Top: Sing Africa abandoned thousands of logs it harvested in the Bluyeama Community Forest. It owes Bluyeam US$165,000 and GT Bank US$3.5 million. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

By Emmanuel Sherman

BALAGWALAZU, Lofa County – Alexander Sungo appeared shivered. A guard had informed him that the Guarantee Trust Bank (Liberia) Limited was sorting logs from his community forest to sell them.  

The logs were harvested by Sing Africa Plantation Liberia Limited, a company that signed an agreement with Bluyema Community Forest in Lofa whose leadership Sungo heads.

“We want to send this as a caveat to any would-be partner to Sing Africa: our agreement is the mother agreement to Sing Africa,”  Sungo said. We as a community, gave them the resources so, in that direction, anybody Sing Africa [signs a] contract with should look at our agreement.

“If not, you will not access the properties that are in our community until Sing Africa can pay our money,” Sungo added.

Sungo argued that the bank could not sell the logs as Sing Africa owed Bluyeama, his community.  He protested the sales, referencing a forestry regulation on payments. The Regulation on Forest Fees compels companies to clear all their communities’ debts before selling logs.

That was the latest episode in a months-long rigmarole between Bluyeama and GT Bank over Sing Africa-harvested logs. They have been negotiating how the community can get its benefits and how the bank can recover its loan.

Sing Africa owes Bluyema thousands of dollars including land rental, harvesting fees and scholarship fees. It also owes the bank over US$3.5 million, according to court documents. Sungo said the amount had grown to US$4 million.

A US$3.5M Debt

Bluyema Community Forest in the Zorzor District and Sing Africa Plantations Liberia Inc., a Singaporean-owned company signed a 15-year logging contract in 2016.

Alexander Sungo, the head of the Bluyeama Community Forest. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

According to the agreement, the company promised to build schools, construct bridges, connect towns with road networks, construct clinics, and provide scholarships. In exchange for those developments, locals allowed Sing Africa to harvest logs in their 44,444-hectare forest.

Seven years on, Sing Africa has not lived up to those promises, and the timeframe set for the projects has expired.

All of the activities in the community are at a standstill. The community road is getting [worse]. The bridges the company built with [logs] are also destroyed,” Sungo said.

“Sing Africa didn’t fulfill any of the promises in the agreement.”

Sing debt to Bluyeama has accumulated to US$165,000 and counting, according to Sungo, The DayLight’s analysis of the agreement.

Sing Africa’s debt to GT Bank wallops that of Bluyeama. The court record shows that on June 14, 2021, the company borrowed US$3M from the bank with a 14.50 percent interest rate. That is a debt of US$3.5 million.

As a result, the Commercial Court in Monrovia authorized GT Bank to seize Sing Africa’s fixed and floating assets valued at over US$7 million, court filings show.

The Commercial Court has ordered GT Bank to auction Sing Africa’s properties. The DayLight/Harry Browne

The court had earlier authorized the bank to auction over 15,000 cubic meters of logs belonging to Sing Africa and Alpha Logging and Wood Processing Company, a company that also operated in Lofa and Gbarpolu.

One Family, Four Contracts

The Guptas, the family that owns Sing Africa, has two other companies and a combined four community forests, which, perhaps, explains Sing Africa’s struggles. The Singaporean family owns Starwood and Indo Africa.

In 2017, Starwood signed an agreement with the Matro Kpogblen Community Forest in District Number Four, Grand Bassa, covering 8,833 hectares. The company promised to build schools, erect clinics and provide safe drinking water but failed to do so.  In 2021, Matro Kpogblen resolved to cancel the contract with Starwood.

“Starwood did not pay us a dime since the contract was signed,” said Yeaton Siahway, the head of the community forest. Siahway said the company owes locals US$29,000 covering land rental, scholarship, and medical. He said they abandoned more logs in the forest than they shipped.

Bondi Mandigo Community Forest also signed an agreement with Indo Africa in 2018 for 37,222 hectares of forest in Bopulu District, Gbarpolu County.

Like Sing Africa and Starwood, Indo Africa has failed to live up to the agreement.  Bondi Mandingo is now seeking to cancel its contract with Indo Africa.

Korninga B, too, signed an agreement with Indo Africa for its 31,818 hectares of woodland. Similarly, Indo Africa did not fulfill the agreement. Last year, Korninga B canceled its contract with Indo Africa without the loggers cutting a single tree.

Sing Africa has a logging agreement with the Bluyeama Community Forest but has not lived up to it. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

The Community’s Interest

The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) shares the blame for the Bluyeama-GT Bank-Sing Africa situation. FDA failed to assess the technical and financial capacities of Sing Africa and the Guptas’ companies before it approved their contracts. It sanctioned new deals for the Singaporean family while it performed poorly with old ones.

Also, the regulator allowed Sing Africa to break the law with impunity. For instance, the FDA did not punish Sing Africa for harvesting some US$2M worth of logs between 2018 and  2021 outside of its contract area in Bluyeama. Instead, it glossed over the violation by replacing the ranger responsible for Lofa County without an investigation.

When Sing Africa abandoned 2,500 logs, including some it had stolen, the FDA also did not take any legal actions.

Back in Bagwalazu, Sungo is reeling from Bluyeama’s bad experience with Sing Africa and wants to end the contract.

“We are trying to put in for the cancellation of the Sing Africa contract. Either we give the forest out for conservation or we find another third-party contractor,” Sungo said. He added that Sing Africa’s abandonment of community has left the forest more vulnerable to illegal occupants.

But Sungo remains firm that Bluyema will get its benefit as he continues to engage GT Bank.

“The bank says there’s a group willing to buy the logs and they will give us some money to cover liabilities owed us,” Sungo said after he had a meeting with GT Bank in January. “The bank has said it will not overlook the community’s interest.

“Before anybody takes the log, the bank will sit with the community to discuss how the money will be paid,” he added.

GT Bank declined an interview because the case was still in court.

Sing Africa did not respond to WhatsApp queries for comments on its issues with Bluyeama and GT Bank.

This story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

Funding for the story was provided by the Kyeema Foundation and Palladium. The DayLight maintained editorial independence over its content. 

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