Through a combination of agricultural, forestry, and mining concessions, it has been estimated that more than 23% of the land mass of Liberia has been granted to commercial entities for management by the Government of Liberia, under the assumption that this land is owned by the government (Land Commission, 2012). However, much of Liberia’s rural land, while categorized as government land, is traditionally held in customary ownership by the local population. The Community Rights Law of 2009(CRL), and more recently the Land Rights Policy (LRP) recognize this customary ownership (see LRP §4.2) and, in the case of the CRL, ownership of forest resources (see CRL §2.2(a)). The passage of the Land Rights Law will further strengthen customary rights by codifying the means by which customary rights can be recognized and secured. While a welcome development, recognition of customary ownership of resource could trigger conflict in areas where there are existing concessions. This will be particularly controversial where concession agreements contain provisions that grant concession holders the right to clear land and sell any merchantable timber without payment of royalties or other payments to the Government of Liberia (GoL).
The case of the Gba Community Forest (CF) in the Arcelor-Mittal Liberia (AML) concession area in northern Nimba County serves to illustrate the potential issues and the inability of policy and law to adequately address ambiguities introduced by an evolving legal framework. The path followed by AML and the Gba Community to bridge the gap created by the absence of legislation or policy, serves as a potential model for the many other concessions in Liberia and future community forest claims therein. This policy brief draws upon this experience to suggest policy directions and questions for decision-makers to ponder as community rights are recognized more fully in Liberia.