Today, multiple systems of land use and ownership exist side-by-side, complicating the resolution of land disputes. Against this backdrop, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) opened its Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) project in Nimba County in 2007, using mediation and education to peacefully address emerging land disputes. It has since helped to resolve over 700 disputes.
The mediation process begins when a party reports their problem to an NRC mediator. Parties often come to NRC of their own accord, but they may also be referred, for example by local authorities. Once a case is reported, NRC will ask disputants if they are willing to participate in mediation. Not all parties to a dispute will agree; some prefer the formal justice system and others are not interested in discussing the case at all. In such instances, NRC cannot intervene.
NRC engages traditional and formal institutions to garner their support, but offers its mediation as an alternative to both. Many Liberians still distrust the formal system, seeing courts as ‘just eating money’, while women and young people are understandably dissatisfied with traditional forums where gender and age may count against them. However, NRC mediators ensure that parties know what options are available to them, and will explain the advantages and disadvantages of both mediation and litigation. Parties will sometimes withdraw from mediation and open a court case, but it is not unusual for them to return, not least because of the cost of judicial proceedings.
If the parties agree to mediation, NRC registers the case and begins a fact-checking exercise. The mediator holds separate discussions with each side about their fears, goals and interests. Parties often refuse to speak to each other at first; a large part of the mediator’s work is helping parties prepare to listen. Depending on the level of emotion involved, this may be done in a single visit or it may take weeks. Whatever the situation, mediators try to keep communication lines open until the parties are willing to engage in discussion with each other.
Elders and other community members are included in the process to ensure factual accuracy and legitimacy. Most cases registered between individuals do not stay that way; land is rarely a private affair and many community members soon become involved. Community participation is also useful in enforcing agreements, which the NRC does not have the power to do itself.
The importance of social reinforcement is reflected in boundary disputes, one of the most commonly reported issues. Mediation in these cases typically helps parties move from absolute positions. Many disputants will later admit uncertainty over a boundary line and be open to a new demarcation, which will be agreed in writing and witnessed by NRC staff and other community members, thereby ensuring multiple ways to attest to the agreement.
The role of the mediator is not to determine who is telling the truth, but to encourage the parties to be honest with each other. To maintain their credibility, mediators do not impose their personal opinions on the outcome. They try to bridge power imbalances by educating vulnerable parties and protect-ing against unfair tactics; but parties ultimately choose their own way forward. This neutrality can be frustrating, but without it many would refuse to participate. Ensuring that solutions come from the parties greatly increases the likelihood that they will abide by their agreement.
All NRC mediators are Liberian, which helps ensure that culturally appropriate agreements are reached. In many places in Liberia, if a piece of land has been sold to multiple parties the law would seek to determine one legitimate owner. A different notion of a fair procedure exists in Nimba, where in the same situation mediators would seek to help the buyers decide among themselves who will stay on that particular spot, and who will accept relocation to another area. This may include helping buyers understand each other’s needs and situations and bringing buyer and seller together, to understand how the dispute occurred and how to move forward.
The length of the process depends on the facts at hand. If two people bought the same piece of land but the seller has additional land, it is common for one buyer to relocate willingly and the matter can be resolved in a few months. If, however, a buyer is repeatedly relocated because each new plot turns out to be occupied, the increasing levels of frustration and anger involved require the mediator to try to prevent a complete breakdown of the parties’ relationship. Mediators will continue with a case as long as parties are willing to work toward a solution, as there is often no other viable option for them.