Reuters International

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Liberia's failure to pass a long-awaited law recognising the rights of rural communities to their ancestral lands could plunge the West African nation back into civil war, a coalition of civil society groups said on Thursday.

The draft Land Rights Act, which would acknowledge customary rights to land, was submitted to Liberia's Senate in September 2014, but activists have criticised a lack of progress since.

If the government does not pass the act before its recess in August, it could be delayed until after next year's elections, leaving the legislation in limbo, said the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) Working Group on Land Rights in Liberia.

More than half of Liberia's 4.3 million people live on land held under customary tenure, which provides traditional rights to land but is not secured or recognised by legal title, said the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

"Failure to recognise the rights of millions of Liberians to their customary lands jeopardises peace and security, and could fuel a slide back into the conflicts that devastated our country for decades," the 18 civil society groups said in a statement.

Disputes over land and natural resources under customary ownership were among the drivers of 14 years of civil wars that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, the CSO said.

In a 2008 report, the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission called land disputes a threat to national peace.

Following the West Africa nation's second civil war, which ended in 2003, the government accelerated long-standing policies which granted natural resource concessions to foreign companies.

Foreign concessions for palm oil production were at the centre of reforms which the World Bank has credited for transforming Liberia into a promising place for investors.

But the concessions for logging, mining and agriculture - which cover more than 40 percent of the country - ignore the communities living there and fan tensions, according to the CSO.

An analysis published by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) found that of 237 mining and agriculture concessions in Liberia, covering almost 40,000 square kilometres (15,450 square miles), all had established communities living in them.

"If its (Liberia's) leaders try to fuel development by selling off community lands to the highest bidder, the price will once again be instability and conflict," Solange Bandiaky-Badji, Director for Africa at the RRI, said in a statement.

An estimated 90 percent of Liberia's civil court cases are related to land and as many as 63 percent of violent conflicts in Liberia are rooted in land rights issues.

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Jo Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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