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Decolonization, or just an other form of colonization? | Ass. Prof Caitlin Ryan on the new land laws protecting indigenous rights in Liberia and Sierra Leone

Sustainability Science in Progress |Interview series
09 January 2024
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dr. Caitlin Ryan. Photo: Marco in 't Veldt
Interview: Marco in 't Veldt

As an American living in the Netherlands, with a husband in Germany, a master of Arts, a doctor of philosophy, how does one come to study landownership in West Africa? In Liberia and Sierra Leone?

Well, I a have a master in Peace and Development Studies and always had an interest in gender and post-conflict studies. A good friend of mine did her PhD on Liberia.  After her PhD she got a grant to do a project in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After she finished the part of the project in Sierra Leone, she asked me to do the second part of the project in Liberia because she was pregnant. . And I absolutely fell in love with Liberia. I started working in Sierra Leone a few years later.

For me also, the question of land and it’s ownership kept coming up. I wrote my PhD thesis on Palestine, and land is a very relevant topic in that. I also studied how women experience the occupation in daily life.

Landownership in Liberia and Sierra Leone is deeply intertwined with the complex historical legacies of colonization, slavery, and conflict.
  • In Liberia, founded by freed African-American slaves in the 19th century, the Americo-Liberian elite historically dominated land resources, marginalizing indigenous communities. Post-civil war (1989 to 1997; 1999-2003)  efforts have aimed at reconciling these disparities, with land reform initiatives seeking to secure indigenous land rights and foster equitable distribution. The Land Rights Act that was introduced in 2018.
  • Sierra Leone's landownership landscape has also been shaped by a history marked by colonization and a brutal civil war (1991–2002). The British colonial legacy and subsequent conflicts have left a legacy of land disputes and displacement. Efforts to address these issues include land reforms and the establishment of the National Land Policy (2015) to provide a legal framework for more inclusive land governance. Now the Customary Land Rights Act (2022) empowers local landowners to receive legal title for their land. Companies operating in Sierra Leone will have to obtain the consent of land-owning families before starting mining, industrial or farming activities.
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When I went to Liberia in 2014 for my friend, Helen Basini,  I followed her research agenda. All it needed for me was to execute it. It was also great that we had an local research partner - Kou Gbaintor-Johnson - who has excellent knowledge on the country and the topic. I had one month for the research, and most of it was in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. In Monrovia I interviewed people at the government level and working in civil society organizations. There were laws in preparation on the ownership of land. Landownership was traditional. When you came somewhere, everybody knew who owned this or that plot of land. However, there was no official system to register it, like in most traditional settings. People started to lose their land to international compagnies, because they could not prove their ownership. That’s why the World Bank funded a whole project to register landownership in a modern way.

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As an outsider I don’t know where to place this project. Is it (neo-) colonial, or the contrary?

The new land laws are prodigiously progressive. On paper they are the most interesting in the world. All societal organizations were able to make their voices heard in the drafting process. The land grabbing process is something indigenous peoples from all over the world are experiencing, but here in Africa it led to a push back.

Colonial history is rather complex in these countries, especially in Liberia, that was strictly speaking never a colony.  It was regulated by law that any land that was not privately owned, was owned by the government, and private ownership claims were dominated by Americo-Liberians.  Therefore a lot of the land in the rural areas was owned by the government. Users had the right of use, but no ownership. In Sierra Leone everything was customary law.

In 2008/2009 there was a big land rush which led to much displacement and poverty. The new laws are there now to protect indigenous rights. The World bank is sincerely interested in the land reforms. They have no problem with agribusiness as such, but only when the landowners agree. That’s why landownership  has to be registered clearly.

I am  intrigued by the Land Rights Act (LRA) because it signifies a collaborative effort to reform land governance. The law's unique balance formalizes customary land practices, grants statutory rights to communities, and addresses discrimination, especially towards women. As an academic, I am drawn to understanding how the law's implementation aligns with recognizing customary land, aiming for secure rights, equal access, and reduced conflicts. My  research focuses on how the formalization process reflects community perceptions, clarifies governance, interacts with economic interests, and promotes inclusive land rights, particularly for women, aligning with the overarching goals of the Land Rights Act.

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Freetown in Sierra Leone. Photo: Wikipedia

How is land ownership regulated in traditional societies?

In Sierra Leone, land is usually owned by an extended family. That ownership goes back to who was the first to deforest the land and make it suitable for agriculture. If you wanted to settle on that land later, you had to ask permission from that original family.

In Liberia, according to the new land law,  the land belongs by law to  ‘Self-Identified Communities’  That’s a broader definition, because what is it, and who belongs to it?


Ryan opens a book with a kind of Google Maps maps, with colored areas on them that indicate who the owners of certain pieces of land are.

These are results of a pilot project in Sierra Leone. Surveyors go the villages and talk to people and families. The traditional borders of the lands are not marked, but people know where they are. If both families agree, than the border between them  is registered. But funnily enough, it also happens that pieces of land turned out not to belong to anyone, because everyone thought it belonged to the others.

