Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president, listens at the "New World, New Capitalism" conference in Paris, France, on Friday, Jan. 9, 2008. Photographer: Antoine Antoniol/Bloomberg News

Anne Chaon Monrovia

Liberia is selling itself slice by slice nine years after a terrible civil conflict finally came to an end, offering valuable resources to the highest bidder even though that could kindle tension among a population that often feels it is being sold out.

The chairman of the Liberia Land Commission, Othello Brandy, said 57.5 percent of the nation’s territory, or a total of 5.6 million hectares, had been allotted via concessions. Of this, a little more than 1 million hectares represented agricultural land.

Alfred Brownell, a lawyer who founded the non-governmental organisation Green Advocates, estimates that about 120 foreign firms have signed concession contracts in Liberia.

“Over the last six years it has been an avalanche,” Brownell said, before explaining that Liberia, a west African country that suffered 15 years of war from 1989 to 2003, lacked the expertise to develop by itself.

“There is no capacity of absorption in Liberia, no skills, no trained people,” he said. “We will depend on foreign experts.”

The lawyer defends Liberian communities that are affected by palm oil plantations and warns: “If we get back to war, it will be over land.”

The UN still maintains a peace-keeping force in Liberia and a panel warned early last month of the potential for land conflicts.

Its report underscored “numerous underlying conflicts of title as well as violations of landowners rights”, and added: “This has the potential to undermine peace and security in outlying rural areas.”

Brandy said Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2011, was under pressure to rebuild the nation’s economy. He noted: “It’s like repairing a moving car, extremely difficult.”

Most land concessions are negotiated in the capital, Monrovia, far from those who are directly affected.

Brownell said an early example of a Liberian concession was one signed in 1926 with US tyre maker Firestone, which acquired the rights to about 0.5 million hectares near Monrovia but ended up producing not even a rubber band.

More recently diamonds, gold and timber earned fortunes for Liberian warlords until former president Charles Taylor was ousted in 2003 and the UN voted sanctions against the international trade in “blood wood”.

Sirleaf annulled many controversial deals but has also signed new ones covering agricultural, forestry, mineral and offshore oil resources.

“The false assumption is that the government owns the land,” Brownell said.

That situation is often seen elsewhere in Africa, the continent now most coveted by foreign investors owing to its vast natural resources.

Paul Mathieu, a specialist in land rights for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, estimates that, “80 percent of rural land rights are either not documented at all or else only in vague terms because governments consider themselves the land owners”.

Agriculture accounts for 61 percent of the nation’s total economic output.

In southern Liberia, 220 000ha have been ceded for 93 years to Indonesian group Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) to produce palm oil. Around 200 families live on that land.

“Each of them can tell you which tree, which stream is theirs,” said Bestman Weagba, who refuses to abandon his home to GVL.

UN official Olivier de Schutter said: “In more than half the cases, there was no consultation with the population.”

He emphasised that such deals were a windfall for the government. –