Top: Decayed and burned logs African Wood and Lumber Company harvested from the Marblee and Karblee Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue
By Emmanuel Sherman
Editor’s Note: This story is part of The DayLight’s series on Failed Logging Concessions in Liberia.
COMPOUND NUMBER TWO, Grand Bassa – No one is present at the facility. There are old logging pieces of equipment. Grass has overtaken logs scattered across an open field, with nearly all already decayed. A few still brandish: “AWL,” which stands for African Wood and Lumber Company.
Owned by an Italian businessman Cesare Colombo, African Wood signed a contract with Marblee and Karblee Community Forest in July 2019. The deal gave the company the right to harvest trees in a 24,355-hectare forest in Grand Bassa’s Compound Number Two. In exchange, the company would sell the logs and give the community an array of benefits, including fees for harvesting, land rental, and scholarships.
But in the last three years, African Wood has abandoned the contract, leaving behind about a US$100,000 debt, unfulfilled projects and piles of logs, according to the leadership of the community.
“The general feeling is that the people feel bad. Nobody feels good about it,” says Abraham Cooper, the head of the community’s forestry leadership. We regret it deeply.”
“The company ran away overnight,” says Oretha Tay, a cook, who claims the company owes her for a year. A security guard, who asked not to be named over fear of reprisal, backed Tay’s comments.
In the three years of abandonment, African Wood and Lumber owes Marblee and Karblee US$66,289 in land rental, scholarship and harvesting fees. That figure could increase by US$19,740 by August later this year.
Besides, African Wood did not construct any roads as promised in the contract, according to the community leadership. Under the agreement, it should have constructed and maintained four roads in affected communities by now.
The community wrote Colombo in August last year and expressed concerns about the delayed payments. “[The community] is asking the company to please pay this money in this August of 2022. We don’t want any further confusion between the community and the company,” the letter read, citing an earlier row over the payments.
That letter came five months after a previous one in March of that year. “The more you keep the forest without operation, the more royalties such as land rental fees and annual scholarship fees will accumulate,” that letter said. “Our community forest will be left in suspense. We are not prepared to [condone] such.”
A week later, Christopher Beh Bailey, African Wood and Lumber’s regional manager and former Superintendent of Grand Gedeh County replied. Bailey said African Wood “was about to undertake the settlement of the royalties and social obligations.” However, he said it would not pay any fees for 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He claimed that the government of Liberia had halted all logging activities that year. Bailey declined to comment for this story.
Bailey’s claims are not backed by facts. While the coronavirus pandemic disrupted logging activities nationally, the Liberian government did not halt logging activities. It only imposed partial lockdowns for Monrovia and other parts of the country between March and May.
Moreover, African Wood remained active in Marblee and Karblee while the pandemic raged on. Between 2019 and 2021, it harvested 2,682 logs amounting to 18,175.145 cubic meters in the forest, according to official records.
That volume of logs adds to African Wood’s debt to the community. The community’s leadership puts the cost to an estimated US$40,000, according to the March 2022 letter.
Unlike many in the sector, the contract between African Wood and Marblee and Karblee imbeds development dues into harvesting fees. Under their agreement, the company must pay US$4 for a cubic meter of log. Of that amount, US$2.25 goes towards community projects. However, the failure of the company to pay has left affected towns and villages without handpumps, toilets, a school and a clinic.
In another letter in March this year, Cooper called on the FDA to collect its benefits from African Wood and terminate their agreement.
“They breached the contract. So, based on this we want to cancel the contract with the company,” Cooper tells The DayLight in an interview.
“We the community people don’t have money to go to court because we are looking at FDA to be in the interest of the community. We want a swift answer from FDA,” Cooper adds. The FDA did not reply to questions The DayLight emailed to the agency.
From 2019 when African Wood felled its first tree in Marblee and Karblee, to 2021, when it ceased operations there, it did not export any of the 2,682 logs it harvested. A good number of the logs in a log yard on the Buchanan highway have decomposed, with some burned. Cooper says there are many logs still in the forest and at another location, a few of which The DayLight photographed.
In Liberian forestry, logs are abandoned if they are unattended for between three weeks to six months, depending on their location according to the Regulation on Abandoned Logs, Timber and Timber Products. In this case, all of African Wood and Lumber’s logs were abandoned latest June last year, according to our analysis of the situation and the regulation.
The FDA said on Tuesday that it would confiscate and auction abandoned logs across the country to curb the widespread nature of the violation. It would be the first time in more than a decade of forestry reform for the FDA to enforce the regulation. Like communities, the government loses revenue when a company does not export the logs it produces. It loses export royalties and may lose stumpage fees, a percentage of the cost of a volume of logs, depending on the species.
African Wood’s failure in Marblee and Karblee adds to Colombo’s notoriety in the logging industry. In 2020, African Wood and Lumber felled 550 trees in the Gbarsaw and Dorbor Community Forest without authorization. The FDA is yet to punish the company for that violation, one of the gravest in forestry. African Wood also owes affected communities their logging-related fees.
And the International Capital Consultant (ICC), the company Colombo managed before he purchased Africa Wood and Lumber, owes affected communities in Nimba and River Cess huge debts. It also abandoned over 5,000 logs in that region.
Colombo did not reply to emailed questions. However, speaking about communities’ debts last year in an interview with The DayLight, he defended African Wood over debt criticisms. He said he had invested millions in Liberia’s forestry sector and was “committed to our obligation, and we never undermine the intent of the forestry reform in Liberia.” He has also in the past blamed small-scale loggers or chainsaw millers for not meeting his responsibilities to communities.
This story was produced by the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).