So Who Owns the Forest? An Investigation into Forest Ownership and Customary Land Rights in Liberia

November 2007
Liz Alden Wily (for Sustainable Development Institute, Liberia / FERN)

State/people forest relations are at a turning point in Liberia. The crux of the issue is property relations and how the rights of rural Liberians to forests are treated in law and in practice. Central to the problem and the solution is the status of customary land rights. The paper tracks what happened to the natural rights indigenous Liberians have to their lands and the valuable forests that grow on them. It looks back at the treatment of customary land tenure over the century-long process of forming the modern Liberian state. Through fieldwork, the study identifies customary property norms as operating today. It finds that colonial policy with regard to indigenous land interests was uncharacteristically benign, as was the imposition of indirect rule. Together these have created a foundation on which democratic land relations may be rebuilt. There is also genuine vibrancy in collective norms of customary tenure closely linked to the role of forestland in the rural economy. Interference in customary property rights is severe but mainly recent. Favourable conditions for remedying the situation exist. Remedial rather than radical action is required. Practical steps towards achieving a solution are suggested. Much rests on the proposed Community Rights Law.