Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Land for You!

Only Liberians are allowed to own land in Liberia--them and NGOs that can prove that they are actively using the land for their NGO purposes. Foreigners and foreign companies are not allowed to own land--not even Lebanese businesspeople who are born and raised in Liberia can own land. Expats in the private sector (and Lebanese businesspeople) grumble about this stipulation and suggest that it is a tremendous retardant to national development and economic growth.

It should go without saying that they are measuring development and growth in the traditional, simplistic, short-sighted way that has already just about ruined the world: more spending and more money moving around is good, regardless of who accumulates the money, what they produce and how it impacts anything other than ledgers.

This land ownership rule means that you can't come into Liberia and make a quick buck by snatching up post-conflict real estate from deeply impoverished and uneducated land holders with the intention of sitting on it until the country begins to attract tourists or investment. Actually, it means that I can't do that, and, frankly, it would have been a seriously tempting prospect. Why not spend something like ten thousand dollars to possess a mile or two of craggy, sparsely populated tropical coastline with enormous potential for high quality waves? Americans have bought up huge portions of the Central and South American coast to gain possession of their own private waves--generating, in the process, no small amount of resentment.

The Liberian law forces you to work with Liberians for what you want and to include them as the beneficiaries of your plans and it ensures that whatever you do will end up back in the hands of Liberians, sooner or later--rather than passed on through some sort of medieval inheritance system. This is inconvenient; it is risky; but it is fair. It forces people to partner with Liberians and to benefit them. I think it is one of the reasons that so much of the country is intact and that so many of its little outposts of economic development seem reasonably integrated into the surrounding communities.

Of course, the problem is still that Americo-Liberians (themselves just a slightly older version of land hungry foreign nationals) can buy up everything for themselves without any mandate to consider the indigenous Liberians who they uproot. As long as there is no way of ensuring that poor people can hold onto their tiny patches of land through difficult times, countries like Liberia and so many others are likely to continue tearing themselves up by the roots.

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