25.9 C
Monrovia
Monday, July 22, 2024
Home Tags Grand Bassa County

Tag: Grand Bassa County

Company Exports Timber Amid Outstanding Community Projects

0

Top: A West Water skidder in District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Philip Quwebin


By Emmanuel Sherman and Gerald Koinyeneh  


Editor’s Note: This is the third part of a series on the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal timber exports. 

TONWEIN, Nimba and GAYEPUEWHOE, Grand Bassa – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) authorized a company to cut thousands of logs. However, it did not execute its social agreement with communities, violating a harvesting regulation.

West Water Group (Liberia) Inc. has operated in Blinlon and District Three B&C Community Forests in Nimba and Grand Basaa, respectively. During this time, it harvested 2,782 logs (20,095 cubic meters), according to the FDA. 

But West Water has completed just a few out of dozens of mandatory projects for the communities, a DayLight investigation found.

“We will make sure they do that. I just want our people to be patient because these projects have been overdue,” said Eric Dahn, a leader of Blinlon’s community forest leadership.

“So, if it causes us to stop the company from operating until they fulfill all the promises, we will do it,” Dahn added.

This investigation adds to another published earlier this month, which found the FDA violated a payment regulation by approving West Water’s exports amid its indebtedness to the communities. Both payment and harvesting regulations empower local communities to benefit from forest resources.  

The villagers’ plight had been thrust into the spotlight after an initial DayLight investigation found the FDA approved the export of West Water’s illegally harvested timber in District Three B&C.

West Water did not respond to questions for comment.

Failed promises

In 2020, West Water, a Chinese-owned company, signed a 15-year contract with Blinlon Community Forest for its 39,409 hectares of forestland in the Yarweh-Mehnsonneh District near the Nimba- River Cess border.

A West Water camp in Tonwein, Nimba County. The DayLight/Gerald Koinyeneh

The company promised the villagers a series of projects across Blinlon including a school, clinic, handpumps, roads and concrete bridges.

Nearly four years on, West Water has only done two out of 14 handpumps and has just started paving mandatory roads, which should have happened at the beginning of the contract. It has not done the school and clinic, which should have commenced in 2021, according to the contract.

The company only jumpstarted the roads after townspeople protested, blocking its workers from entering the forest in March. Both parties later resolved on March 5 to end hostilities.

“We will make sure they fulfill all the promises,” added Dahn.

Protest and Interference

The tension in District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa is higher. It mirrors a string of controversies, which have marred the community since it obtained community forest status in 2014. (communities own forestlands but must complete legal requirements to sign logging contracts)

At that time, the community forest contracted Renew Forestry Group to operate its 49,728 hectares of forest on the border of Grand Bassa, River Cess and Nimba.

However, a conflict erupted. The forest leadership recognized Renew Forestry Group, while the local and county authorities sided with West Water.

Ultimately, the forest was split between the two logging companies. Renew Forestry Group took Community Forest One, and West Water Community Forest Two. 

Then in 2021, West Water signed a 15-year contract with District Three B&C  Community Forest of 24,175 hectares of woodland. The company promised to build roads, concrete bridges, a clinic, a school, market tables, town halls and hand pumps.

Like its Blinlon contract, West Water has not lived up to its contract with District Three B&C. It has completed just one out of eight hand pumps, while villagers drink from polluted creeks. Three years into the agreement, it has not done the major roads, bridges, clinics, town halls and market tables.  According to the contract, most of these projects should have been completed in two years.

“West Water is not doing anything good for us,” Alex Bonwin, a member of the community leadership said. “If the company is not doing what they’re supposed to do we revoke their document to get out.”

West Water’s failure to honor the contract has led to tension, with three protests already this year. In the latest one, which occurred last week, townspeople stopped seven log-loaded trucks from leaving the community.

Alfred Flomo, the representative of Grand Bassa Electoral District Four, where the community forest lies, interferes in the matter.

Gayepuewhoe Town is one of 14 communities that own the District Three B&C Community Forest. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

In a May 12 meeting, Flomo asked the company to stay off the forest until it addressed issues the villagers raised, according to the meeting’s minutes seen by The Daylight. That was the second time he had taken such action.

Under the community forest law, lawmakers are members of the community assembly, the highest decision-maker, and the executive committee. However, they cannot unilaterally halt a company’s operations.

Flomo and the townspeople’s actions also violate the contract between West Water and the community. Both parties agreed to settle their dispute between themselves or through an arbitration procedure. Flomo did not reply to The DayLight’s emails and text messages for an interview.

The FDA did not respond to queries for comment on this story. However, in a recent interview, Director Rudolph Merab told the Associated Press he would work to scale back regulations. Those comments echoed ones he made during his induction in February, saying forestry reformers created laws “that cannot work.”


[Additional reporting by Philip Quwebin and Derick Snyder]

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

FDA Approves Export of Illegal Timber Valued Nearly US$1M

0

Top: In one of his first acts after being appointed Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority, Rudolph Merab signed an illegal export of 797 logs for West Water Group (Liberia) Inc.  The DayLight/Harry Browne


By James Harding Giahyue


Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a series on the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal timber exports.  

MONROVIA – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) approved the export of 797 logs, valued at an estimated US$923,441,  despite being aware that over half of the timber had been illegally harvested. The illegal shipment was one of the first acts of Managing Director Rudolph Merab—a serial logging offender—since he became the unlikely head of the forestry regulator.  

The export permit and a National Port Authority reconciliation report show that West Water Group (Liberia) Inc., which operates in Grand Bassa and Nimba Counties, owns the shipment.  Merab had approved the export barely two weeks after his appointment in February, according to the permit.

The 4,702.679 cubic meters of logs were loaded onto M/V Tropical Star, a ship flying under the Malaysian flag. The vessel departed the Port of Buchanan on March 16 bound for China. Marine Traffic, which provides information on the movement of ships,  reports that the ship is due in China on May 16Wenzhou Timber Group Co. Ltd, the Chinese state-owned firm that deals in timber and other trades, bought the consignment, according to the permit.  

But an analysis of the consignment FDA’s computer system generated by, obtained by The DayLight, identified 401 logs, or 50.3 percent of the consignment as illegal logs.  The LiberTrace system tracks logs from their origin to their final destination. Programmed automatically to flag noncompliance, it is a crucial part of forestry reform following years of corruption and mismanagement. SGS, a Swiss verification firm, created LiberTrace in 2014 and turned it over to the FDA five years later.

This pie chart analyzing West Water’s illegal timber export that was approved by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA)

A document from the FDA’s legality verification department (LVD) provides a peep into how Merab approved the export. It reveals Gertrude Nyaley, the Deputy Managing Director for Operations, who headed LVD at the time, endorsed the export.

“[Managing Director Merab], please approve [West Water’s export permit] as per the analysis and payment made,” Nyaley wrote to Merab.

