Liberian President George Weah has signed a long-sought land reform law that gives local communities greater rights over “customary land” and lets foreigners and charities own property.
First drafted in 2014, the Land Right Act has nonetheless been criticised by some who say it weakens the rights of Liberians who live in rural areas, notably women.
Previously, the government could grant private companies long-term leases on non-titled lands that cover most of the west African country settled by former slaves from the United States and Caribbean.
“Land and labour are intertwined; one cannot be without the other. If you have land and there is no labour, you have a problem because land is an asset,” Weah commented as he signed the act late Wednesday.
The former football star took office in January.
Local communities can now claim ownership of customary land based on oral testimonies of community members, maps, signed agreements between neighboring communities and other documents.
A nationwide survey is to be carried out within two years to confirm which are customary lands and which are privately held.
Up to 10 percent of the former is now to be allocated as public land available for lease to private companies.
The law allows foreigners, missionaries, educational and charitable organisations to own land as long as it is used for the purpose given at the time of purchase.
In addition, farmers who occupy unclaimed land for 15 years will become its legal owner.
Land issues have fueled deadly conflict in Liberia, pitting urban elites against rural populations, often women, who practice subsistence farming on non-titled croplands.
A civil war that claimed 250 000 lives between 1989 and 2003 was in large part caused by disputes over land and natural resources.
“With this act, our parents will have the opportunity of claiming what belongs to them,” Liberian national Terrence Gibson told AFP.
Community rights and other civic groups embraced the law, but others were wary, pointing to the potential for fraud.
Safeguards were needed to prevent the validation of tribal certificates and other pre-existing property documents from being used for “bad faith transactions,” the Women Land Rights taskforce said in a statement released in March.
The 15-year qualification requirement would limit participation by women, it added.