Banner Image: The headquarters of Starwood in Siaway Town, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/William Q. Harmon
By William Q. Harmon
BOLD DOLLAR TOWN, Grand Bassa County- In 2017, Starwood, INC. signed a 15-year agreement with Matro Kpogblen Community Forest in District No. 4, Grand Bassa County. They promised to construct a school, erect a clinic and provide safe drinking water.
Four years since signing the concession for the 8,833-hectares of the humid forestland, the Singaporean company has failed to fulfill any part of the agreement.
Now, the leadership of the community forest is seeking an end to their association with the company. The entire communities—chiefs, elders, women, youth leaders, Representative Thomas A. Goshua, II., the lawmaker of that district.
“Having realized the failure of the third-party holder to live up to agreement signed with the community, the community assembly, the executive committee, have agreed to cancel the agreement and terminate all relations with the third-party holder with immediate effect,” reads a resolution they reached at a meeting on May 9. (The assembly is the highest decision-making body in community forestry, and the executive committee takes decisions for that body). The community informed the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) about its decision in communication on June 28, 2021.
Starwood did not respond to queries for comments on the matter. An executive of the Singaporean company did not respond to email and text messages, the same with numerous calls The DayLight made to him.
Under the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands, a community can terminate an agreement with a logging company. However, it can only do that after exhausting customary dispute mechanisms or a court process.
There is room for Starwood’s concession termination. Failure to honor its obligations with Kpogblen is a breach of the CRL. It also violates the MoU with the community, which spells out specific timelines for the implementation of projects, payments of land rental and harvesting fees, almost all of which have elapsed. For instance, by December 2019, the company was to construct 18 hand pumps in each of the 18 towns and villages, erected a school and construct a clinic. These projects should have provided jobs for locals from towns and villages affected by the company’s operations.
Atty. Gertrude Nyaley, FDA’s community forest department technical manager, says Matro Kpogblen is acting legally. “The company should not be reneging on paying what is due to the community,” Nyaley says in an interview at FDA’s headquarters in Whein Town, Paynesville. “If they do, then the community can take actions on the basis of nonperformance.
“It is not our role to support any company.”
The FDA is partly responsible for the problem in Matro-Kpogblen, which has plagued other communities across Liberia.
The Guptas, the Singaporean family who owns Starwood, also has Indo Africa and Sing Africa. Indo Africa signed separate agreements with Bondi Mandingo and Korninga B in Gbarpolu in 2018 and 2019, respectively. And Sing Africa sealed a deal with Bluyeama in Lofa in 2015. Similarly, those companies have all failed to live up to their contracts with those communities. Like Matro Kpogblen, Korninga B wants to cancel their deal with Indo Africa.
“It is not right for the FDA to be allowing a company that has not lived up to its obligations in one community to obtain a logging contract in another,” says Jonathan Yiah, the lead forestry campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in a mobile phone interview. “We strongly believe that the FDA must conduct a much stronger due diligence that will ensure that the company is credible and has the capacity to operate a particular concession.”
Disappointment over the failure of the logging deal with Starwood is commonplace among villagers in this remote clan bordering River Cess County. The company failed to pay US$27,000 in land rental fees and an unspecified amount of harvesting fees. It did not provide adequate jobs for locals as promised as well as annual contributions to the community’s scholarship program.
“Starwood has failed to help improve our community and there is no need to be here because we are disappointed,” says Yeaton Siaway, the chief officer of the Kpogblen Community Forest Management Body, which represents the interest of the community in the logging deal with Starwood.
Amid their decision to cancel Starwood’s agreement, locals want the Singaporean company to pay the fees it owes them.
“The FDA has to prevail on this company to pay our benefits. They have been holding onto our forest since 2017 and we are not benefiting anything from them,” says Joshua Goah, a resident of Bold Dollar Town. “We need our benefit and they must provide it.”