Nyaley appeared to have skipped the red flags LiberTrace raised. “Out of the 797 logs, 50 percent are traceable with red label because of diameter [issues]. Two percent is also traceable relating to species. And 48 percent over tolerance,” Nyaley added.   

On the contrary, the analysis shows that the FDA had not authorized the harvest of some of the logs. Others were either immature, originated from different sources or had other issues, violating several forestry statutes.

‘Vulnerable’

The FDA had not approved the harvesting of 180 of the 401 problematic logs, according to the Liber Trace analysis. 

Of that 180, 160 logs were ekki wood (Lophira alata) that did not meet the legal diameter ekki wood is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a UN-recognized body that promotes sustainable use of natural resources. The DayLight manually verified the permit that details each of the logs exported. Some even measured 60 centimeters, 20 centimeters less than the required dimension, known in forestry as the diameter cut limit.

No penalties

Approving the West Water shipment shows Merab, an outspoken critic of forestry regulations, ignored various legal frameworks, and the violations LiberTrace flagged. The main function of LiberTrace is to keep illegal logs from the FDA’s chain of custody system, which covers everything from harvest to export. That, in turn, rids national and international markets of illegal timber and timber products.

Unauthorized harvesting, cutting smaller trees,  and false declaration of tree species all carry a fine or a penalty.  Unauthorized harvesting, for instance, carries a fine of twice the value of the species of logs unauthorizedly felled, under the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products. Mr. Huiwen, West Water’s owner, did not respond to email and WhatsApp queries for comments.

The Forestry Development Authority authorized the export of 797 logs for a company called West Water barely two weeks after Rudolph Merab was appointed Managing Director of the FDA.
A screengrab of LiberTrace’s analysis of, yellow-highlighting problematic logs in West Water’s consignment

SGS, which comanages LiberTrace alongside the FDA, reviewed the permit but did not disapprove it. 

Theodore Aime Nna, SGS’ forestry project manager, did not return questions for comments on this story. Nna said he was “not currently around” and would be available in 18 days for an interview. Nna, who took a swipe at The DayLight in two immediate emails, did not reply to the newspaper even 21 days thereafter.  

‘Major traceability errors’

In his response to The DayLight’s queries on Wednesday, Merab said the red flags LiberTrace raised did not “automatically point to traceability or legality issues,” and were, in fact, “normal occurrences.”

A West Water camp in Nimba County. The DayLight/Gerald Koinyeneh

Merab said the 12 logs that were different from the one declared during inventory might have been mistaken. “The logs recorded in that specific export permit are consistent with the approved physical logs,” he said, without any evidence.

On undersized logs, Merab suggested that the logs LiberTrace red-flagged in this category were based on tree inventory data, not the ones that were felled or in West Water’s log yard.

This likely mix-up is commonplace in forestry. However, the details of the logs on the export permit do not support Merab’s explanation. The document repeats the very things LiberTrace identified as a warning or an error. If the log data had been verified as Merab claimed, the changes would have been reflected on the permit’s spec.

Merab offered another broad, textbook justification for the ekki logs LiberTrace picked up as immature.

“This happens because logs have a conic shape with a bottom diameter higher than the top diameter. In the case of a crosscut of that log, the diameter and the length will reduce mainly at the top part of the initial log. Again, these are normal occurrences,” he said.

What Merab referenced is called the diameter at breast height cutting limit or DCL in the Guidelines for Forestry Management Planning. But it only measures a standing tree’s trunk or the tree butt end, not the top end or a crosscut log. It is measured at the height of an adult’s breasts.

Furthermore, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) which writes the bible for the global wood trade describes ekki logs as cylindrical, not conical.   

Merab sidestepped the question regarding the FDA’s disapproval of the felling of a significant amount of West Water’s logs.  

A screenshot from LiberTrace detailing the history of the status of West Water’s 797 logs

But, remarkably, The DayLight obtained a LiberTrace screenshot detailing the history of the status of the export permit. It reveals that the FDA approved the export permit less than 48 hours after LiberTrace identified the “major traceability errors.” For an agency perennially plagued by financial, logistical and manpower constraints, that was too short a time to correct hundreds of legality issues surrounding the consignment.

A Serial Forestry Offender  

The West Water illegal export has added to Merab’s profile as a serial forestry offender.

His last known illegality was his participation in the infamous Private Use Permit Scandal in which his company Bopolu Development Corporation (BODECO) was illegally awarded 90,527 hectares of forest in Gbarpolu in the 2010s.

Before that, Merab traded “blood timber” alongside former President Charles Taylor, which fueled death and destruction in the Mano River basin between the 1990s and early 2000s, according to British NGO Global Witness.

The Regulation on Bidder Qualifications partially debars Merab and other wartime loggers from conducting forestry activities in Liberia, except if they meet special requirements. It, however, is unclear whether the regulation blocks Merab from heading the FDA.


[Gerald Koinyeneh of FrontPage Africa and our editor-at-large Emmanuel Sherman contributed to this report]

To get the estimated value of logs, The DayLight multiplied the total volume of each species of logs in the consignment by the FDA-approved price and summed up the products.

Illegal Miners Mine Sand in Historic Beach Graveyard

0
created by dji camera

Top: Jatoken Mining Inc. is one of several mining companies that have been awarded licenses to mine zircon sand in Liberia. Drone photograph by Derick Snyder


By Emmanuel Sherman and Tenneh Kieta 


BUCHANAN, Grand Bassa County – Large holes and sand piles lie on the beachfront, not too far from the graves of some of the forefathers of Liberia, including Stephen Allan Benson, Liberia’s second president.  Water seeps into the pits as the sunray hardens the sand piles like termite mounds.

Be not deceived for they are not a sign of renovation works on the final resting place of the pioneers. They are evidence of an illegal mining operation that once threatened the existence of this historic graveyard and its quiet, seaside neighborhood.

Last August, Jatoken Mining Incorporated, a majority-Chinese-owned company, arrived in Upper Buchanan with its machines. They began mining zircon sand, a mineral used in the ceramics and electronics industries. Locals call it black sand.

Locals were shocked. The representative of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and local authority had not informed them about Jatoken’s activities. Moreover, it is a violation to mine in a graveyard.

“When they [first] came they said they wanted to do prospecting on the beach because we have black sand,” recalled Joe Russell, the town chief of the Upper Buchanan community. “When they came again, they did not consult me and began digging.”

News of the operation claimed the attention of Dr. Laurence Bropleh, then a presidential advisor, who hails from that area. Bropleh helped stop Jatoken’s mineworkers. “They can seek other places to go,” Bropleh told The DayLight. “We are protecting the serenity and historicity of our place.”

The police and Emmanuel O. Sherman (no relation to the reporter), then the Deputy Minister for Operations at the Ministry of Mines, investigated the matter. A Chinese woman only identified as Caroline presented a mining license, according to Bropleh and other residents.

Sherman reviewed the document and told her it was fake, according to Bropleh, Eddie Williams, a representative of the Office of the Superintendent of Grand Bassa County, and other people. The police then drove the miners away.

