My name is Silas Siakor and I am the Country Manager at IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative in Liberia. I have worked on natural resource governance for the past 20 years – with a focus on land and forest. I am deeply honored to speak at this year’s conference to share some reflections based on the Liberian experience and to send a clarion call to civil society, academia, and private sector to step up and do more to strengthen land governance. The future of our planet depends on it.
This year’s conference, under the theme ‘Land, Crisis and Resilience’ focuses on the challenges that global, intertwining crises pose to land governance systems, processes and actors. It seems to me that this year we are coming together with messages of hope. With stories of resilience from different parts of the world. But, also with messages of despair, when we highlight the crisis and challenges millions face around the world because they are denied land rights, and through that are being pushed into poverty or their governments are not doing enough to formalize and protect their land rights and through that lift them out of poverty.
It also seems to me that land rights of local communities, Indigenous Peoples, and landless peoples around the world will feature prominently in the dialogues at this year’s conference. The focus on Land, Crisis and Resilience is very timely, because urgent and collective actions are needed – if we are to leave a healthy planet behind for our children and grandchildren.
Formalizing and legally protecting land rights of local communities, Indigenous Peoples and disadvantaged groups, is crucial and will define whether humanity fails or succeeds in tackling the multiple and intertwined crisis we face. As Charlotte Streck writes in the ecosystem marketplace “respecting local land and forest rights, strengthening local institutions” and “cooperating with community organizations and trusted non-governmental organizations with a local presence” are critical success factors for efforts to reduce deforestation. The World Resource Institute also argues that secured and protected land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ lead to healthier forest and reduced deforestation. The evidence is compelling. That urgent action is needed is not in dispute.
Today, as we celebrate our successes and share our messages of hope, I also want to speak about the opportunities that we are letting slip, the windows of opportunity that may be closing, and specifically challenge civil society, academia and private sector to step up where governments are letting up or giving way for land tenure reforms. Time is not on our side.
As an activist and advocate promoting land rights for local communities, I feel that civil society, academia and private sector could do more to keep the promise; the promise that secured land rights of local communities and Indigenous People can lead to shared prosperity, better land and natural resource governance, and a healthier planet.
To better illustrate the opportunities before us, I will use the developments in Liberia.
Liberia, situated in West Africa and bordering Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, was founded in 1822 by freed slaves from the Americas. The country has vast tropical rainforest and significant deposits of gold, Iron Ore and other minerals. Despite its vast natural resource wealth, Liberia ranks 175th out of 189 countries listed in the UNDP Human Development Index and Life Expectancy at Birth stood at 64.1 years in 2019. Weak governance characterized by rampant corruption, exclusion of the vast majority of the population from the political and economic life of the country, and economic collapse in the 1980s contributed to a civil war breaking out in 1990.
During the 14 years of armed conflict that ensued Liberia’s forest and other natural resources were plundered by warlords in cohort with logging and mining companies.
Civil society organizations, and their international allies, now have an opportunity to work with the government, private sector and other stakeholders to support local communities to turn their Bundle of Rights into meaningful and positive changes in their overall well-being through sustainable lifestyles, shared or inclusive economic prosperity, and good governance.
We will mark the third anniversary of the law come October. In these three years we have seen some progress in implementation by local civil society organizations, with support from IDH and other development partners. More than 1 million hectares or just over 11% of the entire country is now collectively owned and controlled by 55 communities. This is progress, compared to a decade ago when the notion of community ownership and control of their Customary Land was considered far-fetched by national elites and powerful politicians that did everything they could to derail the land tenure reform process.
The government, to its credit, has made important strides in developing the regulations that are needed to fully implement the law and is encouraging civil society to lead on efforts to support communities to formalize their land rights. In a world where civic space is shrinking and external actors continue to wreck havoc on Indigenous Peoples and local communities, these are important developments.
While we celebrate these milestones, let’s not lose sight of the challenges that lie ahead.
First, weak land governance at the local level presents a threat to our peace and security, which remains fragile. Land related disputes are widespread and some easily escalate into violence that leaves in its wake destruction of lives and properties. While we applaud civil society organizations for their efforts supporting these communities, we must also challenge them to improve the quality of their services. Additionally, addressing weak land governance at the community level requires civil society taking steps to strengthen their technical capacities, embedding competent multi-disciplinary teams in the communities they support, and being more accountable for the resources they receive.
