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FDA Lets Loggers Ship US$3.5M Logs, Denying Villagers’ Share

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Top: West Water has a 15-year contract with District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The company is indebted to the owners of the forest but was allowed to export timber. The DayLight/Derick Snyder


By Emmanuel Sherman and Gerald Koinyeneh    


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

TONWEIN, Nimba and GAYEPUE TOWN, Grand Bassa – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) permitted a company to export several consignments of timber while the firm was indebted to communities where the logs were harvested, a violation of a forestry regulation.

From June last year to March 2024, West Water Group (Liberia) Inc. shipped seven loads, totaling 3,275 logs or 18,683.309 cubic meters, FDA’s records show.  The shipments are valued at an estimated US$3.5 million, based on the FDA-approved prices and details of logs in the consignments.         

Yet West Water owes Blinlon Community Forests and District Three B&C in Grand Bassa and Nimba Counties over US$100,000, according to the leaderships of both community forests. The debt—approximately three percent of the estimated value of the exports—includes fees for land rental, harvesting, scholarships, and health services.

“The money from those logs that were shipped has not come to the community,” Jeremiah Gayepue, the head of District Three B&C leadership, told The DayLight. “The people are suffering.” West Water did not respond to queries for comment.

The FDA’s approval of the exports violates the  Regulation of Forest Fees, requiring West Water to make all outstanding payments before shipment or harvesting.  

The exports came to the spotlight after a DayLight investigation found half of the logs in the March consignment had been illegally harvested. The FDA denies the report, saying the newspaper “misinterpreted” the export dataset.

‘[Get] them out’

In July 2020, West Water signed a contract with locals to operate the 39,409-hectare Blinlon Community forest in the Yarwin-Mehnsonnon District near the Nimba-River Cess border.    

The contract mandates West Water to pay the community yearly land rental, harvesting and scholarship fees.

However, as of last month, the company owed the community over US$32,000, based on an interview with Junior Jacobs, the head of Blinlon’s leadership. The DayLight could not update that information at press time due to the lack of mobile phone connectivity in that part of Nimba.

Things are worse in District Three B&C, where West Water harvested four of the seven consignments of logs it exported.

The new Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) Rudolph Merab approved one of the exports for West Water Group (Liberia) Inc., while the company owed community forests in Nimba and Grand Bassa Counties. The DayLight/Harry Browne

West Water signed a contract with the Grand Bassa villagers about a year after it sealed the Blinlon deal.  The new contract covers 24,862.5 hectares along Grand Bassa’s borders with Nimba and River Cess.

West Water owes District Three B&C nearly US$80,000, according to The DayLight’s calculation, based on interviews with the community forest’s leaders.  It has outstanding land rental, harvesting, scholarships and health services payments.

These outstanding payments and other issues have sparked two protests this year, the latest last month. Locals set up roadblocks and prevented West Water’s workers from going into the forest as the company has always been indebted to them.

“If the company is not meeting its obligation we will revoke their documents to get [them] out,” Alex Bonwin, a member of the community forest leadership, said.

Indebtedness

Created in 2007, the Regulation on Forest Fees is one of several reform provisions to ensure forest resources “directly benefit local communities and the government.”

Jonathan Yiah, the lead forestry campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), blames West Water’s persistent indebtedness to the communities on the failure of the FDA to enforce the regulation.

Jeremiah Gayepue, the chief officer of the District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/ Emmanuel Sherman

Yiah said the lack of enforcement of the regulation would lead to the termination or suspension of West Water’s contract. 

“If the current government of Joseph N. Boakai means business, then forestry laws must be enforced in totality so that both the government and the communities can benefit from our resources,” Yiah told The DayLight.  

Yiah is not the only person to have said this.

A World Bank report released last month calls on the Liberian government to prioritize forest communities by managing forestry resources sustainably for peace and prosperity. The report found that climate change will push 1.3 million people into poverty and reduce the size of Liberia’s economy by 15 percent by 2050 if nothing is done.

‘Very repressive’

The FDA dodged queries for comment on its failure to enforce the Regulation on Forest Fees. The agency disclosed that the company also owed the government US$59,319.50, which also breaches the regulation.  

“Yes, we confirm that West Water has tax liabilities,” Merab said in a letter to the newspaper. “However, [the Liberia Revenue Authority] is the lead determinant of tax obligation.”

Merab is a staunch opponent of forestry laws and regulations.

In an interview with the African Report in 2015 after Liberia signed a US$150 million deforestation deal with Norway, he claimed that logging’s legal regime had impoverished rural communities.

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

During his induction as Managing Director of the FDA, Merab aimed a dig at the crafters of the legal framework for creating laws “that cannot work.”  

He stated that in a recent interview with the Associated Press, adding he would work to scale back regulations.

“Sometimes regulations become too cumbersome and it stifles productivity,” he said in the interview. “Same thing with laws. Sometimes the law becomes very repressive.”

Illegal Miners Mine Sand in Historic Beach Graveyard

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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.

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