The DayLight was not able to obtain a copy of the license in question. However, the newspaper photographed large mining pits, sand piles and earthmovers impressions Jatoken left behind, scarring Upper Buchanan’s pristine, grassy seafront.

Jatoken has never obtained a license to operate in Grand Bassa County, records of the Ministry of Mines show. All of its licenses are for Montserrado and Sinoe, according to the records.

The ministry’s records suggest that none of Jatoken’s zircon licenses has been surrendered, canceled, suspended, or placed under review as of February 3, 2024. An online repository run by the ministry tracks the statuses of licenses. The fact there is no entry in the system for Jatoken in Bassa proves the one Jatoken presented was fake.

When contacted, Sherman declined The DayLight an interview, forwarding the newspaper to Emmanuel Swen, then Assistant Minister for Mines. Swen said he did not have any idea about the issue and could not speak on it.

By law, the Ministry of Mines should have pressed charges against Jatoken. Forging a mining license is an offense under the Minerals and Mining Law of Liberia. Violators face between a US$1,000 and US$2,000 fine or a prison term of two to three months. However, the ministry rarely prosecutes anyone for a mining violation. The DayLight reported last year that Jatoken was ineligible to do business in Liberia due to its illegal papers but authorities took no action. Other illegal activities in River Cess, Montserrado and Nimba last year—one involving Minister of Justice-designate Cooper Kruah—suffered the same fate.

Official records show that Jatoken is one of the companies awarded zircon licenses across the country. That violates a 2012 moratorium on beach sand mining imposed to ease coastal erosion countrywide, with Buchanan the epicenter. The city has lost entire communities to violent waves scientists say are an impact of climate change. So far, Upper Buchanan has been spared and residents hope it stays that way.

“We are protecting Upper Buchanan. We are protecting Liberia,” Bropleh said.

 “My house may go. I may be able to afford to build another house but what about the rest [of the people] and all the rich history?” He added.

Illegal company

The DayLight’s initial investigation on Jatoken found it amended its article of incorporation twice but failed to register the changes with the Liberia Business Registry. To prevent money laundering, terrorism financing and other crimes, the Business Association Law requires companies to register all changes in their legal documents.

Impact of sea erosion, Gbalaweh town, Kokowein, Buchanan, Grand Bassa The Daylight/Emmanuel Sherman

The investigation also found that Jatoken may have amended its article of incorporation without the consent of one of its owners, Tibelrosa Tarponweh, the former Margibi lawmaker.

Tarponweh and Jianjun Haung, a Chinese national, established the company in 2014, named after Tarponweh’s hometown in River Gee. The former Margibi lawmaker has 15 percent of the company’s shares and 85 percent of shares for the Jianjun, according to Jatoken’s article of incorporation with the business registry.

On July 3, 2019, Jatoken illegally amended its legal documents and transferred Tarponweh shares to another person. It did another unlawful amendment on September 29, 2021, its tax history shows.

But the former lawmaker said that he was unaware of those amendments. Tarponweh claimed that his signature on the company’s resolution to remove him as a shareholder was forged.

Swen did not dismiss Tarponweh’s accusation at the time. He promised to launch an investigation once Tarponweh filed a complaint with the ministry, though The DayLight provided evidence of the Jatoken’s disqualification.  

In March last year, Tarponweh said he would lodge a complaint with the ministry and sue Jatoken for alleged forgery. He repeated that again in a phone interview with The DayLight last week.  “Now that the elections are over I am ready to pursue my case,” Tarponweh said. 

Effort to contact the Chinese woman only identified as Caroline, who is Jatoken’s manager, proved futile. She evaded several attempts by The DayLight for an interview, and did not respond to WhatsApp messages and a number of phone calls. It was The DayLight’s second failed attempt in a year to speak to a representative of Jatoken over a report on the company’s illegal activities.

Funding for this story was provided by the United States Embassy in Monrovia. The DayLight maintained editorial independence the story’s content.

How FDA Gave Loggers Over 14K Hectares of Surplus Forests

0

Top: Graphic showing FDA Managing Director Mike Doryen and different illegal activities of West Africa Forest Development Incorporated (WAFDI) in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Rebazar Forte


By Emmanuel Sherman


GONO TOWN, Grand Bassa County – At the end of 2021, the Ministry of Justice concluded an investigation into a Chinese-owned company accused of illegal logging.  

The investigation confirmed that the West African Forest Development Incorporated (WAFDI) harvested logs in the Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest in excess of legal requirements. However, the investigation found WAFDI was not alone.

It turned out, the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), which had recommended the official inquest, had illegally awarded WAFDI about 14,460 hectares of extra woodland in Grand Bassa’s Compound Number Two. The agency had approved Gheegbarn’s entire 26,363 hectares to be harvested over two times faster than normal forestry regime demands.

What happened in Gheegbarn was the peak of illegal logging activities in at least seven community forests in four counties. It could be the biggest logging scandal after the FDA illegally awarded about 2.5 million hectares of forestlands to companies over a decade ago.

‘We hereby approve…’

It all began in December 2018 when WAFDI signed a seven-year agreement with the leadership of Gheegbarn #1. (They call it that way to distinguish it from Gheegbarn #2, a neighboring community forest). WAFDI is owned by a Chinese named Wang Chenchen. It has a link with Augustine Johnson, the manager of  Mandra, an Asian-owned company the FDA recently penalized over its abandonment of thousands of logs.

One year on, WAFDI presented the FDA with its harvesting blueprint for five years, known in the industry as a forest management plan. Then it broke down the plan into seasons.

Season 2018-2019, the first, targeted about 3,700 hectares, the documents show. The other plans featured larger harvesting areas, including about 4,000 hectares for the season 2024-2025, according to The DayLight’s estimate.

The unlawful map of WAFDI’s operations in Gheegbarn #1 shows the company’s plan to harvest all the community forest within just seven years, more than two times faster than the normal rate.

The FDA confusingly illegally approved WAFDI’s plans twice, first on July 4, 2019, and then on August 26, 2020, according to official documents.

“We hereby approve said plans having met all basic requirements,” FDA’s Managing Director Mike Doryen said in communications to the company. It ironically hyped the plans for being “complete,” “accurate” and containing “quality information.”

“Therefore, management anticipates full compliance in the implementation of these plans as we strive to ensure sustainable forest management in Liberia,” the letters added.

Plans approved, WAFDI began to operate in 2019, according to official records.

But barely two years later, the FDA disapproved of WAFDI’s attempt to export 601.801 cubic meters of logs. The FDA accused WAFDI of harvesting timber in forest areas it had not permitted.

Later on, the FDA asked the Ministry of Justice to investigate, which it completed in about two months. SGS had reported the matter a month earlier in a monthly publication.

