Banner Image: Protesters from logging-affected communities hold placards at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning in Monrovia on Tuesday. The DayLight/Harry Browne
By Ojuku S. Kangar, Jr.
MONROVIA – Communities affected by logging concession have suspended their planned weeklong protest for over US$5.5 million land rental fees the Liberian government owes them after reaching a rough agreement with the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning.
The protesters from the 23 large-scale logging concession areas gathered earlier on Tuesday morning in front of the Ministry of Finance with placards, demanding the government to settle the arrear. They had announced on Sunday in a press release that their sit-in would last for a week unless the government pays them at least US$2.2 millions of the total debt.
Andrew Zelemen, the head of secretariat of the National Union of Community Forest Development Committee (NUCFDC), which led the protest, said the protesters agreed to give the government a week to address their plight.
“Today’s action was meant to draw the attention of the ministry,” Zelemen said shortly after meeting officials of the ministry just barely one hour into the protest. “They are our leaders and we trust what they tell us. But if they fail, we will continue our [protest] action.”
The Comptroller General and Accountant of the Republic of Liberia Janga Kowo pleaded with the protesters to give the government time to begin readying the payment.
“We will approach the Minister of Finance [Samuel Tweah] and the National Legislature to make sure the amount be placed in the national budget,” he told reporters outside the ministry’s headquarters in Monrovia. “Settlement arrangement will be made. I will be doing a comprehensive briefing with the Minister of Finance and he will brief the President for lasting solution.”
The 2006 National Forestry Law of Liberia mandates 30 percent shares of all land rental fees large-scale logging companies pay. The last time those fees were paid was in fiscal year 2015/2016, according to NUCFDC. The government has paid only US$2.6 million (instead of US$8.6 million) from US$27.7 million it has collected from loggers ever since the law came into force.
‘We need our benefits’
Prior to the truce, protesters held placards brandishing inscriptions such as: “Government of Liberia, pay our share of land rental fees,” “Our forest, we need the benefits,” “Logging communities deserve benefits,” and “The government and logging companies owe us plenty money.”
The Tuesday protest made it the third year in succession that rural communities have taken action over forestland rental fees. It has petitioned the Legislature in the last two years. The NUCFDC said in the release it had contacted the Ministry of Finance and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA)—the government office responsible for the logging sector—but got no redress. The FDA did not respond to queries for comments on the matter.
The communities appear firmer this year, demanding the payment was made. “It is still regrettable that the government is yet to do anything in addressing this issue of communities receiving their share of land rental fees as required by law,” the NUCFDC had said in the release Sunday.
The government’s failure to pay communities their share of land rental fees is a violation of the National Forestry Reform Law of Liberia. It undermines Liberia’s Volunteer Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union—the biggest purchaser of Liberian timbers—which calls for fair sharing of forest resources. It also contravenes the community pillar of the country’s forestry reform, which ended decades in which rural areas did not benefit from timber resources and had no say in forest governance.