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Villagers Seek to Cancel Logging Contract

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Top: Gbarquoita is one of the affected communities of Bondi Mandingo Community Forest, which wants to cancel a logging agreement with Indo Africa Plantation Liberia Limited. The DayLight/Harry Browne


By Esau J. Farr


FARWHENTA – A community forest in Gbarpolu wants to cancel its logging contract with Indo Africa Plantations, a Singaporean-owned company.

Bondi Mandingo Community Forest signed a 15-year agreement with Indo Africa in 2018 in anticipation of development in their area.  However, five years on, the company has not honored the agreement.

It owes Bondi Mandingo over US$400,000 in land rental and harvesting fees, and mandatory development projects, barely exploiting the forest.

“We are now pushing to cancel the contract,” said Darkanel Gbarto, the chairman of the Bondi Mandingo forest executive committee. “There has been no progress on the side of the company.”

Bondi Mandingo’s contract covers 37,222 hectares with Indo Africa, one of four contracts held by a Singaporean family, the Guptas.

The company agreed to pay the community US$46,527 as annual land rental fees. It promised to make an annual payment of US$35,000 as a scholarship fund and US$25,000 for yearly support to community healthcare.  

Additionally, Indo Africa promised to recondition roads, construct modern latrines, a youth center and a paramount chief office in affected communities.

But Indo Africa did not live up to the agreement. It only began work in late 2021, nearly three years after the agreement, a violation that is a ground for termination. It harvested 7,183 logs, according to the company’s production records.

Protest

In late 2021, after several failed efforts to get their benefits, Bondi Mandingo youth protested, setting up roadblocks in the contract area. They demanded the company settle all of its debts to the community. They called off the protest after local authorities intervened and the company paid US$5,000.

Indo Africa began work in the Bondi Mandingo Community Forest in 2021, three years after it signed an agreement with the community. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

In early 2022, Bondi Mandingo passed a resolution, calling Indo Africa to pay 60 percent of their social benefits before transporting logs out of the forest.

Indo Africa paid US$65,000 for land rental and harvesting fees and promised to make regular payments as of April 2022.

But that would be the last time the community received a payment from Indo Africa. Bondi Mandingo has exerted several unsuccessful efforts for its benefits.  

As it stands, Indo Africa owes Bondi Mandingo over US$400,000 in harvesting fees, scholarships and medical funds. It also failed to provide any of over a dozen mandatory projects.

It informed the FDA about their plight. The agency requested a breakdown of the debt, which locals did. “The company failed all of the social responsibilities. Therefore, we are kindly asking you to give us your technical advice…,” the community wrote the FDA in a June 2023 letter. 

Indo Africa shut down, with Mukesh Gupta, its CEO and owner, leaving Liberia and has not returned for nearly two years now. The family also owns Sing Africa and Starwood, which have contracts with Bluyeama and Matro Kpogblen community forests in Lofa, and Grand Bassa respectively. Another community is Korninga B which cancelled its contract with Indo Africa last year over non-compliance issues.

All community contracts are subject to a five-year review under the forestry reform law of Liberia. Bondi Mandingo forest contract with Indo Africa was expected to be reviewed last December but failed due to the absence of representatives of the company in Liberia.

Gupta did not respond to questions The DayLight sent to him. However, in a previous communication, Indo Africa blamed the delay in its payment on the coronavirus pandemic.

“The global economic slowdown and lockdown of the markets declared by several countries have adversely affected our cash flow situation,” the company said at the time.

Those comments are not backed by facts. None of the Guptas’ companies, including Indo Africa, declared a force majeure during the pandemic.  

Sing Africa was active as the pandemic took its toll. Between 2019 and 2021, Sing Africa produced 2,166 logs in Bluyeama, according to the FDA’s records. The DayLight saw WhatsApp message exchanges between Mukesh Gupta, CEO of Indo Africa, and Mark Dennis, the chief officer of Bondi Mandingo.

Mark Dennis is the chief officer of the Bondi Mandingo Community Forest. The DayLight/Harry Browne

Last September, who runs the business of Bondi Mandingo, sent Gupta a citation for a meeting.

“Mark Dennis… I will be coming back after the elections in Liberia. I will settle community dues and other obligations,” Gupta replied. “Requesting you to have a meeting after the election. Thanks.”   

“Chairman, we have waited for so long and never [heard] from you,” Dennis said. “Presently, we have embarked on court actions.”

In October 2023, Gupta replied to Dennis saying, “We are ready to pay land rental. I will be coming back to Liberia after Christmas.” Gupta, however, did not return up to writing time.

The agreement between the parties calls for the process of arbitration before cancellation in a dispute arising from performance and other things.

To cancel their agreement, Bondi Mandingo must inform Indo Africa about its decision, according to the document.  Then both parties are required to present one arbitrator each, with another from the FDA. The three arbitrators will preside over the exercise, hear both sides and make a final decision.

Gbarto told The DayLight that the community started the arbitration but the process did not go through as Indo Africa “cannot be found.” He said there were issues with the FDA arbitrator and the venue of the process. The FDA did not respond to queries for this story.

