Published on Sustainable Cities

Reflecting on a decade: Lessons from Liberia's Land Rights Policy

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Monrovia, Liberia Monrovia, Liberia

In 2013, the Liberia Land Rights Policy stated that “Never in its history has Liberia had a clearly defined land rights policy. Every Liberian feels on a daily basis its absence.” A decade later, its impact is increasingly palpable. As we mark the policy’s 10th anniversary, it's time to reflect on Liberia’s journey, its achievements, the lessons learned, and the path ahead.


Liberia’s history is intertwined with the land

Liberia returned to democracy in 2006 following 14 years of civil war and, within just a few years, established a Land Commission in August 2009. So why did the government prioritize land after more than a decade of civil war? Let’s look at Liberia’s history: From around 1824 onwards, all land in Liberia became public land and was allotted to citizens as private land. However, only a few communities in rural Liberia purchased their land from the government as foreseen in public land sale laws because most of Liberia’s land was already owned and managed by communities under traditional, customary tenure.

Over time, up to 75% of all land was promised through concession contracts to investors for commercial agriculture, mining, or forestry uses--often unbeknownst to the residing communities. This lack of transparency ignited conflict. Urban areas also faced issues due to complex paper-based land registration.

The Land Rights Policy – More than just a “piece of paper”

The resulting low levels of tenure security affect agriculture productivity, foreign investments, urban development, forest management, and social cohesion, especially women’s rights.  Hence, the government mandated the new Land Commission in 2009 to propose reforms to land policy, laws, and programs in Liberia. Far from being mere paper, the resulting Land Rights Policy was instrumental in redressing land injustices. Its foundation was meticulously crafted through national consultations, cross-country studies, and adherence to regional and international land governance frameworks. It distinguished land ownership into private, customary, government, and public categories, each addressing a facet of Liberia’s unique land challenge.

From vision to action

With the support of the government, multiple donors, and civil society organizations, the policy came to life. The Liberia Land Authority Act of October 2016, as part of the mandate of the Land Commission to reform the institutional arrangement of the land sector, was enacted into law and merged all land administration functions into one entity. In 2018, the Land Rights Act  (modeled on the Land Rights Policy) fully recognized and protected customary land as well as women’s land rights for the first time in Liberia’s history.

But legal reform is not enough. The World Bank and several development partners have supported the government in implementing the new land laws.  Numerous trainings and capacity-building programs have been implemented, strategies and processes developed, and headquarter and county land offices renovated and equipped. A scanning center has also been established to digitize land records and support the One-Stop-Shop principle for getting all land services in one place.

People and their land rights are at the center of any land administration system.  Remarkable progress has been made to develop and test the registration of customary land. The Liberia Land Authority, with support from the World Bank, has simplified existing processes to develop a standardized field manual based on participatory processes with simple technologies, following international good practices. This has been tested with around 30,000 people in four communities whose land is now surveyed and registered. Long-standing land disputes between communities have been resolved in the course of this process. A nationwide scaling-up plan for registering all customary land in Liberia has been prepared based on these experiences.

Collaboration: The Keystone of Change

Despite all progress: More is to be done to further strengthen staff and institutional capacities, move fully digital, resolve ongoing land disputes, secure urban land tenure, and strengthen the land use planning system. 

Multistakeholder collaboration is key. The Land Authority actively sought collaborations with civil society, various government bodies, and international partners like the EU, SIDA, UN, USAID, and the World Bank. A multi-actor platform was created in 2018, supporting for example the development of the Land Rights Act Regulations of 2022.

The application of international good practice is fundamental. The solutions developed in Liberia are home-grown but they are rooted in the African Union’s Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests. Further, the Fit-For-Purpose approach has been streamlined to adjust the required technological solutions to existing capacity and financing levels.

What is next?

In the time of climate change, Liberia will need to double down on deforestation and increase its benefits from carbon financing. Land tenure will be key. In a world with unpredictable changes in global food supply chains, Liberia needs to become food secure. Land tenure will be key. Being home to an urbanizing continent, Liberia will need to address urban sprawl. Land tenure will be key. 

A decade ago, Liberia embarked on a transformative journey with a "piece of paper." Today, it's evident that this paper wasn't just another document – inspired by the people of Liberia, it has laid the foundation to address these challenges through secure land tenure.



Linus Pott

Senior Land Administration Specialist, Urban, Resilience and Land (URL) Global Practice

Stanley N. Toe

Executive Director, Liberia Land Authority

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