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From lost footage to local sovereignty

The Land Beneath Our Feet projects the struggle for Liberian land rights onto the big screen

February 10, 2017

Urey, wife and child

photos of Liberia
Photos: The Land Beneath Our Feet

Gregg Mitman and Emmanuel Urey met by chance, both connected by a single place - Liberia. Mitman was bound for the West African country to continue research for a book on the history and legacy of the Firestone Plantations Company. For Urey (pictured above), Liberia was home. 

A professor of history of science, medical history and environmental studies, Mitman first became interested in Liberia when he learned of a rare cache of archival footage and photographs taken on a 1926 Harvard University expedition to the country. He was eager to find out more about the history and memory of the expedition in Liberia and planned to make his maiden voyage to the nation to conduct a series of oral interviews. 

Shortly before Mitman was scheduled to depart, Jim Miller, the Nelson Institute graduate student advisor, introduced him to Urey.

“I showed Emmanuel the Harvard expedition footage and he was amazed,” says Mitman. The two ended up traveling to Liberia together, sharing the footage with people as they went. “People got really, really excited, because it turned out to be the earliest motion record of Liberia’s past to survive its civil war. That’s when I knew there was a film to be made.”

Now four years later, the film, The Land Beneath Our Feet, is gaining recognition and awards on the festival circuit.

The documentary follows Urey – a Kpelle man from central Liberia – as he works with the Liberian Land Commission to develop policies to protect indigenous rights to land.

For most indigenous people living in Liberia, land is owned in common – shared by ancestors, the living and the yet to be born, passed down to generations through stories.

“The Harvard footage connects us with this land; it connects us with our past,” Urey, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources, says in the film. “We know the boundaries by the old footpaths, by the mountain, by the creek, by the soap trees.”

But, as the film shows, those boundaries have been pushed and eliminated since the early 1900s as the Liberian government sells land to foreign corporations. One of the earliest records of this involves Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, a U.S. corporation that first purchased land in Liberia in 1926. Firestone’s rubber plantation is documented in the 1926 Harvard footage. 

“I started digging into the footage and found the connections between this Harvard expedition and Firestone, and the way in which Harvard’s department of tropical medicine was critical in helping Firestone get a foothold in Liberia,” says Mitman. “We wanted to show the way in which Firestone, and the creation of what would become one of the world’s largest rubber plantations, has impacted and influenced both the environment and social and political dimensions of Liberia in the 20th century.”

As The Land Beneath Our Feet details, Firestone’s 1926 consignment led to entire villages of indigenous Liberians being displaced from land they had lived on for decades. Firestone promised to relocate those displaced, and repay them for the loss in crops, but in most cases, according to the film, there was no follow-through.

Subsequent foreign investments caused land rights to erode, spiking tension and conflict over land ownership. 

“So much of the history of Liberia is this tension between a Western system of private property and this customary tradition,” Mitman says. “When these multinational companies in the agriculture, mining and timber sector come in and lease large amounts of land, oftentimes that land was used customarily by local peoples.” 

“People didn’t have deeds to it, but they knew it was their land because it had been passed from generation to generation,” he continues. “When that gets enclosed by government, you’re taking away these people’s land rights and their livelihood, and that leads to conflict.”

Today, about a quarter of Liberia’s land is devoted to agriculture, timber and mining concessions – deals that are often arranged without informing the people who live on the land being sold.

Silas Siakor, a member of Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute, explains in the film, “In the past, governments will give out logging concessions without any prior information to the community.” 

In order to ease some of these tensions and provide communities with legal claim to their land, Siakor and the Sustainable Development Institute are helping people obtain legal land titles.

The effect that corporate land grabs have on the indigenous people is something Mitman hopes people take away from the film.

“I hope people come to an appreciation and understanding of the ways in which large-scale concessions for things like oil palm are really impacting local livelihoods in those areas and disempowering people. Unless they have legal rights to land, it’s very difficult for people to be empowered to make their own decisions about what kind of development they want,” says Mitman.

A land rights bill has been proposed in Liberia that would give formal recognition of customary rights to land for the first time in the country’s history, and a hearing to discuss the matter was held in 2015. The bill has not yet passed, but the Land Commission is hopeful that it will early this year.

The Land Beneath Our Feet made its public debut at the 2016 Leeds International Film Festival in November and will be available for purchase in February. Mitman and Sarita Siegel, the film’s co-director and co-producer, will spend much of 2017 promoting its release. Their schedule already includes festival and university screenings in at least seven countries and dozens of cities.

The film is also part of a larger effort between universities and the Liberian Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) to make the expedition photographs and footage available to everyone in the country. A resulting website, A Liberian Journey, launched at CNDRA in the capital city of Monrovia in 2016. It includes all of the Harvard expedition footage and photographs, documents, and some oral histories that Mitman and Urey collected in Liberia, available for free.

Mitman and those involved in the A Liberian Journey project hope to lead a tour of the film and website throughout Liberia, so communities know of the resources at their disposal.

“We’re trying to make communities aware of the website and hopefully work with teachers to think about ways to integrate the website and film into instruction, both at the high school and college level,” Mitman explains. “I think it could play a really useful educational role in many kinds of courses.”

For both Mitman and Urey, raising awareness about land conflicts in Liberia and connecting people with the history of the country will help to preserve some of the cultural heritage that makes the nation unique, while also aiding indigenous people and helping to safeguard their future.

“Preserving the environment has to do with also preserving who we are and where we came from,” says Urey. “If we lose this land, it’s not only loss of land itself; it’s the loss of people and their history.”