Second, hundreds of thousands of Liberians, including myself – even though I was born and raised in rural Liberia – are landless in their own country; a phenomenon that is neither recognized nor understood. While we often hear about women lacking land rights – what we don’t ever hear is that when women are denied land rights, their male children also face the same problem or even worse.
In my case, because my father chose to settle with my mother in her home town, he lost his right to a share in my paternal grandfather’s land. And, even though my mother is the first of five children, she did not inherit portion of my maternal grandfather’s land. Consequently, we, the male children and our sisters have no land in our father’s village and neither do we have land in our mother’s village. I imagine that this phenomenon is common in patriarchal societies around the world.
Researching and understanding this phenomenon could contribute to further improvements in policies and laws governing customary collective land rights.
Third, three years on, civil society is yet to demonstrate it has a strategy for working with communities to realize the promise that secured land rights would translate into improvements in their well-being. Without a strategy, which emphasizes good governance at the local level and facilitating mutually beneficial business relationships with the private sector, there is a real risk that the hopes we have raised and aspirations we have inspired across the country will not be realized.
In the last three years, I have spent many sleepless nights wondering: after formalization, what then?
What then will land owning communities do once they have a formal titled deed? Will they now be economically rewarded for their efforts and contributions to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation? Does this lay the foundation for farmer cooperatives to now invest in sustainable production because they know the markets will reward them? Could agricultural or timber companies, instead of preying on communities, now work in joint ventures with communities based on sustainable forestry and land use principles? And will communities now make inclusive and informed decisions on such partnerships? Or will business as usual or the old ways prevail?
A robust civil society strategy that explores these and related questions; a strategy that is forward thinking on supporting communities capacities for sustainable development combined with sustainable governance of natural resources; a strategy that aims to enable land use to produce more in sustainable manner, protect our land, water and forest resources and deliver benefits for all – is the only pathway to keeping the promise.
Private sector or companies for their part must step up and demonstrate that they are prepared to carry out major reforms of their business models and practices including working with local communities to build mutually beneficial business relationships for shared prosperity in this new environment. At IDH, we are learning that building these types of relationships take time, and significant efforts to build trust with communities – because they have been lied to and abused for decades. New business models and means of engaging with land owning communities need to be proven, by companies that commit to developing mutually beneficial and meaningful partnerships with communities. This can start with companies reforming their policies to comply with internationally accepted standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and taking concrete actions to implement those policies.
As times have changed, social conditions have changed and the political economy of the land sector has dramatically changed. It is high time that academia do more to take advantage of the research opportunities or questions that exist in different countries to add to our body of knowledge. In Liberia, for example, there are so many questions that need urgent answers – if we are to deliver on the promise of shared prosperity and good governance of land and forest.
In closing, let’s be reminded that recognizing, formalizing and legally protecting Customary Land rights lay the foundation for resilience; but on its own, it is not enough. Civil society, private sector and academia should do more to work with local communities and Indigenous People where their rights are established to march towards a just, inclusive and sustainable future.
I would like to wish everyone a successful conference. I hope we can leave here with renewed commitments to do our part and contribute to good governance of land and natural resources across the world.
This speech was given as part of the LANDac Conference 2021.
Silas Siakor is actively working with the Government of Liberia and civil society organizations, directly coordinating efforts to bring more than 1 million hectares of land under local communities’ control and ownership by the end of 2021. He has championed community forest and land rights in Liberia for about two decades. For his work, he has received several international awards, including the Whitley Award for Environment and Human Rights in 2002 (UK), the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006 (US), Award for Outstanding Environmental and Human Rights Activism from the Alexander Soros Foundation (US), Mundo Negro Fraternity Award in 2018 (Spain) and was among Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2008. Silas founded the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in Liberia and served as its first Director from 2005 to 2009. He also stars in the award-winning 2018 documentary ‘Silas’, that was screened at IDFA and in various movie houses in the Netherlands and beyond in 2018. Silas joined IDH in 2015, leads IDH work on land governance, coordinating Participatory Land Use Planning and Customary Land rights formalization, and now serves as Country Manager.