|HON. JUCONTEE THOMAS WOEWIYU|
THE PROGRAM MARKING THE INSTALLATION OF OFFICERS OF THE GRAND BASSA-DISTRICT FOUR STUDENT ASSOCIATION APRIL 26, 2014
Mr. President and members of the Grand Bassa –District Four Student Association, Members of the National Legislature present, Officials of National and County Government present, Citizens of Kpogban Statutory District (District Four), Fellow Bossoneans, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for the opportunity given me to speak here today at this auspicious occasion marking the installation of the new corps of officers of your organization. It is delightful to see that the next generation of citizens of Kpogban Statutory District; Grand Bassa County is educationally and intellectually preparing itself for the task ahead in the process of nation building.
With the discovery of enormous natural resources in our country, it is high time we stopped paying lip service to the development of our human resources which in effect means tapping our human capital and building the capacities of our young people who are undoubtedly the future leaders of this nation. As future leaders, they must therefore have the vision to protect and promote our national heritage. Vision is an imperative for effective leadership. The Holy Bible says “Where there is no vision, the people perish”; (Proverb 29:18).
Let me share with you, my view regarding what is very dear to the hearts of the people of this District. From all indications, “the preservation of their ancestral land” is of primary concern to the people of Kpogban Statutory District.
For many years, since the founding of our nation, the government of Liberia, in the exercise of its sovereign authority has systematically expropriated the ancestral land of indigenous Liberians. It has been using an ancient law called “eminent Domain” which essentially means that a government can take any private property for the public good. Historically, the Bassa people have borne the brunt of this draconian policy which has massively dispossessed our indigenous folks.
For instance, in 1926, the Liberian Government consigned 1,000 000 acres of Bassa ancestral land to the Firestone Rubber Company , effectively dispossessing the Maban Bassa people, turning them into nomads as they helplessly sought refuge across the Farmington River and beyond.
Yet, in 1958, the Government of Liberia without any consultation or consent of the Bassa people inhabiting the areas currently known as Wee and Kpogban Statutory Districts, blatantly mortgaged 350,000 acres of ancestral land to the Liberian Agricultural Company. Thousands of dispossessed Bassas had to once again seek refuge in Kokoya, Bong County, River Cess, Nimba, etc.
This deliberate dispossession of Bassa people continued unabated. In 1965, the government again granted Libin, a company otherwise known as Palm Bay, 34,500 acres of ancestral land belonging to the Bassa People. The land covers the area currently known as Kpogban Statutory District. Consequently, families of long historical ties were broken up and made to go into exile in other parts of the country.
These concessions containing large chunks of ancestral lands were granted by the Liberian government without specific meets and bounds certified by professional surveyors. Language such as “up to and including” was used to describe the concession areas. This was deliberately intended to keep the inhabitants of these ancestral areas from knowing and raising concerns from the inception of the concession.
This may be the case of the concession area passed on to Equatorial Palm Oil by Libin. I stand corrected. From what I can deduce from cursory observation, Libin. had a concession agreement which granted it “up to and including” 34,500 acres of land without a deed specifying the meets and bounds of this area. In fifty years of operation, which apparently was the term “certain” of the concession agreement, the company planted and utilized only nine thousand acres. Given this confirmed rate of operation, it would have taken Libin more than 150 years to consume 34,500 acres. Hence, this concession ended with nine thousand acres and no more.
Yet, this administration, with the full participation of the Grand Bassa Legislative Caucus in 2009 or so, confirmed the conveyance of 34,500 of “uncertain” acres of ancestral land of the Bassa people from Libin to the Equatorial Palm oil Company without due consideration of the consequences. As in all the cases narrated here, the administration is invariably using its military and police powers to drive the Bassa People of Kpogban Statutory District into exile.
The People and the Company are both victims of a century-old colonial policy. Our leaders seem oblivious to the realities and social developments in the world today.
What is the best way forward? It is not to leave the people and the investors in a quandary of perpetual confrontation with each other; it is not to let the division among the citizens on this matter in whatever proportion lingers as solution. Most certainly the rights of the people over their ancestral land are undebatable. Universal laws and principles back them.
The United Nations General Assembly resolution 1803 (XVII) in 1962 gave the principle momentum regarding indigenous rights. The Assembly declared, inter alia:
"The right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources must be exercised in the interest of their national development and of the well-being of the people of the State concerned."
The exploration, development and disposition of such resources, as well as the import of the foreign capital required for these purposes, should be in conformity with the rules and conditions which are necessary or desirable with regard to the authorization, restriction or prohibition of such activities."
The International Labor Organization Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169/1989, now ratified by several countries, contains important provisions for control over natural resources by Indigenous peoples in their collective capacity as peoples. In particular, article 15 provides for the rights of "peoples" to their natural resources. Paragraph 1 reads as follows:
"1. The rights of the peoples concerned with the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specifically safeguarded. These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources."
Please note that my discussion of this historical injustice has focused exclusively on the Bassa people, because I want to simply emphasize the case at hand. It has not been lost upon me at all that recently, the Golas, Vais, Mandingos and other ethnic groups of Bomi and Cape Mount Counties have been also dispossessed, uprooted from their ancestral land and sent into internal exile so as to make way for a 350,000-acre palm farm for a Malaysian company. We wish them well as they sort out their predicaments.
In the light of this unfortunate history in which the Bassa people have been dispossessed of their ancestral land, I would like to put forward a meaningful solution to the land dispute in Kpogban Statutory District in Grand Bassa County. My proposal is essentially a win-win proposal.
Even though the Liberian government has made the agreement with the investors through its usual policy of disregard for the inhabitants of these ancestral lands, there is a way around it.
Let us not fight among ourselves. In fact, do not let government agent provocateurs incite chaos. We should neither fight the investors; in a word, they have been misled and misguided by our own government. We must, with the strength of democratic unity, legally resist government tyranny of stripping people of their ancestral land and sending them into internal exile or banishment. We must impress upon our Legislative Representatives and government leaders that “enough is enough”. The Bassa people will never again be pushed off their ancestral land against their will and consent.
A WIN-WIN PROPOSSAL
Under the guidance and supervision of the government of Liberia or an expert national or international agency, the ancestral land owners of the specific area in Kpogban Statutory District and the Equatorial Palm Oil Company should negotiate a partnership agreement in which the land owners commit a certain portion of their ancestral land as their contribution to a business venture in which the company shall contribute the necessary capital to start and operate the business.
This arrangement gives the ancestral land owners the opportunity to commit what was left with them by the forefathers into a venture that will perpetually benefit their descendants. It also gives the investors a peace of mind that they are doing business with the security, assurance and participation of the real owners of the land; also they are not, in these modern days, socially and economically exploiting a people through the proverbial colonial investment scheme.
Through this arrangement, should the term of the agreement end or the venture stops to operate, the land would return to the ancestral land owners for continuation or for utilization in other ventures.
This proposal is similar to the current policy of the Government of Liberia regarding forestry; wherein most forest assets are owned by the Community in which they exist. The “Community Rights Law of 2009”, grants the right and entitlement over the forest to the ancestral community.
Under the law, the Community is legally empowered to make and execute a partnership agreement with a professional logging company to operate and manage the Community Forest on its behalf with the full participation of the community. Thanks to the innovative policy of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government with respect to the forest resource ownership.
Let us appeal and urge the President of Liberia and our Legislative Representatives to pursue this Win-Win approach as the solution to this problem.