CEE TOWN, River Cess – For months the inhabitants of this Gbarsaw clan area have watched with growing concern hundreds of men with heavy machinery cutting down trees and transporting them. In March, locals said Bush chicken that the land – over 600 acres according to the chairman of the local community land development management committee – is customary land for the community. The community had no idea who was funding the clearing.
Residents say no one approached the committee, which the 2018 Land Rights Act mandated to oversee land ownership claims. Liberia’s historic two-tier land title system meant that millions of Liberians did not legally own the land on which generations of their ancestors had lived. The law, passed by George Weah’s administration despite criticism that it had not been well thought out, was designed to bring more land under the control of communities.
“Almost 600 men swept the area,” committee chairman Amos Vonziah said in Cee Town, one of the 13 towns that make up the Gbarsaw clan. “And they had about five power saws to cut down trees.”
A survey of Bush chicken confirmed that the demining was carried out by Bill Twehway, the chief executive of the National Port Authority. But according to Vonziah, there was no consultation with the community, as required by the new land rights law, and none of the rules were followed. It appears that Twehway simply identified a piece of land and started clearing it without asking anyone’s advice.
Bill Twehway did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but two of his brothers, Samuel Twehway and Nathaniel Twehway, confirmed that the NPA chief executive had funded the clearing of the land.
“Part of last year our brother Bill Twehway came over and told us he wanted to farm for all of us,” Samuel said. He says Bill wanted the farm to be for the residents of Cee Town, where he grew up. “He said that every time we make the farm and it burns down, each of us [residents] go put some rice in it. After the harvest, he will plant live trees, but he has not revealed which of the living trees he will plant.
In July, Bush chicken visited the farm, about 15 miles from Cee Town, guided by Nathaniel Twehway, another brother of Bill. He confirmed that the purpose of the farm is to establish a cocoa plantation for Bill and Peter Twehway – not the community, as Samuel had claimed.
Nathaniel said the workers will be living on the plantation, where a camp house is being built.
“The place is far away, so our brother [Bill] said he would build a road for cars from town to farm, ”Nathaniel said. “Right now people are planting plantains on the farm. It is under the plantains that the cocoas will be planted.
During Bush chicken earlier in March, Samuel said the entire Gbarsaw community would benefit from this plantation. He said members of each community would have been given a place to plant their crops. But community leaders here say they don’t trust Bill because he has yet to meet any of the requirements governing customary land under the Land Rights Act his own government has passed. They said he has to follow the rules even if he builds the farm for the community.
“This land is reserved for everyone; everyone has the same rights, ”said Vonziah. “So when a person comes and takes a huge amount and plants live crops, what will happen to the next generation? “
Like Vonziah, Borbor Gbotoe, the town chief of Sayah Town, another member of the clan, says Twehway never met the community to tell them how he acquired the land.
“The farm they’re talking about, I heard [about] that, ”Gbotoe said. “But when I leave here and go over there, when I talk about it, they say it’s for Bill.” From there again, they say it’s for the president.
The issue of land rights is now very sensitive in this area. The Gbarsaw clan recently received a certificate from the Liberia Land Authority confirming that they will conduct an investigation to decide the limits of the land that will be given to the clan. Locals fear the confusion around the Twehway plantation could jeopardize the process.
Chief Sammie Wheagar is the chieftain of the Gbarsaw clan. He says he heard a rumor that Twehway is funding the farm in question, but no one has officially written to his office.
Liberia Land Authority Customary Land Rights Officer Jerome Vanjahkollie said Bush chicken that no part of customary land can be transferred without what is called a “confirmation inquiry” by the Liberia Land Authority.
“Land belonging to the community on which the people stayed [for] over 50 years and have controlled these lands using their customary norms and practices, knowing their boundaries recognized by their neighbors, these lands are considered customary lands – and they belong exclusively to community members, ”Vanjahkollie said. “You cannot conduct or transact business in terms of transfer of interests in any part of this land until you have completed a confirmatory investigation. “
The customary land rights officer said that the law on adverse possession does not apply to customary land: “Anyone who wants to go and seize customary land because they have money, it could be tantamount to wanting to use the land. adverse possession to own this land.
Bill Twehway did not respond to requests for comment despite encrypted calls and texts from Bush chicken.
The community has not decided what action they will take next, but Vanjahkollie said the Community Land Development Management Committee has the power to protect the land. He said that in a situation like this, “it is up to the CLDMC to file a complaint with the Liberia Land Authority, and if that doesn’t work, it can take it to court under the Criminal Transport Law.
This dispute is the last to arise after the passage of the Law on Land Rights. Authorities and CSOs have not been able to provide the precise number of disputes across the country, but they say they are overwhelmed. In Bong, where an argument exploded between two communities, the superintendent intervened and ordered all activities to stop until it could be resolved.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The funder had no say in the content of the story.
Featured photo by Eric Opa Doué