The passage of the Land Rights Act (LRA) in 2018 was hailed by Liberian civil society as one of the most progressive land reform laws in Africa. Based on the LRA, Liberia now recognizes the legal rights of communities – and equal rights of individuals within the communities – to their ancestral lands, and to own and apply for deeds for their ancestral lands. The LRA includes provisions for establishing Community Land Development and Management Committees (CLDMCs), bodies which are charged with communal land decisions, and the development of land use plans. The Liberia Land Authority (LLA) adopted regulations for the registration and governance of customary land in November 2022.
While the LRA took longer than expected to pass, stakeholders remain committed to it and see its importance for the empowerment of Liberian communities. A number of civil society organizations (CSOs) support LRA implementation with the aim to help secure land rights for communities and, in doing so, help those communities harness the economic potential of their land and protect it. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors have invested in pilot efforts in more than 150 communities to help test the initial steps of the six-step process required to obtain a deed. These efforts have generated important lessons learned about implementation and streamlined processes and templates adopted by the LLA as National Guidelines. To-date an estimated 12 communities have received a customary deed with the remaining still engaging in the process at some stage.
The LLA receives or has recently received technical assistance from USAID, the Swedish Government, the Tenure Facility, United Nations Development Programme, the European Union, the World Bank, and others. USAID has been a leading funder and proponent of land reform for more than a decade, providing support to the Government of Liberia (GOL) to develop a strong Land Rights Policy, which was adopted in 2013. USAID has supported the land sector in Liberia via the Land Policy and Institutional Support (LPIS) activity under the Property Rights and Resource Governance Program (PRRGP) (2010 – 2015), the Land Conflict Resolution Program (LCRP) (2013 – 2016), the Land Governance Support Activity (LGSA) (2015 – 2020), and most recently the Land Management Activity (LMA) (2021 – 2025).
The global Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) project, funded via USAID’s Land and Resource Governance Division in Washington, DC, supported the customary land rights formalization process via three grants between 2020 and 2023. The objective of ILRG’s Liberia activity was to complete the Community Land Protection Program (CLPP), the name attributed to the customary land rights formalization process by Namati and the Liberian non-governmental organization (NGO) the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). The CLPP approach empowered communities via legal education and support for community self-identification (CSI), and provided support to communities to develop land and resource bylaws, choose their own representation in CLDMCs, and harmonize boundaries with neighboring communities. The governance support, the key component of CLPP, aimed to help communities to resolve land conflicts, ensure intra-community equity, and strengthen mechanisms for accountable and participatory management of land and natural resources. The premise of CLPP is that formal recognition of customary tenure must first involve extensive governance strengthening, with formal recognition as the last step in the process. Only in this way will communities be sufficiently empowered to enjoy the full potential of their newly obtained formal legal rights to their lands and resources.
Recognizing the importance of customary land rights formalization for national level reform in Liberia and USAID land programming, in 2014 the USAID Land and Resource Governance Division, through its Evaluation, Research, and Communication task order, began an impact evaluation of a CLPP intervention implemented by SDI. The project was originally funded by non-USAID sources. The project was intended as a 12-to-18-month activity with 45 treatment communities and 45 controls, in Lofa, Maryland, and River Gee Counties. However, the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 delayed implementation until the beginning of 2016. In addition, budget constraints by SDI mean that as of October 2017, the intervention was only partially completed in 23 treatment communities.
Despite the challenges with implementation of the underlying CLPP activity, the programmatic and policy-oriented learning opportunity was significant enough that continued funding to complete the activity was merited. In 2019 ILRG engaged SDI to continue work in 31 of its CLPP communities and Green Advocates International to support five additional communities. These communities were to undergo an endline evaluation through USAID’s Communications, Evaluation and Learning (CEL) Project, which evaluated the development impacts of formal recognition of customary tenure, which would in turn inform USAID program design, and the development of LRA regulations and standard operating procedures. Ultimately only SDI’s 31 communities were treatment communities in CEL’s endline evaluation.
A third grantee, Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI), was engaged in 2021 to work with eight additional communities. While FCI’s eight communities did not take part in the evaluation completed by the CEL project, the intervention provided invaluable learning to the GOL and USAID for broader implementation of the LRA at scale.
Now that some initial gains have been made, stakeholders agree that efforts must ramp up to provide support closer to the community level. The LLA has plans to expand its presence beyond the capital, though its resources and capacity to do so are limited. As CSOs and the LLA help move more communities through the initial stages of the process to obtain communal land deeds, work is needed to: 1) ensure that women and youth are full participants and beneficiaries of the process despite inclusiveness that is legislated in the CLDMCs; 2) help resolve inter- and intra-community disputes satisfactorily; and 3) make sure communities can access the resources and services needed to obtain deeds and take advantage of the benefits of land tenure security. As the initial stages of community self-identification, adoption of bylaws, CLDMC formation, boundary harmonization, and mapping are increasingly understood, continued investments will be needed in discussions around later stages of the process. Namely, donors should invest in testing and documenting lessons related to confirmatory survey, deed registration and the requirements for identifying tribal certificates and other land claims, as well as the provisions that state that up to 10 percent of unused community land is to be reserved as public land, which has not been explored thoroughly to date.
This report provides an overview of the process of supporting 44 communities to undergo the customary land rights formalization (CLRF) process with support from ILRG grantees SDI, GAI, and FCI in Lofa, Maryland, River Gee, Nimba, Bong, and Grand Bassa Counties with an eye on how the cost effectiveness varied by geography and approach, amongst other factors.