By Akanimo Sampson
A civic group, Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), has begun to mobilise local people in Liberia and empowering them to resist a wave of land grabs in some parts of the country allegedly led by elites and concessioners.
The group said Protecting Communities and Forests against a Surge in Land-grabs in Bomi, a project which is taking off in Tubmanburg, is a follow-up to its 2019 report on the situation in the county.
That report found that the officials, with help from tribal chiefs and elders, possibly converted more than 9,000 acres of land in the Senjeh, Klay and Suehn-Mecca Districts. Sime Darby, which was taken over by Mano Manufacturing Company (MANCO) earlier this month, has over 300,000 hectares, largely in Bomi.
The new project targets some 30 community monitors who the SDI said in a statement will be trained to document land grabs and deforestation, implement the Land Rights Act—which recognises customary land ownership—and form resistance in order to reverse the trend in their county.
SDI is partnering with the Civil Society Oil Palm Working Group and the Bomi Chapter of the Civil Society Council of Liberia.
According to the project document, “SDI will work with civil society council of Liberia, Bomi Chapter to build a mass movement of community members acting to defend their land rights. The actions under this initiative will focus more on organising and mobilising communities to take collective actions. The mobilisation and organisation will be facilitated through a series of community training and awareness building meetings.”
The group also said it will make use of TIMBY (This Is My Back Yard), an online database that documents land grab, deforestation and other issues relating to the environment to help local communities understand and appreciate and know the value of their land.
While SDI pointed out that it will use its land valuation tools and online application TIMBY to stimulate community consciousness, appreciation, and value of their land and forest resources, it added that it will also build the capacity of communities to advocate and demand actions through national and international, legal mechanisms such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
It also added that training will focus on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) and communities’ rights under the United Nations Principles on Business and Human Rights, it added. “SDI and its international partner, Friend of the Earth (Netherlands), Milieudefensie (Dutch land rights NGO) will use documented evidence to inform international debates and decisions on land, forest, and the environment, mainly regarding financing the expansion of agro-commodities plantations.”
The main campaigner with SDI, James Otto, said the group needed to respond quickly to the situation in Bomi because it undermined the townspeople’s food sovereignty, livelihoods and development options and the Liberian economy. “The remaining forests are also under threat”, he said in a statement.
“A toxic combination of land-grabs by politicians, government officials, powerful elites and the international palm oil company Sime Darby Plantations (now MANCO) is happening now in all of the five major districts in the county.
According to him, “as Liberia currently slowly declines in its economic management, one can only think that land is the only option to feed and care for community dwellers and their children now and in the future. Bomi (750 squares miles) is the poorest county in Liberia, with 70 percent of its 84,119 people subsistent farmers, according to Liberia’s last National Population Census in 2008.
“Additionally, this situation could get worse, if nothing is done to protect customary communities, especially so with the current government of Liberia is seeking to concede more land to large scale agriculture concessions instead of investing in Liberian smallholder farmers.”