By Dr Michelina Andreucci
IN West Africa, Portuguese explorers first established contacts with people in what today is known as Liberia, as early as 1462.
On arrival, they named the area Costa da Pimentia (Pepper Coast) due to the abundance of aframomum melegueta pepper, used in European cooking, they found growing there.
The Dutch Republic, in 1602, established a trading post which they destroyed a year later. In 1663, the British also installed trading posts on the Pepper Coast,
Until the arrival, in 1821, of ‘free blacks’ (freed slaves) from the United States, no further known settlements by non-African colonists occurred.
Liberia was founded, established, colonised and controlled by citizens of the US and ex-Caribbean slaves as a colony for former African-American slaves and their free black descendants.
Liberians’ quest for a secure and predictable access to land as a productive source has been key to the livelihoods of every Liberian ever since.
For most Liberians, the complex and largely unresolved issues of land ownership and claims is the primary reason for the past social tensions in the country.
Liberia is one of only two sovereign countries in the world that were developed as a colony for former slaves; the other being Freetown in Sierra Leone, established by Britain in 1787, to resettle the ‘Black Poor’ of London. Many were Black Loyalists — freed former American slaves in exchange for their services during the American Revolution.
In February 1820, the Mayflower of Liberia was the first ship to depart New York for West Africa, carrying the initial 86 ‘freed’ settlers.
These African-American descendants became known as Americo-Liberians. This small minority dominated the state of Liberia between 1847 and 1980.
Many were of mixed-race, including European ancestry.
They were distinct as African-Americans in their education, religion as well as culture and they did not identify with the indigenous, non-Christian people of the territory.
During the late 19th Century, Liberia retained its independence, which it declared on July 26 1847, throughout the ‘Scramble for Africa’ by European colonial powers though it remained in America’s sphere of influence.
Liberia’s economy was based on the agricultural production for export; particularly Liberia’s important coffee industry, until it was ruined in the 1870s by the emergence of coffee from Brazil.
Little economic development occurred during the period it was under the political domination of the descendants of Americo-Liberian minority of free African-American colonists.
As a result, a series of rebellions took place among the indigenous Liberian population between the 1850s and 1920s. From the 1920s, Liberia became dependent on exploitation of its natural resources such as iron, timber and rubber.
In 1926, Firestone Tire (tyre) and Rubber Company, an American rubber company, founded in 1900 to supply pneumatic tyres for wheeled transportation common in that era, saw the potential for marketing the product for automobiles and became a pioneer in their mass-production. It started the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia.
In time, the industry created 25 000 jobs and rubber quickly became the backbone of the Liberian economy; in the 1950s, rubber accounted for 40 percent of the national budget.
During the 1930s, Liberia signed concession agreements with Dutch, Danish, German and Polish investors in what was described as an ‘open door’ economic policy.
Between 1946 and 1960, exports of timber and rubber rose firmly.
By 1971, Liberia had the world’s largest rubber industry and was the third largest exporter of iron ore.
Throughout the 1970s, the price of rubber in the world commodities market was depressed, putting pressure on Liberian state finances.
The Liberian Government was constantly dependent on foreign loans at high rates of exchange, which endangered the country’s independence. From 1962 until 1980, the US donated US$280 million in aid to Liberia, in exchange for which Liberia offered its land free of rent for US Government facilities.
According to some, the recent conflicts in Liberia were a result of tensions over access to land; a product of domestic labour exploitation and abuse that prevailed in the Liberian countryside, especially of young people.
These exploitations were a result of the indirect rule imposed by the elite class in Monrovia; the heavy and unjust fines imposed by chiefs and the abuse of rural customs, particularly regarding marriage and land rights.
However, the degradation of customary land rights continued after the civil wars.
For example, the new National Forestry Reform Law of 2006, declared all forest resources in Liberia to be held in trust by the Republic for the benefit of the people.
In Liberia, as elsewhere, most customary lands do not have titles attached to them and are often considered as public lands.
Similarly, the government has often left customary land owners out of the negotiation process or any direct rights to benefit from the proceeds of such investment; rural communities have often been left only with promises to social development and local economic empowerment, none of which has ever been realised.
Since 1956, all lands without title have been considered public lands over which the state, as per a 1973 Public Land Law, “…reserves the right to grant concessions on.”
Access to land and its resources some argue, was also a factor and the impetus for both the 1980s and 1990s civil conflicts in Liberia.
Aggravating this situation is the co-option of rural elites and often illegitimate appropriation of rural lands by wealthy, influential Liberians with a connection to the government for their private investments at the expense of poorer rural dwellers, for whom, according to IMF estimates, 70 percent of these lands are a source of livelihoods
As in other places, land in Liberia was, and continues to be, a crucial and oftentimes contentious issues. Secure land tenure would enable all Liberians to reap the benefits of their investments without fear of their right to own land being tempered with.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. F orcomments e-mail: email@example.com