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Logging Communities To Protest For Land Rental Fees

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Top: It would the second year in a role that communities have protested land rental fees. The DayLight/Harry Browne


MONROVIA – Communities affected by logging concessions across Liberia are expected to stage a sit-in action in Monrovia on Wednesday for land rental fees the government of Liberia owes them.

It would mark the beginning of a series of protests they plan to hold next month for over US$5 million the Liberian government owes them, according to a statement by the National Union of Community Forest Development Committee (NUCFDC). The group comprises the leadership of communities hosting logging contracts, covering over 1 million hectares of forestland.

NUCFDC said the protest would continue next week at an upcoming climate resilience program to be followed by a petition to President George Weah.

Locals are entitled to 30 percent of land rental fees logging companies pay the government every year. The fees are calculated based on the size of the forest in hectares and US$2.50 and US$1.25 for large-scale and small-scale concessions, respectively. However, the government has not paid the community their full amounts since 2017.

Those debts amounted to US$5.5 million between 2007 and 2019, according to a report by Forest Trends, an American NGO promoting sustainable forest management.

Last year, the government paid US$200,000 after the communities protested and allotted US$2.7 million in the current National Budget for the payments. But with barely three months before the end of the fiscal term, it has paid US$300,000, according to the NUCFDC.

“This is unfortunate and does not represent a true meaning of the government Pro-Poor Agenda for Development and Prosperity,” the statement, issued late Tuesday, read.

It said the government did not prioritize the payment, which contravenes its commitment to support communities to manage their forests and empower them to derive a sustainable livelihood from forest resources.   

“This is why we as community members will stage sustained advocacy actions until the government of Liberia pays all the amount appropriated in the 2022 National Budget…,” it added.   

It would be the second year in a role for communities to protest over the fees.

Woman Runs Illegal Logging Operation

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Top: A pile of thick, square timbers, commonly called “Kpokolo” illegally harvested by Binta Bility. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series, which exposes an illegal logging operation.

COMPOUND NUMBER ONE, Grand Bassa County – Two hundred and sixty pieces of thick, square timbers lay by a roadside in Zoegar Town, one of 18 sections in the Doe Clan. Twenty-five more are scattered in the forest.

The woods were harvested in two former logging concessions in Compound Number One, Grand Bassa. They are the products of an illegal logging operation being conducted by a businesswoman named Binta Bility, an investigation by The DayLight found.

“The pile of [timber]… is for one Binta Bility,” said Volygar Garblah, the Chief Elder of that region. Garblah said she had asked to harvest red hardwoods in two former concession areas and he and other chiefs worked out a payment scheme with her.

“Sometimes the sticks are from two or three sections in Doe Clan.  When she went to Fubahn, the people charged her, from Kpelleh Town way they charged her also, and men were used to haul the timber from there,” Garblah said, adding Zoegar Town and Dumue Town were also involved in the illegal activities.     

The operation she runs is commonly called  “Kpokolo,” a new form of illegal logging across the country, which targets expensive hardwoods that are smuggled out of the country in containers. The woods are used for railroad tiles and bridges.

Bility denies any wrongdoing. But dozens of interviews with chiefs, elders motorcycle-taxi drivers, and the illicit loggers point to her.  

Felling trees without a permit or from an illegal source is a grave offense in forestry. She faces a huge fine and a prison term if convicted by a court.

‘My Daughter’

Bility started working in the Compound Number One area in 2020 with planks but decided to switch to timber last year, according to Garblah. He said he had known Bility since she helped him pay for his medical bill some time ago.

“She is my daughter. She said, ‘Please give me a place to pack my logs, and after that, I will come for us to talk,’” Garblah told The DayLight. After our talk, then, I later talked with the section people.” He said they did not have a written agreement with her.   

Binta Bility runs illegal logging operations in Compound Number One, Grand Bassa County. Picture credit: Facebook/Binta Bility

An orange and green 1996 MAN truck was parked at Gbarblah’s home with an improvised wheelbarrow, commonly called push-push in its trunk. Its license plate reads “C3742.”

“The car is for Binta but she left it with me,” Garblah said.

The forest where Bility operates was known in the logging industry as Timber Sale Contract Area Two and Timber Sale Contract Area Three. They were operated by Renaissance Group Incorporated and Akewa Group of Companies, respectively, before being canceled last year along with eight similar contracts following years of failure and illegitimacy.

Harrison Togbah, who identified himself as one of the forerunners of the illegal operation, said there were 17 workers, including some townsmen. He added that  Bility gave the team pictures of the hardwoods to cut and that they had worked for six months. 

“That’s the first consignment wasting outside there,” he said in reference to the woods on the road to Zoegar Town. “We made the arrangement that out of 200 pieces [of timber], she will be able to give me US$700.”

Togbah showed our reporters Bility’s mobile phone number he saved as “Boss Lady.” Togbah and Bility had communicated 36 times, according to Togbah’s call history. The number on his phone matched the one our reporters had used to contact her earlier on.

Massa Sawo, Togbah’s supervisor, confirmed she is their boss. Sawo declined to take further questions when quizzed on the illegality of their activities. “Ask Binta herself,” he said and hung up the phone.

‘Just Sample’

The people in Lolo Town showed they were as fond of  Bility as those in Zoegar Town.  A woman, who did not give her name, called  Bility “my ma,” when our reporter showed her the picture Bility uses as her Facebook profile. Other residents, including Solomon Kpolon, an elder of Lolo Town, also identified Bility as the woman in the picture.

We visited the illegal logging site near the Worr River, a good distance from Lolo town. It was an old camp Bility had set up for her chainsaw milling operation, according to the townspeople we interviewed. There were an abandoned, makeshift warehouse still locked and an apartment camp house. Cassava, potato and pineapple thrived among the invading, wet bush. Leftover woods dotted the area. Twenty-six timbers measuring seven feet long and 10 inches wide are next to a felled tree.

