[Member Spotlight] Legal Empowerment in Practice: Sustainable Development Institute

This member spotlight features an interview with the Sustainable Development Institute in Liberia.

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) works to transform Liberia’s decision-making processes with regards to its natural resources, to promote equitable sharing of benefits. The organization envisions natural resource management to be guided by the principles of sustainability and good governance, benefitting all Liberians. Their work covers a range of cross-cutting issues: governance and management; the environment; state and corporate social responsibility; economic and social justice for rural populations; and the democratic participation of ordinary people in management of natural resources. SDI was founded in 2002 and only four years later, in 2006, SDI received the Goldman Environmental Prize — the world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists for outstanding environmental achievements.

The Land Rights Act, passed in 2018, secures the rights of over 3 million Liberians to own and manage their land. For over 10 years, SDI was the lead organization advocating for this law, which is a critical cornerstone in Liberia’s long and tortuous path to legislative reforms in the land and natural resource sector.

SDI has supported over 90 communities across Liberia to map their customary resources, and set up land use and management systems to meet the requirements for legal recognition. Their work has also exposed fraudulent land transactions, including the infamous Private Use Permits (PuP) scandal, in which commercial forestry stakeholders, the national elite, and high-level government officials colluded with local leaders to defraud the country of over 40% of its rich forest land in favor of commercial logging interest.

CSO Working Group on Land Rights Reforms presents petition statement to immediately pass the Land Rights Act

What issues does your legal empowerment work address?

Liberia is a predominantly agrarian nation – most families earn their livelihoods as rural small-scale farmers. However, most rural communities do not have formal titles to their customary land. Before passing of the Land Rights Act, all land without deeds was regarded as public land by the Liberian government. This weakened the customary land tenure rights of most citizens who use and depend on such land.

Meanwhile, the government’s economic growth agenda, outlined in policy documents such as the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and the President’s National Vision, focuses on private investment in the natural resources sector, specifically forestry, agriculture, and mining.

A combination of related state policies and laws has enabled large-scale land acquisitions, and long-term transfer of user rights and ownership rights to foreign investors or local elites. This has caused a systematic dispossession of communities. Large-scale acquisitions and the reduced availability of resources have also led to greater internal competition, ultimately breaking down the customary rules that have long-governed the equitable and sustainable use of common resources.

How are you using legal empowerment to address these issues?

SDI continues to play an instrumental role in addressing Liberia’s weak land tenure system and the resulting land-based conflicts. Over the past few years, SDI has conducted research on customary land rights, supported the development of land rights policies and passage of the National Land Rights law of Liberia. Some specific areas of our work include:

  • Mobilizing local communities, civil society organizations (CSOs), and international efforts to advocate for the legal recognition of community lands and natural resources.
  • Working with relevant government agencies, particularly the country’s Land Authority (formerly, Land Commission), and with lawmakers to develop policies and laws that safeguard customary land rights.
  • Piloting customary land protection projects that develop easy-to-use tools and guides for protection of customary land rights. The Community Self-Identification guide, produced in collaboration with Land Authority (formerly, Land Commission) and CSOs, helps communities in the process of titling their land.
  • Educating communities about their land rights and relevant safeguards, and training them to map their customary and natural resources, including setting up land use and management systems.

Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?

Over several consultations and various projects, SDI has developed simplified versions of community rights laws. These emphasize community ownership and locals’ involvement in land/forest management, and promote transparency, accountability and Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).

SDI has developed an Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), in collaboration with other CSOs. This phone-based tool can be used to report community complaints and get real-time response.

Another innovative tool is the Community Sketch Map Making Guide which helps civil society organizations and community facilitators working with communities to identify and map their customary land and natural resources.

SDI is crafted in a way that creates opportunity for communities to take the lead. We build space for local leaders, women and the youth to dialogue with policymakers. We share activity reports with policymakers and traditional community leaders. Through those reports, communities can be empowered to seek relevant information from SDI and measure impacts of the project interventions.

Here are some links to the simplified versions of these instruments/legislations: Community Rights Law, Free Prior Informed Consent-FPIC, Land rights policy, Community Self-Identification-CSI.

SDI staff member facilitating a boundary harmonization training in Gutuken Community, Maryland County.

What strategies do you use to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?

In the course of SDI’s work in conducting workshops and trainings, we have established strong local structures. These efforts have led to the creation of a national forum and a CSO Working Group that advocate for land reforms. In addition, we have tried to build self-sufficiency by setting up decentralized, community-led technical support, such as community-based mobilizers and animators. While we continue to provide mentoring support, local agents can lead the formation of local advocacy groups.

Do you have any tips for other practitioners?

While implementing interventions over the years, we have realized and documented the following learnings:

  1. Collaborate: CSO coalitions and joint campaigns strengthen advocacy. Passing of the National Land Rights Law of Liberia is a result of a joint advocacy campaign.
  2. Community involvement: A participatory approach to planning, implementation, monitoring and supervision of programs/projects tends to yield greater impact, increase social cohesion amongst local communities and strengthen the citizens to advocate for their own rights.
  3. Self-Identification tools put power in the hands of local communities to identify and document their land, and increase their awareness of customary land processes.
  4. Women’s participation in decision-making brings important insights to the table that support the growth of their communities.
  5. Land Governance: Working with traditional leaders and other community members is key to establishing accountability mechanisms and a democratic land management system.

Over the years, we have learned and established that if projects start at the community level, they are likely to present better results at their close. SDI has also identified that clearly defining roles and responsibilities encourages ease of participation of community members. While working in over six counties of Liberia, we have learnt that development priorities vary from community to community, which puts emphasis on community leadership in decisions about projects.

Would you like to share any resources that highlight your work?

Here are our two key publications:

You can also find many of our publications and resources on our website.

Any recommendations for a book, a quote, a resource or piece of art or music that keeps your team inspired and motivated?

While we did not hold a particular text as an inspiration, the team often discusses these two books:

  • Things Fall Apart is a novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and I always mentioned
  • Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

@alikaba @jacintafay @jamesotto

If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below


Member Spotlights are short interview profiles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues, or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read more about other organizations in our network here (https://community.namati.org/tags/spotlights) or by searching spotlight in our forum.

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