Arts, Culture & Media

Liberia struggles with land disputes


Laura Cunial handing a Certificate of Attendance to a participant in housing, land and property training.


Photo: NRC Afghanistan

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DAVID BARON: In West Africa, Liberia fought a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. The country has been at peace ever since, but it hasn’t always been peaceful. During the war, many Liberians fled their country. In the past few years, they’ve returned home only to find other people living on their land. Land disputes have become a major source of conflict in a country still trying to recover from its wounds. The World’s Jason Margolis has the story.

JASON MARGOLIS: Nimba County is about a day’s drive from the capital, Monrovia. Children in the countryside run around playing with old tires and rocks. People here have few physical possessions. Land defines their sense of wealth. And family identity. Generation after generation grows up on the same piece of land. Ancestors are buried there. I drove to the site of a land dispute with a few staff members from the Norwegian Refugee Council, or NRC. It’s a non-governmental organization working with the Liberian government. The NRC has worked on 2,200 land disputes here over the past four years.

LAURA CUNIAL: I’m Laura. Very nice to meet you.

MARGOLIS: Laura Cunial is a friendly, but tough young Italian lawyer with NRC. She’s in charge of a staff of Liberians. Around these parts, the “white woman” as she’s affectionately called, is as close as it comes to formal rule of law. Today she’s mediating a dispute between two neighbors.

CUNIAL: You were here during the war?

MALE SPEAKER: I’ve been here all along.

CUNIAL: And when they were fighting you still stay here?

MALE SPEAKER: When they were fighting, yes, I was still here.

MARGOLIS: The man’s neighbor fled during the war. Problems arose when she and her family returned.


MARGOLIS: She’s arguing, in Liberian English, that while she was away, her neighbor built a well on her property. Cunial steps in to get more information from the man.

CUNIAL: Do you have any document for this land? For your land?


CUNIAL: What do you have? A tribal certificate?

MALE SPEAKER: I have a tribal certificate.

MARGOLIS: Tribal certificates are land deeds from a local chief. All the land in rural Liberia was allotted this way. The system worked well for hundreds of years. But with war and chaos, the system started to fray. During the war, people moved into abandoned homes and property. When the original owners returned years later, disputes sometimes turned violent. Or deadly. Even if people are the true owners of the land, most don’t have the original tribal documents. And the land divisions were never very precise. Because of this, sometimes local chiefs can’t settle disputes. So today, Liberians invite western mediators to help resolve their disputes. They come in with surveying equipment to establish boundaries. But locals don’t always respect the decision. John Hummel with the Carter Center in Monrovia says setting up a system of justice in rural Liberia is tricky.

JOHN HUMMEL: People in rural Liberia they don’t have a history of dealing with the formal justice sector. They don’t trust it. They trust their local chief more.

MARGOLIS: Hummel says western organizations aren’t trying to impose an American or European style of justice on Liberia’s rural areas. Still, Hummel says they do need a more formal legal system.

HUMMEL: If Liberia is going to pull itself out of poverty, and maintain stability and prosperity, you’re going to need private sector investment. You’re not going to have Ford Motor Company, for example, coming to Liberia if they think they’re going to have to resolve their dispute in a local tribal court. They’re going to want to know that there’s a fully functioning formal justice sector.

MARGOLIS: Hummel argues that rural Liberia needs both a modern legal system and the tribal system. That’s also the position of Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She says the ministry of justice is trying to integrate the new and old way of doing things.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: There was a big judicial conference on the subject where we had all of the, our traditional leaders present. And their point was just that, that they can settle certain disputes at the level if they have the authority and they have the support.

MARGOLIS: Part of the transition to modern law is just teaching rural Liberians how a modern court system works. The Carter Center has produced radio dramas to help do this.

MALE SPEAKER: Welcome to this special radio drama program from your Carter Center friends. Today, we’ll be dramatizing a drama called Justice for All. Please stay tuned as we play you small music, to allow you to call your friends, relatives, neighbors, and loved ones, to join you in listening to this drama.

MARGOLIS: This presentation explains basic concepts, like the difference between a criminal and civil matter.

MALE SPEAKER: So what is a civil matter or case? Civil matter includes, which one of the family, for example, the wife and the husband, two of them are dead [INDISCERNABLE]. How their property they left behind will be taken care of. Or even a business dispute. You look inside, you eat the money. Meow. In these cases, lawyers can help you out because they know the law.

MARGOLIS: One major problem though. There are very few lawyers in Liberia. And very few courts. Building the judicial sector is a work in progress. So for now, rural Liberians rely on their chiefs and on people like Laura Cunial, the Italian woman they invite into their homes, to settle their land disputes. For The World, I’m Jason Margolis, Nimba County, Liberia.

DAVID BARON: You can see some of Jason’s terrific slideshows from his Liberia trip at our website,


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