Gbarto said the community would consult a lawyer on the way forward with the cancelation.

Other communities have embarked upon terminating their contracts with Guptas. Bluyeama in Zozor, Lofa and Matro Kpogblen in District Number 4, Grand Bassa, have also considered cancelation of their contracts with Sing Africa and Starwood.

Bondi Mandingo Community Forest covers 37,222 hectares in the Bopolu District of Gbarpolu County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Last year, Korninga B, a neighboring community, terminated its contract with Indo Africa over non-compliance.  

Given their experiences with Indo Africa, locals now prefer conservation to commercial logging. The Community Rights Law… gives them the right to make that choice with the approval of the FDA.

“The community has now shifted its initial plan from logging to conservation,” Dennis said. “They are looking at the benefits of conservation to the environment.”

Bondi Mandingo has decided to distribute US$65,000 they received from Indo Africa among all six affected communities for projects, according to documents seen by The DayLight.

Totoquellie and Farwhenta selected a maternity center and auditorium, while Sappima, Loloma,  Guyanta, Gbarquoita chose a guesthouse each.

Impact: Arrest Warrant for Members of Illegal Logging Network Exposed by The DayLight

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Top: The Temple of Justice in Monrovia. Picture credit: Reuters/James Harding Giahyue


By Gabriel M. Dixon


MONROVIA – The Monrovia City Court has issued an arrest warrant for 10 people for their alleged involvement in unlawful logging activities, first revealed to the public in an investigation by The DayLight.   

They include Dawoda Sesay, a former police commander, Varney Marshall, a former ranger with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), and Beomjin Lee, a Korean national. 

They have been charged with property theft, forgery, economic sabotage, criminal conspiracy, criminal facilitation and bribery. A police inquest found the men felled a number of first-class logs in Gbarpolu County and attempted to ship them through the Freeport of Monrovia.   

“These people will go in the bushes fell the trees, cut the logs, and use bogus documents in order to evade taxes, and will use those documents to ship the containers of logs out of Liberia,” Police Inspector General Patrick Sudue told a news conference last week.

The DayLight had broken the story and went on to assist the police in their investigation, providing them with important pieces of information that would lead to the charges.

The newspaper, which focuses on environmental investigations, first published on 14th August last year that the FDA had arrested three container trucks loaded with illegally harvested timber nearly a month earlier.

The paper would go on to publish a detailed account of the illicit activity that same month, naming members of the syndicate and the role they played in the illegal harvest. Not long after that, the FDA petitioned the circuit courts in Bomi and Gbarpolu to auction the logs, orders it is yet to be granted.

The DayLight also published a leaked video, revealing Marshall’s own illegal logging operations. Marshall can be held in the video complaining over his accomplice’s attempt to cheat him while filming huge piles of boxlike wood, commonly called “Kpokolo.” Pictures apparently taken by another accomplice show the depth of Marshall’s criminal operations, including loads of containers of kpokolo.

On Monday, the FDA announced it has dismissed Marshall, citing the report and charges against him at the Monrovia City Court. “A video circulated on social media and reported by The DayLight online media captured Mr. Marshal’s open engagement in illegal logging activities, a vice he was hired to prevent and combat,” the FDA said in a statement. It added that Marshall had admitted in an inhouse probe.

FDA also said it has suspended Edward Jallah without pay, another FDA ranger captured in The DayLight’s initial report that eventually led to the city court’s charges.

FDA Seizes Container Trucks Loaded with Illegal Logs

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Top: One of the four container trucks loaded with illegally harvested logs at the FDA Regional Office in Tubmanburg, Bomi County. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman


By Emmanuel Sherman

TUBMANBURG, Bomi – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has seized four container trucks loaded with round logs that have been illegally harvested in Gbarpolu  County.

Joseph Tally, FDA’s deputy managing director for operations, told The DayLight on Sunday that the agency would provide details on Monday but said it was still investigating.

“Right now, we are in pursuit of the [alleged] perpetrators,” said FDA’s Managing Director Mike Doryen, responding to a Facebook user’s allegation that the agency had taken a bribe from the company. “If we wanted [a] bribe, we could have allowed the containers [to] leave, and not to [seize] the logs.” He did not answer calls placed to him.

FDA rangers at the Klay checkpoint arrested the trucks recently after their drivers failed to show permits for the transport, according to sources.

The sources said the rangers later found out that logs were harvested from a forest in the Bopolu District by Reliable Import and Export Company, which has not acquired a logging license. The logs are ekki, an expensive species of wood, currently trading for US$281 per cubic meter on the international market.

The National Forestry Reform Law of Liberia prohibits logging without a contract.     

Penalties include the payment of three times the international prices of the species of logs, according to the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products.   

Under the regulation, the FDA must confiscate the woods and auction them through two separate court orders.

One of the four trucks loaded with round logs that were seized by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) in Tubmanburg, Bomi County. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

(This version updates the previous version of the story, adding comments from the Managing Director of the FDA, the name of the company, and details of the woods illegally harvested and their price. We will add details as they unfold)

Henry Gboluma of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ) contributed to this report.

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