Liberia selling itself slice by slice?
| Anne Chaon |
MONROVIA (AFP) – Liberia is selling itself slice by slice nine years after a terrible civil conflict finally came to an end, offering valuable resources to the highest bidder even though that could kindle tension among a population that often feels it is being sold out.
The chairman of the Liberia Land Commission, Othello Brandy, says that 57.5 per cent of the nation’s territory has been alloted via concessions, for a total of 5.6 million hectares (13.8 million acres), of which a little more than one million hectares represented agricultural land.
Alfred Brownell, a lawyer who founded the non-governmental organisation Green Advocates estimates that at least 120 foreign companies have signed concession contracts in Liberia, a country the size of Portugal that was colonised by freed black slaves from the United States.
“Over the last six years it has been an avalanche,” Brownell said, before explaining that Liberia, a western Africa country that suffered 15 years of war from 1989 to 2003, lacked the expertise to develop by itself.
“There is no capacity of absorption in Liberia, no skills, no trained people,” Brownell noted, “we will depend on foreign experts.”
The lawyer defends Liberian communities that are affected by palm oil plantations and warns: “If we get back to war, it will be on land.”
The United Nations still maintains a peacekeeping force in Liberia and a panel warned in early December of the potential for land conflicts.
Its report underscored “numerous underlying conflicts of title as well as violations of landowners rights”, and added: “This has the potential to undermine peace and security in outlying rural areas.”
But Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, is under pressure to rebuild the nation’s economy, Brandy said.
He noted: “It’s like repairing a moving car, extremely difficult.”
In most cases, land concessions are negotiated in the capital Monrovia, far from those who are directly affected.
Interior Affairs Minister Blamoh Nelson explained that “the government signs for a general territory, areas of interest”, and then the company involved goes to the area to meet “traditional groups and customary leaders to limit the boundaries”.
Nelson acknowledged that local chiefs do not always “understand what they signed”.
An early example of a Liberian concession was one signed in 1926 with US tyre maker Firestone which acquired the rights to a half million hectares near Monrovia, but ended up producing “not even a rubber band”, according to Brownell.
More recently diamonds, gold and wood earned fortunes for Liberian warlords until former president Charles Taylor was ousted in 2003 and the UN voted sanctions against international trade in “blood wood”.
Sirleaf annulled many controversial deals but has also signed new ones covering agricultural, forestry, mineral and offshore oil resources.
“The false assumption is that the government owns the land,” Brownell said.
That situation is often seen elsewhere in Africa, the continent now most coveted by foreign investors owing to its vast natural resources.
Paul Mathieu, a specialist in land rights for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, estimates that “80 per cent of rural land rights are either not documented at all or else only in vague terms because governments consider themselves the land owners”.
In Liberia, agriculture accounts for 61 per cent of the nation’s total economic output.
In southern Liberia, 220,000 hectares have been ceded for 93 years to the Indonesian group Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) to produce palm oil, and on which around 200 families now live.