By that time, WAFDI had harvested 6,007 or 32,347.855 cubic meters of logs, according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), citing FDA and company records. It exported some 29,104 cubic meters. In 2021 alone, WAFDI sold US$531,460, LEITI records show.

The investigation did more than book WAFDI over the embattled swathe of forest. It found that the FDA was largely responsible for the situation.

Top: A worker watches as logs of West African Forest Development Incorporated (WAFDI) harvested with an illegal plan are loaded onto a container truck. Here: Four container trucks loaded with logs WAFDI illegally harvested in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

“The investigation found that other logs from the purported unapproved blocks were previously approved and export permits were signed by the FDA… and SGS,” Minister of Justice Frank Musa Dean wrote to Harrison Karnwea, the chairman of FDA’s board of directors, on December 2, 2021.

“WAFDI took advantage of [FDA’s illegal approval] and requested to commence operations and same was granted by FDA beginning 2019,” Dean’s letter further read.

It said FDA and SGS had sanctioned the company’s harvest and export under the very illegal plan FDA. SGS is a Switzerland-headquartered firm that helps track Liberian logs from their sources to final destinations.

The FDA broke the law in the first place by approving the company’s plan to harvest all 26,326 hectares in seven years, the investigation found.  The National Forestry Reform Law requires the FDA to monitor all harvests and ensure they are legal and sustainable. The Code of Harvesting Practices, on the other hand, restricts the rate of felling trees to 15 years.

The investigation unearthed FDA had endorsed the WAFDI-Gheegbarn deal to last for seven years, instead of the 15 years in the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands.

The DayLight’s review of the illegal harvesting plan showed FDA awarded all of Gheegbarn’s 26,326 hectares in just seven years. The regulator further okayed the company to operate somewhere between 3,700 and 4,000 hectares. That was more than doubled the forest area the code requires.

Overall, the FDA granted WAFDI an area in excess of 14,460 hectares of humid, Bassonian forest, according to our calculations. And by the time of the ministry’s inquest, WAFDI had already harvested 11,600 hectares an unlawful bonus of 6,500 hectares. That means, in less than three years, WAFDI cut trees which would have taken seven years to do legally.  

WAFDI was not the only company in the scandal. Within that same period, the FDA illegally approved six other agreements in Grand Bassa, River Cess, Nimba and Gbarpolu.

Like WAFDI, the FDA authorized the companies to harvest all of their contracted forests within the duration of their agreements.

The scandal mirrored another one in Zorzor, Lofa County, where the FDA permitted a company to harvest an estimated US$2 million worth of logs outside its contract area. The FDA replaced its staff who supervised the county at the time.

‘Restore the Sanctity of the FDA’

The Ministry of Justice urged FDA’s board to take action against individuals “to restore the sanctity of the FDA.”

C. Mike Doryen oversaw the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal community forest agreements from 2018 to 2020 that granted companies excess forest areas. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue  

The board of directors heeded the ministry’s advice. It passed a resolution on January 26 last year, calling for the dismissal of Jerry Yonmah and Simulu Kamara, the technical managers of the commercial and legality verification departments, respectively.

The resolution also called for the dismissal of Abraham Sheriff and Jessie Vannie, the operations and data information managers of the legality verification department, correspondingly. They deny any wrongdoing.

Gualberto Ojo, right, and some of WAFDI’s workers at an event in March. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Five days after its resolution, the board asked President George Weah to sack and retire Joseph Tally, FDA’s Deputy Managing Director for Operations. The board accused Tally, who the resolution listed, of aiding in the illegalities.

“This will send a strong message to would-be violators,” Karnwea’s letter to President Weah read. It said the scandal had “eroded the credibility of the management team, thereby affecting donors’ behaviors.”

Though the resolution spared Doryen, who approved all of the illegal documents, he was clearly reprimanded. The resolution advised him not to sign any future documents without the counsel of the FDA’s legal department and that he must attend important meetings to be abreast with forestry matters.

President Weah did not heed the board’s recommendation and Tally remains in his position. Tally told The DayLight in June the matter was now “water under the bridge,” praising “dynamic” and “prudent” President Weah for retaining him.

Also, none of the accused masterminds was fired. However, they were all replaced, giving way to new heads of the commercial, legality and community forest departments.

The Aftermath

In the end, WAFDI’s agreement with the villagers was amended from seven years to 15 years. Subsequently, work in Gheegbarn ceased for about 11 months.  It was unclear whether the FDA and WAFDI corrected its harvesting plan as the Ministry of Justice had instructed. The FDA did not grant The DayLight’s request for that and other documents, a violation of several forestry legal instruments.

As the scandal shook the FDA to the core, it took a toll on Gheegbarn.   

In their agreement, WAFDI promised to build roads, schools, a clinic, and latrines, construct handpumps, and pay scholarship fees. However, the company has not met its obligations.

“They are using the halt as an excuse to not do our projects,” said Junior Wesseh, the head of the community leadership. “They have been operating for five years, only two handpumps and a latrine they dealt with.”

One of the two handpumps in Gono Town, WAFDI constructed. It is obligated to construct eight of them by now. The DayLight/Carlucci Cooper

Apart from community projects, the company also failed to pay harvesting fees before its operations ceased.

“They said they were not responsible for our cubic meters fee, because they lost US$1 million dollars,” said Larry Tuning, the secretary to the community leadership.

Based on The DayLight’s calculations, WAFDI should pay Gheegbarn US$64,695 for the logs it produced from 2019 to 2021, at least according to official data. We could not independently verify Tuning’s claim in the absence of payment records. By law, WAFDI and the FDA should have published the figures in the newspapers and the agency’s website.

Junior Wesseh, head of Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest leadership. The DayLight/Carllucci Cooper

WAFDI called off an interview with The DayLight in its third minute upon Johnson’s orders. Johnson said the newspaper had not given prior notice. He did not respond to emailed queries afterward.  

But responding to criticisms from Gheegbarn’s leadership when the European ambassador visited the area in March, Gualberto Ojo, a WAFDI representative, blamed the company’s indebtedness and failures on the U.S-China trade war and illegal chainsaw milling. The ambassadors had chosen the region as a case study to understand the challenges of community forestry.

Ojo—and the FDA managers present—avoided talking about perhaps forestry’s biggest scandal in the last decade.

The FDA did not return The DayLight’s queries for comments.


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

The Broken Promises of a Private Palm Plantation

0

Top: A poster shows views, elevation images and actors of an agreement between Coniwein in Grand Bassa and Local Farm Inc. Images by Carlucci Cooper and Harry Browne, and graphic design by Rebazar Forte for The DayLight.


By Esau J. Farr and Carlucci Cooper


GBIAGAYE TOWN – In 2007, villagers in Coniwein in District Number Two, Grand Bassa County jubilated after signing an agreement with Local Farm Inc., a Liberian-owned agriculture company.

But 15 years on, things have turned out to be the exact opposite. Controversies with Franklin Jackson, Local Farm’s owner and CEO,  have changed the inspiration for hope among townspeople into despair.

