In 1984 almost all land was the property of the state. The principal exception consisted of a relatively limited amount held in freehold, located almost entirely in urban areas; some plantation and other commercial farm operations were also privately owned. Under the Constitution approved in 1984, private property rights did not include the rights to any mineral resources on or beneath the land or on land beneath the sea and the waterways of the country. Moreover, where land was held in fee simple, it could be held only by Liberian citizens. An exception to the latter proscription allowed ownership by non-citizen educational, missionary, and benevolent institutions as long as the holding was used for the purposes for which it was acquired. Property no longer so used reverted to the state.
A considerable part of public land was statutorily held by subsistence agriculturists under a system of tenure based on traditional customary law. The traditional principles and practices of land tenure differed in detail among various ethnic groups, but all were based on the fundamental concept of communal rather than individual proprietorship. The land itself was under the control of the chief or headman, who held it in the form of an ancestral trust and administered it as the legal representative of the community. With the permission of the chief or headman, each household selected an area to be farmed for its own needs. The size of the area depended on the size of the household and the labor requirements that it could meet. In the early 1980s the average subsistence household, estimated to consist of five to seven people, cultivated about three acres of upland rice and one to two acres of other crops.
Subsistence farmers in general were secure in their tenure under customary law, but the lack of a registered title in some cases acted as a disincentive to land improvement because of the inability of the farmer to obtain credit for its development. The expansion of roads in rural areas has reportedly resulted in the speculative securing of titles to land by nonfarmers. In the areas encompassed by the government's major agricultural development projects, project authorities were assisting farmers to obtain title before infrastructure improvements attracted outside land buyers.
Acquisition of public land by foreigners was possible through leasehold; some Liberians also acquired land on that basis. Leases were ordinarily for 20 years, but exceptions were permitted by law (the concession held by the Firestone Plantations Company, granted in 1926, was for 99 years). Other government land was acquired by Liberians under regular titles for plantations and commercial farms. These organizations used hired labor, and limited use of wage workers was made even by subsistence farms experiencing labor shortages because of the migration of family members to urban areas. Tenancy, sharecropping, and other systems of nonownership cultivation, however, did not appear to be generally practiced in 1984.
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