Legal Empowerment in Liberia: An Interview with Green Advocates

Image source: Pixabay

By Nadra Rahman 

Liberia has taken important steps toward transparent management of natural resources. Yet rural communities continue to face the risk of their land and resource rights being undermined. With support from a OpenLandContracts.org Mini Grant, Green Advocates International has been working to empower communities by relaying the content, context, and implications of land contracts.

OpenLandContracts.org is an initiative of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI). CCSI spoke with Francis Colee and Simpson Snoh of Green Advocates to learn about their work under the mini grant.

Can you briefly describe Green Advocates and the work you do?

Francis Colee: Green Advocates International is an environmental law and human rights organization working to develop and implement innovative programs that protect under-served communities through law and environmental advocacy.

We take a rights-based approach to development in Liberia. The focus of our work has been in helping communities understand their rights so they can then participate in development processes and sit at the table with multinational corporations. We also provide legal and advocacy support to affected communities. We support organizing around community needs and link community-specific challenges to policy gaps, with a view to influencing laws and policies from the ground up. We have experience in working across diverse communities and the capacity to engage with all decision-makers and other stakeholders on issues of transparency and accountability in Liberia.

Green Advocates received a mini grant from OpenLandContracts.org. Could you tell us about the project?

Simpson Snoh: The goal of our project was to raise awareness of trends in land contracts and key terms that we believe have an impact on communities. We looked in particular at the concession agreement awarded to Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) and implications for  communities in River Cess County, Liberia. Many agreements can initially look so promising in terms of what they will offer — jobs, income, education, infrastructure — but too often in practice the communities whose lands are used reap only negligible benefit, if any. Often, for instance, the resulting jobs cannot be filled by members of the community due to lack of the required education, training, and/or experience. In addition, community members use their natural resources for food, herbs, shelter, and cultural activities. So it’s important that they see the cost of giving up their land, as well as the potential benefits.

OpenLandContracts.org provides annotations of land contracts to help clarify the key terms. We extracted and disseminated these annotations in a way that the community could understand, making affected people more aware of the concession agreement’s provisions through leaflets, workshops, and radio spots.

Can you describe the specific tools or methods you use to generate this awareness amongst community members and other stakeholders? How did you use OpenLandContracts.org to generate this awareness?

Francis Colee: We reproduced the provisions of the concession agreement and the annotations provided by OpenLandContracts.org. We asked community members directly what they understood. We realized that they had difficulty understanding the implications of the terms. Many participants at our workshops, including local authorities, did not understand basic terminology used in the contract, such as the meaning of “hectare.” With this in mind, we further simplified the OpenLandContracts.org annotations on the environment, human rights, labor issues, and other pertinent issues. We produced and distributed leaflets and posters in affected areas.

We also distributed leaflets at our capacity-building workshops, which were attended by 130 stakeholders, including women, youth, and high-level local officials. Additionally, we appeared on a local radio talk show multiple times, discussing the project and answering questions from listeners, mostly in Bassa, the local language.

In doing this work, we were using combined knowledge from OpenLandContracts.org and our previous institutional work on contract monitoring for which we had also developed several tools for community empowerment, including a guide to and review template for Liberian concession agreements.

Throughout the project, we told people, “We are not asking you to be opposed to concessions, but we are giving you this information so that you are in a better position to understand and negotiate.” Sometimes people support concessions based on the assumption that they will benefit. However, once they understand the contract, they realize many of the benefits are uncertain. People learn how to ask better questions and demand a seat at the table; knowledge is power.

How did you simplify the OpenLandContracts.org annotations?

Simpson Snoh: The contract itself is a huge document. In the time we have we can’t cover every aspect of the contract. We focused on aspects of the contract that would have the most direct impact on communities. The annotations and clustering of contract provisions on OpenLandContracts.org is very helpful, as we were able to focus on clusters relevant to communities, including environmental provisions. After isolating the key message in each annotation, we tried to simplify the terminology and make it relevant for the community.

In Liberia, the literacy level is improving but remains low, particularly in rural areas where people are more likely to be affected by complex concession agreements. Furthermore, there is no common language in the country, which can lead to communication barriers. Every community has educated people who can explain contracts to other community members. Even so, the terminology used to explain the provisions should be so simple that someone with a basic high school education is comfortable with it. This is the simplicity we aimed for. We then went a step further by using radio spots and workshops to communicate in Bassa with those who are not as comfortable communicating in English.

Do you plan to expand the project? 

Francis Colee: Yes. Our model has been to work with communities who may be affected by concessions by offering education and raising awareness so they are better equipped once negotiations begin. We plan to deepen our engagement in River Cess and expand to River Gee County and other parts of Sinoe County, where GVL may expand, as well as Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, and Gbarpolu counties that are earmarked for Sime Darby’s oil palm expansion. To the extent possible, we also wish to expand the project to other communities with existing concessions, helping affected communities hold the government and companies to account for implementation of relevant agreements.

Our partner organization — the Natural Resource Women Platform — is working with Oxfam in Sinoe, and we would like to involve them in our work to provide more education on women’s land rights and further drive women’s participation in decision-making processes concerning concession agreements.

It’s critical that we reduce the incidence of resource-based violence, which has escalated in recent years in Liberia. Contract transparency plays an important role in this context. By building trust and generating understanding, we hope to create an atmosphere of cooperation and set realistic — and informed — expectations for all stakeholders.

OpenLandContracts.org was launched in October 2015 by CCSI with support from the UK Department for International Development. The repository currently includes more than 500 contracts and associated documents from 19 countries. To help stakeholders understand these often-complex legal documents, OpenLandContracts.org also provides plain-language summaries, or annotations, of each contract’s key fiscal, social, environmental, operational, and human rights provisions.

Follow CCSI on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn for updates as more contracts are disclosed on OpenLandContracts.org. We welcome your questions, comments, and feedback and ask that you contact us by email (info@openlandcontracts.org).

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