“[Franklin Jackson] told us that Local Farm was a pumpkin and he was planting the pumpkin to spread in Coniwein. But the pumpkin is not spreading. Now we are suffering,” says Anthony Ben, a resident of Gbiagaye Town, the headquarters of Coniwein.  

Coniwein leased Local Farm Inc. 2,500 acres of land to plant crops, with profits from their sales to be shared equally between the parties, according to their 2007 agreement.

The villagers wanted development in the area, following decades of neglect by the state like much of the countryside. They would use the funds to pave roads, build a school and a clinic, and erect handpumps, among others.

Local Farm planted palm trees on about 750 acres of the land found in the Marblee Clan, the villagers and the company say. Production started in 2010, according to the community, or 2013, according to Jackson.  

But except for US$20,000 in 2013, Jackson has made no payments to Coniwein over the years. It did not make any financial reports—to announce profits or losses—as the agreement mandates.

This soured the relationship between the community and the company.

Franklin L. Jackson, Managing Director of Local Farm Inc./The DayLight Esau J. Farr

The peak of their conflict was when Coniwein sued Jackson in 2018  for economic sabotage and misapplication of entrusted property. He had used the community’s deed as collateral to acquire a US$160,000 loan from the Afriland First Bank, US$90,000 of which he received. However, the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County cleared him of all charges, according to court documents.  

‘I take full responsibility’

In an interview at his home in Paynesville, Jackson says he cannot pay the community any money because he has not made a profit, despite investing US$1 million in the plantation. He says the US$20,000 in 2010 was an upfront payment.

An elevation view of a dormant mill at Local Farm Inc. in District Number Two, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Carlucci Cooper

Jackson concedes breaching the agreement and blames the Ebola epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic for his farm’s woes. He says Ebola, which broke out in Liberia in 2014, disrupted the farm’s initial efforts to produce palm oil. And when it was recovering, coronavirus came in 2020.

“Like all businesses, we shut everything down. If we don’t make a profit, you can’t divide nothing,” he tells The DayLight.

Jackson claims that he informed the community he was shutting down due to the epidemic. However, there is no record that Local Farm activated the force-majeure provision of the agreement with Coniwein.

Apart from the contract issues, Local Farm owes its workers several months of unspecified, unpaid wages.

“First, from the brushing, they paid us by cash and second, they paid us by oil but the oil that we were supposed to receive, we [did] not receive all,” says Ben, also a former contractor.

Jackson again blames Ebola for owing workers and says he is willing to pay them once he resumes production on the farm.  

“We thought that Ebola could have lasted a few months. That resulted in us owing ex-employees,” Jackson says. “We had to lay off the employees and we didn’t have the money to pay them. This is where that employees’ liability comes in.”  

Joseph Ben, a former worker of Local Farm Inc./The DayLight/Harry Browne

Matters are worsening at the plantation by the day. Two months ago, chiefs and elders halted operations. Villagers are harvesting the plantation in Gbeal Town. Reporters of The DayLight photographed and video-recorded one man carrying a container of palm oil from the plantation. There were signs of no guards at the plantation.

“The agreement we [entered] in, we can’t get our share. That’s why we put [a] halt to the farm,” says Joseph Karngbo, president of the Coniwein-Gbeal Development Association, the group established to manage the section’s land.   

This elevation image shows a portion of a palm plantation Local Farm Inc. developed in Coniwein in Compound Number, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Carlucci Cooper

Jackson fears the plantation could be lost soon because villagers are not trained to harvest palm bunches.

“We trained particular people to harvest. Handling palm during harvesting is one of the most delicate things because if you don’t know how to harvest, you kill it (palm tree) prematurely,” Jackson notes.

The action of the townspeople to halt operations at the farm violates the agreement. It requires the community to embark upon an arbitration process to resolve its dispute with the company.

But Jackson appears resigned already. “I have come to understand that I was wrong, I was naive, stupid and I made the wrong decision; I take full responsibility.”

Women Want to Continue Roles in Troublesome Community Forest

0

Top: Dugbormar Kwekeh, a member of Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest tells European envoys about challenges with commercial logging in that part of Liberia in a March meeting. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By Emmanuel Sherman


JIMMY DIGGS TOWN – A logging contract between a community forest and a Chinese-owned company in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County is perhaps forestry’s most troublesome agreement today.

But women on the leadership of Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest, which has a contract with West African Forest Development Incorporated (WAFDI), desire to continue their roles as elections draw near.

“We will be willing to work again if elected because we want to develop our place,” says Dugbormai kwekeh a member of Gheegbarn’s community assembly (CA). She and other women spoke in the Bassa language through an interpreter.

“We want our children to go to school, we don’t want them to be like us,” Kwekeh added.

Elections for a new corps of officers for the community’s forestry leadership are slated later this year.

Every five years, a forest community elects new members to its community assembly, which represents towns and villages that own the forest. Members of the new assembly then elect officers of its executive committee, the highest decision-making body in community forest governance. The assembly also elects members of the community forest management body (CFMB), which runs the affairs of the community forest. The CFMB tenure ranges from two to five years. The Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands requires at least a slot for a woman on the CFMB.

Oretha Toway, a member of the CFMB  hopes to serve another term. “If appointed again, I will help the new leadership to build the community,” says Toway. “We don’t have any school, hospital.”

Illegal Logging

Gheegbarn’s trouble began from the very beginning in 2018. The FDA illegally approved the community’s Forest agreement with WAFDI with a lifespan of seven years, not 15 as required by law.

After that, the FDA authorized WAFDI harvest of more than three times the size of the forest as the law mandates. It took over three years for the Ministry of Justice to discover the scandal in an investigation.

The ministry later reprimanded FDA, SGS, the firm that created Liberia’s timber-tracking system, and WAFDI for breaking forestry laws and regulations.

The scandal tore off the roof of the FDA and the towns and villages of Gheegbarn. Logging activities in Gheegbarn were halted for nearly a year.  FDA board of directors asked President George Weah to dismiss several senior managers of the agency. That did not happen but a major reshuffle took place. Gheegbarn and WAFDI have retroactively signed a new contract for 15 years.

The women-member of Gheegbarn are aware of the impacts of the scandal on the community, including the over-exploitation of the forest in the last three years. (WAFDI exported 29,104 cubic meters of round logs during that time, according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, citing FDA figures). However, it motivates them more.

(L-R) Dubormai Kwekeh, Oretha Toway and Markoni Geezee, members of Gheegbarn Community Forest leadership. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

“I will agree to serve as a member of the assembly, provided there will still be logs in the forest,” says Etta Diggs an assembly member.

The women want to cancel the agreement with WAFDI because it has not lived up to the agreement.

By now, WAFDI should have constructed two schools, connected four farm-to-market roads, and 10 handpumps by now and employed 60 percent of its workforce from Gheegbarn.

