difficult to sustain the broad and iterative participation of stakeholders in the drafting of a law that is possible in the case of a policy. However, at least a few key participants in the policy-development exercise should be involved in the drafting of the law, to ensure consistency with the policy.
  7. Once a first full draft of the law is ready, it should be widely circulated for comments. Stakeholders need to understand that it is the law and not the policy that will control, and examine the draft carefully to see if it will in fact achieve the goals of the policy. Public consultation on laws is challenging because of their more technical language, but this can be overcome through publication of summaries in laymen’s terms. Consultations with organizations representing stakeholder groups and their attorneys, as well as the larger legal profession, are critical.
  8. It is feasible and important for the Liberian Land Authority to provide briefings for key legislators at the policy stage, and once the proposed law has been submitted to the legislature, to proactively arrange briefings and workshops to better inform them on the content of the law, its objectives, and the attitude of their constituents.
  9. While the Land Commission was designed as a policy and law reform commission, in the absence of any other trustworthy competence in this area, the commission and its senior staff were drawn into land dispute resolution, vetting of applications for public land sales, and management of tensions around poorly conceived grants of agricultural concessions. These involvements beyond the mandate of the Land Commission have been time-consuming and have limited participation by some key senior staff in the policy and law reform work of the commission.
  10. Nonetheless, these “distractions” have turned out to have real positive value for the commission, including awareness of the importance of tribal certificates, familiarity with alternative dispute resolution (ADR), field experience for commission staff, and learning-by-doing experience that will be important down the line.

Many of these lessons have been incorporated into recommendations, land policy-making processes, and on land law drafting processes in the report.

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