Top: The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning. The DayLight/Harry Browne
By Emmanuel Sherman
MONROVIA – The Government of Liberia has paid communities affected by forest concessions US$401,000 for their portion of land rental fees collected from logging companies. However, it still owes the communities US$2.3 million, with barely four months left in the budget year.
The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) paid the amount to the National Benefit Sharing Trust Board (NBSTB) in Liberian and United States dollars on Tuesday, according to Nora Bowier.
“We are glad the payment was made,” said Bowier, who heads NBSTB that oversees communities’ expenditure of the payment. By law, communities are entitled to 30 percent of land rental fees companies pay the government. The fee is the product of the total size of the concession and US$2.50 for forest management contracts (FMCs), large-scale concessions and US$1.25 for timber sale contracts (TSCs), smaller ones.
“The process was challenging.” She said the institution had engaged the Ministry of Finance to make sure the balance of the money is paid before the fiscal year ends.
Last year, 23 communities protested at the ministry for more than US$5.5 million the government owed them in land rental. The government initially paid US$200,000 it had promised the villagers to end their protest.
It then allotted US$2,749,000 to this year’s national budget. That amount was reduced to US$500,000 in June. However, only US$401,000 was paid.
“We think that it is something that the government has taken lightly in our view or in my view,” Said Andrew Zelemen, of the National Union of Community Forest Development Committee (NUCFDC), which represents the interest of communities and led the protest said. “It worries us and it is our concern.”
Zelemen there would be a protest if the balance of the money allotted in the budget is not paid by the end of the year.
“If the government does not pay the US$2.3 million from now to December, the communities will not allow logging companies to operate in their forests,” Zelemen said.
Janga Kowo, the Comptroller General of Liberia, did not answer calls placed to him nor responded to text and WhatsApp messages.
The government has collected US$27.7 million from loggers but has only paid US$2.6 million to rural communities since the 2015/2016 fiscal year, according to a report by Forest Trends, a US-based nongovernmental organization that promotes sustainable use of forests and conservation.
That is a violation of the National Forestry Reform Law of 2006, which mandates it to transfer 30 percent of land rental fees logging companies pay to communities for development purposes.