“We don’t want the company anymore. They brought poverty on us,” Kwekeh adds.   She had made the same point when EU ambassadors visited the community back in March. Kwekeh’s comments are backed by the law, as villagers can choose to cancel contracts with companies.

But amid the rigmarole with WAFDI, Gheegbarn also has an internal wrangle, which the women also want to address. The executive committee chair Robert Zeogar and the secretary to the CFMB Larry Tuning are at loggerheads with the chief officer of the CFMB Junior Wesseh, according to Wesseh and the women. Efforts to speak to Tuning and Zeogar on the issue did not materialize. Both men were not present during this reporter’s two-day stay in the area and their phones were off.

Wesseh, Zeogar and Tuning are signatories to the account, contrary to the community rights regulation. The regulation mandates the chief officer, the treasurer another authorized community member approved by the assembly.

“The EC chair [Zeogar] and CFMB secretary [Tuning] have been making unauthorized withdrawals with alerts coming to the CFMB chief officer [Wesseh],” says  Jonathan Yiah. Yiah’s NGO, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), works with Gheegbarn’s leadership.  

Markoni Geezee, a member of the assembly would only serve another term given that Tuning and Zeogar are replaced.  She accuses the duo of enriching themselves at the expense of the community.

“We walked till our slippers cut along the way for the company to come but now we are the losers,” says Geezee.  “You only have a few people getting rich from the forest.”

Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest has been a scene of forestry’s biggest scandals in a decade. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Funding for this story was provided by the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI). The DayLight maintained complete editorial independence over its content.

FDA Illegally Cut Contracts Term And Gave Companies More Forests

0
created by dji camera

Top: The Forestry Development Authority unlawfully authorized companies to harvest trees in forests in excess of the legal requirements. The DayLight/Derick Snyder


By James Harding Giahyue


  • For three years, the Forestry Development Authority illegally approved community forest contracts with reduced tenures, according to official documents
  • The FDA then authorized logging companies to fell trees in forest areas in excess of the legal requirements. Subsequently, the companies were to harvest up to three times more than the lawful timeframe
  • At least one of the companies harvested in an extra forest area for three years before the scandal broke out
  • A Ministry of Justice investigation found the FDA, its partner SGS and a company liable for at least one case

MONROVIA – From 2018 to 2020, the Forestry Development Authority unlawfully approved several contracts in community forests with reduced lifespans. Then the FDA authorized some of the contracted companies to harvest logs yearly in areas more than twice the legal sizes, according to unpublished official documents and an investigation report by the government.  

In those three years, the FDA sanctioned seven logging agreements whose lifespans were sliced from 15 years to between five and 14 years, the documents show.

Thereafter, the agency permitted five companies to operate thousands of hectares of excess forestlands, breaking legal frameworks. At least one of the companies harvested in the extra area about three years before it was discovered in 2021, according to the Ministry of Justice report.  

“The advent of illegality in the forestry sector has eroded the credibility of the management team, thereby affecting donors’ behavior,” Harrison Karnwea, Sr., the chairman of FDA’s board of directors, told President Weah in a letter last January.

“We have started to see the negative impacts on their support to our National Budget,” Karnwea added.

The FDA suspended and replaced four top-level managers after the ministry’s inquest, including Jerry Yonmah, the former technical manager of the commercial department. Yonmah denied any wrongdoing.

FDA board of directors asked President Weah to dismiss Yonmah, the other managers and Deputy Managing Director for Operations Joseph Tally— particularly for Gheegbarn #1. It also asked for the retirement of Tally, who had served the agency for over 30 years at the time. Yonmah had denied any wrongdoing.

Joseph Tally, the deputy managing director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) speaks at an event when European Union ambassadors visited Gheegbarn #1 in March 2023.  The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue  

But none of the dismissals happened. Yonmah and the other managers were transferred to new departments, while Tally retains his position. Tally dubbed the matter “water under the bridge” in an emailed statement to The DayLight on Wednesday and said he had a “creditable reputation.”

The scandal was similar to one in Bluyeama, where the FDA sanctioned a company to harvest trees outside its contract area valued at an estimated US$2.2 million.

Illegal Contracts

An agreement between Kparblee Community Forest in Nimba and Sanabel Investment Incorporated was reduced to 14 years. The same happened with Korninga B in Gbarpolu and Indo Africa Plantation Liberia Limited.

Another between Gheegbam #1 and the West African Forest Development Incorporated in Grand Bassa was shortened to seven years.

The FDA also sliced four other agreements to five years. They include Marblee & Karblee and African Wood & Lumber Company, Tarsue and West African Forest Development Inc in Grand Bassa. The Gbarsaw & Dorbor and African Wood & Lumber, Ziadue & Teekpeh and Brilliant Maju agreements in River Cess complete the quadruplet.   

The reductions go against the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands and the Community Rights Regulation. The legal frameworks restrict community-forest contracts to 15 years, subject to a review every five years.

The frameworks are key pillars of Liberia’s agenda to share the benefits of forest resources with locals following decades of deprivation.

Leaders of the community forests affected scandal distanced themselves from the illegality of their contracts.

Abraham Cooper of Marblee and Karblee said last year, “We did not sign any agreement behind the government of Liberia.”  

Forest Bonanza

While the FDA cut the lifespans of the seven unlawful contracts, it authorized the companies to cut trees at faster rates to match the legal 15-year period.  In one case, the agency approved a company’s plan to harvest outside its contract area.  

C. Mike Doryen oversaw the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal community forest agreements from 2018 to 2020. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue  

For instance, the FDA approved African Wood & Lumber Company’s harvesting plan for 5,600 hectares in the Marblee & Karblee Community Forest from 2019 to 2020. It had authorized the company to cut trees on 28,000 hectares for all five years of the operations, according to one of the documents.  

That means the FDA endorsed the company to harvest 3,645 hectares of forest in addition to the 24,355 hectares of the community forest. The FDA even authorized African Wood & Lumber to cut trees outside the community forest. Nearly seven percent of the area crosses over to territories belonging to adjacent towns and villages, one document shows.

“After thorough review… by the joint team…, we hereby approve said plan, having met all basic requirements,” Doryen wrote African Wood CEO Cesare Colombo, approving its plan for the 2019-2020 harvest season.  

Doryen wrongly claimed in the letter that the plan contained accurate, complete and quality information. He incorrectly referenced the Guideline for Forest Management Planning and the Regulation on Pre-felling Requirements.

By law, African Wood & Lumber should have gotten 1,600 hectares per year, according to the guidelines and regulations Doryen cited. (It was unclear whether the company actually harvested in the extra area or outside the forest.)

Cesare Colombo, African Wood & Lumber owner and CEO, did not respond to emailed queries for comments.  

A screenshot of a page of a harvesting plan the Forestry Development Authority approved that illegally gave Marblee & Karblee 5,600 hectares of land, instead of 1,600 hectares. It also shows that the FDA authorized the company to cut trees outside its contract area in Grand Bassa’s Compound Number Two.