These maps are pilot studies. The whole process might take ten years.

One of the key words in you curriculum is ‘feminist.’ Who works the land? What role does gender play in this?

Mostly the owners work the land. Some people have their own plot, other plots are shared. The man mostly do the preparations, like cutting bushes after the land has laid fallow for several seasons. Women plant the crops and take care of them.

Feminism and gender play pivotal roles in my work, influencing my theoretical frame, research questions, and analytical lenses. I address the gendered impacts of conflict and post-war scenarios and advocate for gender-sensitive approaches to security and development.


Will the new landownership registration change gender rolls?

I don’t know. But in general we see that crops and land give social status, and are gender biased. For example: women grow crops to feed the village, like cucumber. But if man step in, they grow cash crops for the marked, like coffee. So, when world market comes in, it might cause a really big change.

dr. Caitlin Ryan holding on of her posters
dr. Caitlin Ryan holding one of her posters

What do you do as a scientifical researcher?

I listen to people. For me as a native English speaker, I’m lucky that in both countries English is spoken, which makes communication more easy for me. I go to communities and try to register and understand what is happening. I ask questions like ‘What was the process?’  I try to analyze the -change in – economic activities en how decisions are made. As a scientist I try to asses the outcomes of the process. I have a real scientific curiosity in the differences between the ‘international imaginations’ on the land reform versus the reality.


What methods do you use?

I employ a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on postcolonial and feminist security studies and Anthropology. I use ‘participant observation’  like anthropologists do, speak to people and attend community meetings, and visit farm sites to observe the farming. My methods include ethnography for immersive fieldwork, political economy analysis, longitudinal studies on conflict and development, and gender analysis.

There is much literature on landownership written by ethnographers. And  I’m very lucky in one aspect: after the end of the civil wars there came many researchers to both countries, so I can work with great partners, like Dr. María Martín de Almagro of the university of Ghent. But there is one I appreciate above others and always has been a great help, and that’s my Liberian research partner Kou Gbaintor-Johnson. Although she has no academic title, she is one of the most outstanding scientists I know, and without her I think my work would be impossible.


Don’t the partners in the process themselves evaluate the process and it’s outcomes?

If a NGO evaluates their own work, they will always have a different view than a scientific and independent outsider like me. The people who are interviewed will have the hope the NGO will return and do more for them, so in an evaluation process they might be less critical, then when they speak to me.

Poster of dr. Caitlyn Ryan
Poster of dr. Caitlyn Ryan

The Rudolf Agricola School helped you finance posters?

Yes, it did. On the posters there where pictures showing the research process and it outcomes. They where of great help to go back to Illiterate people I interviewed and show them what I did. Of course they were also sometimes not seeing themselves in the findings depicted in the posters, saying ‘ but this we do differently’ and things like that. That new feedback gave me more nuance to my findings.


Earlier in this interview you mentioned the ‘self identified communities.’  What are they and what is their role in the process?

Common conceptions of a rural ‘community’ in Liberia share several components: defined territorial limits, historical kinship ties, or a sense of common social identity and belonging, such as shared language, culture or traditional religions. However identifying a community often requires extensive research and patient effort.

The most of the communities I visited had no registered land yet, no titles or deeds. For a good understanding: most land is common property. So they want a title for their whole clan, that could be twelve villages. But when I returned one year later, that has changed to wanting a title for a village.


Why did that change?

It is a little hard to say with certainly, but I think there has been pressure from outside, like from people who are originally from the community, but living outside now.


We had a likewise process in Europe. Until the process of enclosure – privatizing common lands - began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century,  it led to the arrival of capitalism based on private ownership. Is capitalism now imported in these African lands?

It’s something I think a great deal about. Is this decolonization, or just an other form of colonization? Are western standards imported in a land where clan, family and commons are still important? The definition of ‘Self Identified community’  is highly problematic, in Western view. It deals with a ‘sense of belonging.’ 

Be aware that there might be family members living for example in the USA, but still being member of this ‘Self Identified community.’ People feel connected to the land and the clan, although they don’t live there anymore. That makes the problem of ownership very complicated.

dr. Caitlin Ryan of the University of Groningen

But on the other hand: Liberia and Sierra Leone are not closed systems. They are more and more part of the – capitalist - world. That’s why I understand why people want to register all their land. But it can lead to strange situations. Now 10% of Liberian soil is bought by the rich United Arabian Emirats.

As the oil-rich country that hosted the United Nations Climate Conference COP28, an Emirati company has signed agreements in Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe to convert part of their land into carbon credits. Acts of 'greenwashing' and 'colonialism,' some NGOs say. Ten percent of Liberia for a CO2 capturing program!

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Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Photo: wikipedia

Further reading

Article of dr. Caitlin Ryan on Liberia:

Article of dr. Caitlin Ryan on Sierra Leone:

Last modified:11 January 2024 1.47 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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