Top: A worker labels logs in Akewa’s log field in Beyan Poye Community Forest, Margibi County. Photo credit: Akewa via Facebook
By Emmanuel Sherman
MONROVIA – A forest community in Margibi County has filed a court action to compel a Nigerian company to discuss a settlement in a logging dispute between them.
Beyan Poye Community Forest wants the Commercial Court at the Temple of Justice to mandate Akewa Group of Companies (AGC) to” submit to arbitration by immediately appointing its arbitrator to the arbitration panel,” according to court filings.
Beyan Poye had evoked an arbitration clause in the pair’s logging agreement in February earlier this year after more than four years of stalemate. The agreement mandates a three-person penal, one each representing the community, the company and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), to resolve any dispute to be confirmed by a court.
The community had appointed Tomik Vobah, a lawyer, as its representative. And the FDA also appointed Cllr. Joel Elkanah Theoway as its arbitrator more than a week ago. But the company has yet to send its representative, sparking the court action.
With the matter now in court, Akewa is now expected to designate its representative in 10 days or will have to accept the court’s ruling to allow the two-man penal to decide the matter.
Abigail Funke Odebunmi, AGC’s CEO said she could not comment while the arbitration process was ongoing.
In March 2017 Akewa signed the agreement with Beyan Poye Community Forest to harvest logs in its 33,338-hectare forest in the Gibi District in exchange for roads, schools, clinics and handpumps. Since then, it has not implemented a single project, except a handpump, the court heard. The company owed the community US$4,000 for 2,141.836 cubic meters of log harvested and US$1,697.52 for land rental fees between the periods 2018 to 2021 and failed to honor its corporate social obligation, according to court documents.
“We further inform you that we are resorting to arbitration against AGC as the result of numerous breaches of the March 25, 2017 community forest management agreement and other subsequent agreements, collateral to said agreement,” Jehudi Barnyou, the chief officer of Beyan Poye’s community forest management body said in a letter to Odebunmi in January earlier this year.
AGC has a history of indebtedness to communities and a record of violations of Liberian logging laws.
An investigation conducted by The DayLight about the same time as Barnyou’s letter found the company violated a host of forestry laws and regulations, dating as far back as 2008, and going with impunity.
It found that the 100 percent Nigerian-owned company was illegally issued a timber sales contract (TSC A2), meant for companies with at least 51 Liberian shareholdings. The company also owes Compound Number One, the community that hosts the forest the Liberian government leased to her.
AGC was involved in the Private Use Permit (PUP) scandal of 2012 in which 2.5 million hectares of forest land or 23 percent of the country’s landmass was illegally given to logging companies. It held one of those illegal PUPs for Gibi District, surprisingly, the same area it would sign the Beyan Poye agreement.
The company was investigated by the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) for using a tax clearance belonging to Tiger Quarry, a mining company, to bid for the Gola Konneh community forest it would win. Now it owes that community in Grand Cape Mount county logging-related payments as well.