The height of the scandal was the West Africa Forest Development Incorporated (WAFDI). The company actually harvested logs in the extra forest area the FDA approved in 2018.

In late 2021, the Ministry of Justice uncovered that the company had been operating on an illegal harvesting plan. Ironically, the FDA and WAFDI had disagreed over the export of logs from the very illegal area the regulator had approved.  

But by then, WAFDI had exported some 29,104 cubic meters of round logs from 2019 to 2021, according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI). In 2021 alone, WAFDI sold US$531,460 million LEITI records show, citing FDA and company figures.

The ministry reprimanded FDA, WAFDI and SGS, a Switzerland-based firm that created Liberia’s log-tracking system, for the violations.

Minister of Justice Musa Dean said in a letter to Karnwea that Doryen approved WAFDI’s plan “although such management plan violated… the National Forestry Reform Law… and the Code of Harvesting Practices… 

“FDA was in gross violation of the law in failing to ensure that the approved management plan reflected the portion of the forest area that could be harvested within seven years… and not allow blanket harvesting of the entire area for five years,” Dean’s letter read.   

FDA’s board of directors urged Managing Director Mike Doryen, who approved all the illegal contracts and harvesting plans, to sign future documents with the advice of the FDA’s legal department.

The board also suggested that Doryen attended sector meetings to abreast himself with governance and operational matters. Doryen still skips those meetings, according to two regular attendees of the regular gatherings. At an international climate and forest conference Liberia hosted earlier this year, he had promised to attend the meetings. Doryen did not return a thread of emails we sent to him between last February and this month.

WAFDI called off an interview in its third minute with The DayLight at the company’s camp in Compound Number Two. A company executive said The DayLight did not inform them about the interview beforehand.

Abandoned Agreements

All of the other companies involved in the scandal have deserted their responsibilities to the government and the communities.

African Wood & Lumber has not worked in Marblee & Karblee in the last three years. It abandoned some 2,682 logs in Marblee & Karblee. And it owes the company an estimated US$126,029 community in land rental and harvesting fees.

Indo Africa has abandoned Korninga B, which had filed for cancellation of the deal following years of stalemate.

WAFDI no longer works in Tarsue, which did not have the right to sign an agreement when logging began there. Locals had considered terminating the contract.

African Wood walked out of the agreement with Gbarsaw & Dorbor, where it illegally harvested 550 logs in December 2020.    

Gbarsaw & Dorbor is one of the community forests for which the FDA approved an illegal logging agreement. The DayLight/William Q. Harmon

Similarly, Brilliant Maju has not been active for years, according to local media and a union of authorized community forests. The company has failed to fulfill its side of the agreement with Ziadue & Teekpeh.   

Sanabel abandoned 710 logs in Kparblee, and owes the Nimba community in land and harvesting fees, according to villagers.

“The agreements are dormant,” said Bonathan Walaka, the lead facilitator of the National Union of Community Forest Management Body. “They are all dormant.”

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

Illegal Logging Case Undermines Forestry Laws – Watchdog

0

Top: Some of the woods at the center of a legal battle between the Forestry Development Authority and Renaissance Group Incorporated. Photo credit: Civil Society Independent Forest Monitors (CSIFM)

By Mark B. Newa


MONROVIA – A group of civil society organizations in the forestry sector has condemned a logging company for undermining forestry laws and other regulations.

Renaissance Group Incorporated illegally harvesting timber products outside Timber Sales Contract Area Two (TSC-A2) in District Number One, Grand Bassa County.

“Illegal logging outside Liberia’s legal and regulatory framework and exporting of illegally sourced timber is a failure of the rule of law and this undermines Liberia’s efforts towards attaining FLEGT VPA license,” the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism said in a statement on Saturday.

Renaissance and another company called Freedom Group Liberia subcontracted TSC-A2, which was acquired by Tarpeh Timber Company back in 2009.    

In 2018-19 Renaissance and Freedom Group illegally logged at least 14,000 cubic meters of timber worth an estimated US$4.4 million at the time on the international market, according to a 2021 investigation by the group.

Nine thousand cubic meters of illegally logged timber was exported already in 2019 at an estimated value of US$2.8 million at the international market value between January and July 2019.

Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute, right and Abraham Billy, left of the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanismteam/The DayLight/Mark B. Newa

In July 2020, a French consortium hired by the European Union reported that timber felling associated with TSC-A2 was largely uncontrolled. Liberia and the EU signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement, which commits Liberia to develop and implement systems that ensure that timber exports to European Union countries are legally sourced.

The Ministry of Justice and the Forestry Development Authority conducted their own inquest, which confirmed that Renaissance illegally harvested valuable Ekki wood in the Doe Clan, some six kilometers outside the TSC-A2 concession.

Renaissance has reportedly planned to export the rest of the timber it illegally harvested based on the ruling of the court authorizing the FDA to permit the company to ship.

“[Renaissance] is now in the process of completing export of the remaining logs now that the Court has instructed the FDA to authorize exporting these logs, followed by an order of the Supreme Court,” according to Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).

Yiah said the processes leading to the harvesting and subsequent exportation of timber products by the company circumvent the law.

“As long as the illegal logging connected to TSC-A2 remains unresolved, sustainable forest management is being undermined. It clearly validates statements that Liberia’s forest sector is replete with illegalities,” Yiah told reporters.

On January 13, last year, the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Buchanan has started enforcing its ruling of January 13, 2022, in favor of RGI against the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

The court said it could not subject Renaissance to “double jeopardy,” a legal phrase for punishing an individual twice for the same offense.

The CSO group blamed the FDA liable for not appropriately referring the case to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution “because the offense significantly harms the interest of local communities.”

The group lauded the action of the French General Society of Surveillance (SGS) refusal to enroll the logs in question into the chain of custody systems, “categorizing them as illegal logs under Liberia’s forestry legal requirements.”

The group urged the government of Liberia to ensure that the laws of Liberia, especially, forestry laws are respected and enforced at all times.  

The remaining member CSOs of the group are Liberia Forest Media Watch, Civil Society Independent Forest Monitor, National Union of Community Forest Management Body, National Union of Community Forest Development Committee, Foundation for Community Initiative and Save My Future Foundation.

Company Abandons Contract, Leaving Debts and Logs In Bassa

0

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.

An old truck is parked at African Wood and Lumber Company’s log yard in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

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.

Abandoned Logs

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.

An abandoned African Wood and Lumber Company campsite in Karblee Clan, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

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.

A log African Wood and Lumber Company abandoned in the Marblee and Karblee Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

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).

Visit Gives Ambassadors Clues To Community Forestry Challenges

0

Top: A signboard at a logging company’s camp in the Gheebarn #1 Community Forest in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue


COMPOUND NUMBER TWO, Grand Bassa County – Five ambassadors organized an exchange among locals, a logging company and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) to get the gist of the challenges of community forestry. 

