Gbehzohn Declaration: Conservationists and Land Rights Proponents agree on a Rights-based approach to Conserving Liberia’s Biodiversity

GRAND BASSA COUNTY, LIBERIA – On 28 February 2023, more than 70 stakeholders, repesenting over 25 national, international, and community-based organizations from the forest conservation and land sectors, converged in Buchanan (Gbehzohn) City, Grand Bassa County for a Conservation Area and Land Dialogue. The overarching goal was to seek concensus on and provide a harmonized rights-based approach to the establishment of protected and conserved areas (PCAs) while ensuring compliance with the Land Rights Act of 2018. 

The passage of Liberia’s Land Rights Act in 2018 was lauded as the start of a new age for community rights in the country. For the first time in the country’s history, the customary rights of local communities have been given full legal recognition across the country. However, there has been differences in opinion on the implementation of this law with regards to the role of communities in the protected area establishment process in Liberia. 

Considering the centrality that the Government of Liberia has given to land rights and biodiversity conservation, and the linked nature of issues in these sectors, Fauna & Flora International, in collaboration with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and the Liberia Land Authority (LLA), organized the three-day Dialogue. 

The event was attended by several high-level dignitaries, with the Managing Director of the FDA, Hon. C. Mike Doryen and the Chairman of the LLA, Atty. J. Adams Manobah heading the event considering their agencies’ roles in driving conservation and land issues in the country. Atty Manobah stressed the need to engage communities, “we have to have the community at the centre of our discussion. Our first responsibility is towards our citizens.”. He added, “the Land Rights Law took years to pass and any amendments will take time. The best way to handle our differences if there are any is through regulations until such a time when we have the means and support to amend.”

Also, in attendance were Hon. Hassan Kanneh Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, Hon. Edward F. Fineboy, Assistant Minister at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Professor John T. Woods, former Managing Director of the FDA and forestry veteran. There was also representation from the national legislature, with Hon. Vicent Willie, The Chair of the House Committee on Land, Mines, Natural Resource Management, Energy, and Environment participating in the event. Leading legal expert, Cllr Negbalee Warner, former Dean of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, University of Liberia was also in attendance and provided expert opinion on complex issues.

The major decisions of the dialogue, which are captured in a resolution document  referred to as the Gbehzohn Declaration, include:

  • Commitment to the promotion of a rights-based approach that recognizes local communities as central to advancing the conservation of Liberia’s biodiversity;
  • Recognition that customary ownership of land creates an entitlement to the community rather than just an opportunity to benefit from the activities on their land;
  • Commitment to undertake land formalisation and respect the right to FPIC (free, prior, informed, consent) of affected communities before the commencement of any new protected areas and other area-based conservation initiatives;
  • Recognition that Liberia can meet its 30% national forest conservation target and other international commitments through various innovative means that goes beyond the creation of government-controlled protected areas;
  • Emphasis on the importance of mainstreaming gender in all interventions related to the creation and management of PCAs and in the land formalization process;
  • Recognising that community ownership of land designated for conservation within customary areas does not require possession of a separate deed. However, organizing the communities through the land formalisation process is expedient to protect their customary tenure rights.

Reaching a consensus on these points by actors working on biodiversity conservation and land issues is an essential milestone for promoting a rights-based approach to biodiversity conservation. To move these forward, participants agreed on action points that will facilitate the implementation of the resolution and advance a people-centred approach to conservation.

The Managing Director of the FDA observed a paradigm shift, as communities are beginning to shift interests from commercial logging to the possibility of protecting their forests for potential carbon markets. He added that partners who were sceptical about including other areas as part of the 30% that Liberia is supposed to set aside for conservation are also beginning to change this view. He stated “We can take this even further – whether private or community [land], once you protect your land and meet certain minimum basic standards, we can add that portion to the commitment we have already made”.

The LLA Chair appreciated the FDA for their openness and collaboration with the Land Authority and pledged to work with them to pull in other line ministries to ensure a responsive approach to the needs of the people.

The Conservation Area and Land Dialogue was funded by USAID  through its Conservation Works (CW) project, which is a  5-years funding from the United States Government to support conservation efforts  in Liberia. The project is being implemented through a consortium headed by Ecohealth Alliance with partners including Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue, and Protection (LCRP), Partners in Development (PaDEV), and Solimar International. 

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