Liberia is rich in natural resources, including valuable timber species, significant biodiversity, and mineral resources, including iron ore, gold and diamonds. Agriculture provides a livelihood for the majority of the population, with most farming carried out on small landholdings, but there are also a number of large commercial plantations.
Liberia has an urban-based elite, the descendants of freed slaves from the US and Caribbean. The majority of indigenous Africans live in rural areas. The land-tenure system reflects this division of the population. Throughout coastal Liberia, the urban elites use a Western statutory system of land ownership based on individual fee simple titles. In the Liberian hinterland, indigenous Africans use their own customary systems, which are based on community or collective ownership of discrete territories.
At first, state policy recognized customary ownership as full ownership rights, whether or not formally titled. It now recognizes only usufruct rights of possession and use of undocumented customary claims. This policy has permitted the state to grant concessions for vast tracks of customary lands, as well as to create national parks and reserves. It has also contributed to conflict, as indigenous communities lost their food and livelihood source and an important lynchpin of their cultural heritage. In addition, during the civil war, a new national forestry law was passed, decreeing that forest resources (trees), as distinguished from forest lands, belong to the state. This effectively took away community access to forest resources even when these were on the community‘s own lands.
The causes of Liberia‘s recently concluded 14-year civil war were multiple, but central to the war was conflict over land and natural resource rights. While key sector reforms have been introduced in the post-conflict period, there is still more work to be done with respect to land policy reform, land dispute resolution, legal recognition of customary rights and the promotion of community forestry development.