It took one and a half hours for the envoys from the European Union, Sweden, France, Germany and Ireland to get what they were looking for. Leaders of the Gheegbarn Community Forest and West Africa Development Incorporated (WAFDI)—and the FDA—presented a perfect picture of one of forestry’s most problematic contracts. Each of the three actors took open aims at one another, as they entertained questions from the ambassadors.

The ambassadors on the visit were Laurent Delahousse of the European Union, Urban Sjöström of Sweden, Jacob Haselhuber of Germany, Michael Roux of France, and Gerard Considine of Ireland. The spouses of the five men also graced the occasion.

Larry Tuning, a member of Gheegbarn’s community forest leadership, started with WAFDI’s unfulfilled required projects in their December 2018 agreement. He criticized the company for not paving farm-to-market roads, erecting schools clinics and handpumps, and underwriting the costs of quarterly meetings.  He, however, praised the company for meeting scholarship, land rental and log-harvesting payments.

Asked whether he would recommend commercial logging in community forestry, Tuning’s response was obvious. “It is hard for me to tell my friends to say ‘Get into it,’ because I [am] facing too many problems,” Tuning added as staff of WAFDI, sitting opposite looked on. “Instead of going into logging if had the support I would go into conservation.” Community forestry is a crucial part of Liberian forestry, giving rural communities the right to comanage their forests.

‘Let them go’

Tuning continued for several minutes, tearing into WAFDI on labor issues. He said the company had contravened a clause in their agreement, which mandates it to employ 60 percent of its workforce from the community. Dugbormar Kwekeh, another member of the community leadership buttressed his comments—and in a dramatic fashion, too.

(R-L) Urban Sjöström, Ambassador of Sweden; Jacob Haselhuber, Ambassador of Germany; Laurent Delahousse, Head of the European Union Delegation; Michael Roux, Ambassador of France; and Gerard Considine, Ambassador of Ireland. The five envoys listen to leaders of the Gheebarn #1 Community Forest in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa at an information and fact-finding tour of the west-central county on March 9, 2023. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

“They are just extracting our logs and there is nothing we are benefiting from,” Kwekeh said in Bassa through an interpreter. Gesturing as she went along, with an audible voice, she expressed frustration and fury. “The company came to subject us to poverty.  “Let them go from here. Another company can take us from poverty.”

Gualberto Ojo, a Filipino who represented WAFDI in the meeting, denied preventing locals from farming. In fact, he accused them of farming on a portion of the 26,363 hectares of forestland they contracted to the company in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County.  

“The company cannot stop the community people from farming; is not for us to say that it is the source of living,” said Ojo. “Most part of the forest is all farming activities, so because of this and other reasons the forest is not really productive.

Dugbormar Kwekeh, a member of Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest tells European envoys about challenges with commercial logging in that part of Liberia. On the far left is Larry Tuning, the secretary of the community forest. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Pit-sawing

Before responding to Kwekeh’s comments, Ojo took a well-timed swipe at Tuning, who is a chainsaw miller. Tuning’s mention of pit-sawing had led to indistinct muttering among FDA representatives at the meeting. Also called pit-sawing, chainsaw milling began after the Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003), and efforts to regulate the sub-sector have failed so far. It has wreaked havoc in forests across the country. Ojo, said, that included Gheegbarn #1.  

“Pit-sawing is one major challenge; it has taken over the forest,” Ojo said, who said he first spotted the illegal activities in 2020. He said WAFDI had told the FDA about it. “People are doing pit-sawing all in the forest now.” 

Human settlements and factors affecting the global logging industry were other issues, according to Ojo. A company representative said there were people from the neighboring Bong County living in the forest, and that the coronavirus and the ongoing U.S.-China trade war.  

“During that four years the market on round logs collapsed totally,” Ojo told the diplomats.

Workers of the West African Forest Development Investment (WAFDI) an information and fact-finding event organized by European ambassadors. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

‘We were like turtles’

Then entered the FDA, represented by Deputy Managing Director for Operations Joseph Tally and a host of top-level managers. There was an announcement from Weedor Gray, the technical manager of the community forestry department for periodic reports from communities. And more questions came.

“Have you ever come to the FDA to request for harvesting or export data?” Gertrude Nyaley, the technical manager for the legality verification department, asked Tuning. Nyaley’s rhetorical question was a response to Tuning’s earlier reply to an envoy about WAFDI’s production and export records. Tuning had said the community did not get the documents, and only accepted fees the company paid. Production records, in particular, are crucial in calculating harvesting payments, known in the industry as cubic meter fees.

Nyaley further pressed Tuning whether he and Gheegbarn’s leadership had informed the townspeople of a US$18,000 WAFDI paid. That question caused a stir among villagers at the event. Tuning encountered a rebuke from a local named Sylvester Williams, who had suggested community benefits were being misused. William disagreed with Tuning that the leadership supported villagers’ farming activities, bursting into a peal of frenzied laughter. Tuning said Williams was busy with his motorcycle taxi and was unaware of community matters. That pushed the community forestry drama to its highest peak. In a phone interview with The DayLight on Sunday, Tuning denied misapplying the fund, saying the leadership had already informed the community about the payment.

Tally, dressed in khaki uniform like all the managers of the FDA, thanked the European ambassadors for the event. “We were like turtles, and you put fire on our backs,” he said.

Joseph Tally, the deputy managing director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) speaks at the event. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue  

Tally’s comments were a reference to criticisms of the rise in forestry violations and the trade of illegal timber. Both the national and international media have published reports of logging wrongdoings, involving the FDA. It was a major issue at last month’s forest and climate forum, where Liberia reassured its commitment to combat illegal logging and climate change in its pursuit of climate financing.

But talking about the correction of past wrongdoings, Gheegbarn #1 was the right place for Tally and his team. Last year, a Ministry of Justice investigation found the FDA awarded WAFDI excess forest blocks. The report, seen by The DayLight, cut the deal between the company and the community from 15 to seven years. Several senior managers were replaced in the fallout of the scandal. The parties have signed a new agreement.

Conservation

Delahousse said the delegation had not come to condemn any of the actors. “This was not a trial of the company. This is a fact-finding information mission, and for us, it was very important to be here and to hear all the various stakeholders,” said Delahousse.

Delahousse said he learned that community forestry was “complicated,” a “bit of a bobble,” and lacked transparency. He urged communities to consider conservation programs instead. Of the dozens of community forests, only a few have a conservation management program. Others have scrapped it to accommodate mining.

“We need to work also on seeing how conservation can be an alternative for some communities,” Delahousse said.  “Maybe they can make more money from conservation.”

After the meeting, the ambassadors and their entourage toured a portion of Gheegbarn Community Forest with the FDA. The visit ended with a trip to the log yard of Kisvan in Buchanan, which operates in the Central Morweh Community Forest in River Cess.

Workers of WAFDI load logs into a container at the company’s log yard in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County in September 2022. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

 

Podcasts

×