“The kpokolo in the bush… are samples. [She asked us to do the sample so that] if someone she can bring the person here to see it,” said Stephen Bull, who said he headed the operation at that site and had known Bility since 2020. He even called out her number offhand.

Bull added that it took up to 15 men to place the woods in the push-push our reporters saw in the back of the truck at Garblah’s house. Thereafter, the vehicle takes the illegal timbers to the central location in Zoegar Town, according to Bull.

We found a phone number written with charcoal on the plank wall of the warehouse at the camp belonging to Kantee Zabeh. Zabeh, who said he was 20 years old,  claimed to be Bility’s son in a phone interview. He gave her address as 21st Street, something Togbah had earlier told our reporters.

Timbers that were illegally harvested by Binta Bility in a forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Garblah said the woods were meant to be exported.  “Bility told me that the place she usually sells the timber is where the fighting is taking place in Europe, so this is why the woods have not gone yet and [are] still packing over there.”

By law, chainsaw milling is illegal but is permitted because the woods are supplied to the local market. The FDA has a system where fees are collected at various checkpoints, while it formulates a regulation for that kind of logging.

But kpokolo is illegal. Such timbers are exported outside of the official system that tracks woods from harvest to shipment, a crucial principle of Liberia’s forestry reform.  Bility is not registered in that system known in the industry as LiberTrace, according to Gertrude Nyaley, the technical manager of FDA’s legality verification department (LVD). The DayLight had made a formal inquiry on the businesswoman’s status.   

This investigation comes more than two weeks since leaked videos and pictures revealed similar operations run by an FDA ranger, who has now been suspended. The agency has alarmed over the smuggling of wood in containers, which it says makes it difficult to track down.  

Bility denies she runs unlawful activities in Compound Number One. She challenged the fact the villagers revealed she was the mastermind of the illegal harvesting. “Stop disturbing my line but you are free to report whatever you [want] to,” she said in a WhatsApp chat. “I know I’m not doing any illegal logging.

“Good luck, dear,” she added.

“I just can’t stop laughing,” she said in another WhatsApp chat with several laughing emojis.

A man measures the diameter of a tree illegally harvested by loggers hired by Binta Bility in Compound Number One, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Bility still carries on with her operations. In our second round of interviews with Garblah, he told The DayLight she called him and asked whether he had spoken with us. A motorcycle-taxi driver, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, also said she dropped off a worker in the area on Sunday.

When told that Bility denies working in that part of the country, Bull gave a wry smile. “For her to deny that she is not working here is not right,” he said.

A person who does not hold a contract but harvests logs carries a fine for three times the value of species of timber at the prevailing price set by the FDA, according to the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timbers and Timber Products.  The current price for ekki woods is US$210.

The vehicle being used by Binta Bility to transport illegally harvested logs in Compound Number One, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Mark Newa

CORRECTION: This story deletes the word “legally” in the twelve paragraph for consistency.

Mark Newa, Emmanuel Sherman, Gerald Koinyeneh and an unnamed motorcyclist-taxi driver contributed to this report.

The story is a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

Gbarpolu Clans Sign Agreements To Manage Their Forests

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Banner Image: A forest in Gbarpolu County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


BY Wiliam Q. Harmon

PAYNESVILLE – For five years Tonglay and Normon craved to obtain the right to manage swathes of forest in the Kongbor District of Gbarpolu County.

Earlier this month, they achieved that dream.  

Their signing of separate community forest agreements (CFMA) means they can now control what goes on in the combined 29,000 hectares of muggy, dense woodland.   

“We are happy that the government has agreed to allow us to take care of our own forest and we will make sure that we do our best so that our people can enjoy the resources that are in their forests,” said Karimu Fofanah, the head of the body charged to conduct forest business for Tonglay, known in the forestry sector as of the community forestry management body (CFMB).  “Our people have suffered a lot and with this initiative, we will ensure we bring development to our people.”  

Boakai Kanneh, Fofana’s counterpart in Normon could not be reached.  

Both communities had to complete a nine-step process in order to gain authorized forest community status. It includes a nonrefundable registration of US$250, harmonize boundaries with neighbors and prepare a forest management plan. The European Union (EU) and Rainforest Trust provided funding for the process.  

Michael Garbo, the executive director of Society for Conservation of Nature Liberia (SCNL)—the nongovernmental organization that helped the community complete the process—termed the signing of the agreement a “dream come true.

“It is a great day today and it’s a great honor as well for donors who have been supporting us throughout the stages of this process,” Garbo told the signing ceremony at the FDA headquarters in Whein Town, Paynesville.

FDA’s managing director Mike Doryen admonished the communities to hold together and avoid confusion—urging them to also remain law-abiding and stop shielding people, especially elites, who want to use their community forests for self-aggrandizement.

Doryen warned anyone violating the forestry land will be prosecuted.

No contract yet

As authorized forest communities, Tonglay and Normon will now manage their forests for the next 15 years, with the FDA to review the agreement fifth and tenth year. They must give their consent to any person or company wanting to enter the forest  under the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands.  The law was a crucial part of the forest reform in postwar Liberia, giving locals their share of forest resources.

Fofana noted that no agreement has been reached with any company but the community was doing all it could to attract investors to the area. Tonglay and Norman are underdeveloped communities without roads up to date clinics and schools.

“We want to do first thing first and don’t want to jump the gun before we encounter problems ahead. We want to finish with all the required necessary steps before we start to invite investors,” Fofana said. “When we sign third party… we intend to prioritize infrastructural development, especially bridges, clinics and schools.”

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