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Bong Clan Desires Deed for Ancestral Land


Top: Villagers work on a farm in Jorpolu Clan in Jorquelleh District, Bong County. The DayLight/Harry Browne

By Matenneh Keita

JORPOLU CLAN, Bong County – In 2019, one year after the Land Rights Act, people in a clan in Jorquelleh District, Bong County, declared their intention to acquire an ancestral land deed.   

Jorpolu Clan declared its intention to obtain a deed, known as community self-identification. Then it set up a governance structure to oversee land matters. Now, people of the clan are cutting boundaries with neighboring clans to decide their land size.

But there is a problem. Jorpolu has four boundary disputes with the neighboring Behquelleh and Suakoko Clans. Under the law, communities own land on which their ancestors lived, farmed and hunted. However, they must resolve all their boundary disputes to be granted a title deed.

“We’re talking with [the neighboring clans] and they’re consenting to the discussion,” says Austin Leayne, the secretary for Jorpolu land leadership. “They all can come together for us to discuss the best way forward for everybody to live in peace and harmony.”

Initially, there were 22 boundary issues between the Jorpolu Clan and the adjacent clans. Eighteen have been resolved, with the balance of four issues outstanding. Of those four disputes, Jorpolu has three with Behquelleh and the other with Suakoko.

The first dispute in Behquelleh regards a town called Gbaota. The family of a deceased famous chief there is claiming about 10 acres of land.  

The second is related to the first. The land the family claims runs through another town called Gowarmue. However, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) has been drafted for the disputing parties to sign, according to Josephus Blim, program officer with Parley Liberia. The NGO assists Jorpolu and other communities through the legal process of acquiring a customary land deed. Its work is part of a US$3.45 million project funded by the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility headquartered in Sweden.

Jorpolu landmass covers thousands of hectares of land, including forest. The DayLight/Charles Gbayor

“Those are just minute places,” Blim said. “I don’t think it would stop the customary process from going on.”

The third land dispute Jorpolu has with Behquelleh is over farmland between a town called Gbarney in Jorpolu and another town in Behquelleh called Kpanyan.  

The people from Jorpolu who settled on the land want the land to stay under Jorpolu but a family in Behquelleh wants it to remain there.

Jorpolu’s dispute with Suakoko is the most major. It is a longstanding issue between the two clans over at least 150 acres of land along a creek.

The Woue Creek evenly divides both clans. It takes a deep curve between Gbenjema on the Jorpolu side and Galai on the Suakoko side.  

Farmers in Gbenjema who crossed the creek to farm on the land are claiming it but the family of a late elder in Galai counterclaimed it.

“We have made a breakthrough in getting the heirs of the elder to reach a compromise with Jorpolu to resolve the dispute,” Blim said. He added relatives of the late elder attended a recent meeting Parley Liberia organized. 

Once Jorpolu resolves all the disputes, the Liberia Land Authority is mandated to survey to confirm the clan’s land and give it a customary deed in line with the law.

Thirty-one communities across the Country lands have been surveyed, according to the Land Authority. About 22 communities have already been granted customary deeds, with Fessibu in Lofa the latest.

Martha Sheriff is a member of Jorpolu Community Land Development and Management Committee. The DayLight/Harry Browne

People in Jorpolu cannot wait to join the list. 

“This land deed is very important to me because during those days women did not have the right to plant anything. Even to plant cocoa on your father’s land… your brothers would say, ‘You don’t have property here,’” says Martha Sheriff, a member of Jorpolu land leadership.

But now, I feel good because of the Land Rights Act that has given me the right to own land and plant cocoa, rubber, and other things on the land for me and my children’s future,” Sheriff added.

“My brothers can’t stop me.”   

While a customary deed would solve the Sheriff’s familial problem, it promises enormous benefits for Jorpolu.

In 2021, Huiren Mining Inc., a mining firm, signed an MoU with few people in the clan and did not live up to it. Neither Jorpolu’s land leadership participated nor was it aware of the document.  

Austin Leayne, the secretary of Jorpolu Company Land Development and Management Committee. The DayLight/Harry Browne

Following three years of heightening tension over social benefits,  the Ministry of Mines and Energy recently halted Huiren’s operations. A meeting between the company and affected communities is scheduled for next month.

Johnson Kong-bai, the head of the Jorpolu land leadership, rues the marginalization. He believes Jorpolu possession of an ancestral deed will prevent such a thing, though communities are guaranteed customary ownership by the law.

“If I have my deed, I got the full right to go to the company and say, ‘This place you want to operate is my area,’” Kong-bai tells The DayLight. “‘Before you do anything here, you and I will have to sit and discuss what will be the community’ benefit.’”

Lawmaker Hijacks Mining MoU, Undermining Villagers’ Benefits

An elevated view of Huiren Mining Company Camp in Jackson Village, Bong County / The Daylight/ Charles Gbayor

Top: An elevated view of  Huiren Mining Company Camp in Jackson Village, Bong County / The Daylight/ Charles Gbayor

By Matenneh Kieta and Charles Gbayor  

JACKSON VILLAGE, Bong County – For years, Melvin Teah drew water from a creek near his home. Teah and other villagers used the water to drink, cook and wash.

Then everything changed in 2020 when some Chinese miners arrived in Jackson Village, one of Bong County’s most famous mining towns.

The miners started digging for gold and created a waste plant close to the creek, poisoning the water. Now, villagers need to walk 10 minutes to the nearest presumably safe creek for water. There is only a single public handpump.

“[Jackson Village] is very large, and we have about 300 persons living here. The handpumps that are here are not even correct three,” Teah said. “We also take water from Gbarnga to drink.”

The situation in Jackson Village could have been better had Huiren Mining Inc. lived up to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) supervised by Bong County lawmaker Marvin Cole.

Jackson Village, Bong County, hosts Huiren Mining Company. The DayLight/Charles Gbayor

Jackson Village and the other towns in the clan—Gbarmue, Matthew Village, Kpaah and Banama—have a huge potential for gold, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

The region has been a hub for mainly artisanal mining activities over the years. It was infamous for tragic mining accidents, which helped convince locals to lease their land to the company.

Huiren acquired a class B or medium-scale license for gold in January 2021, which runs to January 2026. Before that, it spent six months there prospecting for the mineral between 2020 and 2021, official records show.   

It promised to construct several handpumps for Jackson Village and the other affected communities to lease their land, according to villagers. The DayLight could not verify this claim and others made by the villagers, as the MoU is silent on the company’s social responsibilities.  

The residents also accused Huiren of failing to fix roads and bridges in affected towns and villages.

The road from Gbarmue—, the largest of the affected towns and villages— to Jackson Village is rough and rocky with many ditches. Commuters must get down from motorbikes to walk 30 minutes to Jackson Village.

“If we don’t clean this road with our hands and do rehabilitation, cars and motorbikes will not come in,” said Othello Topeoh, a resident of Gbarmue.

Jackson Village, Bong County, hosts Huiren Mining Company. The DayLight/Charles Gbayor

Huiren also failed to build a school, and a clinic or provide funding for scholarships, according to the villagers.

Washington Bonnah, the Commissioner of the Jorquelleh District Where Jorpolu falls, denies that assertion. Bonnah said Huiren gave Gbarmue at least US$7,000 to build a school in 2020 or 2021. Marcus Kennedy, a community leader in Jackson Village agreed with Bonnah.

But Larry Gbelekabolu, the Town Chief, denies that. His brother Benedict Gbelekabolu, the youth president of Jorpolu Clan, supported him.

“Before the company came to the community, the gold mining that the community was doing for itself the money generated was what we used to build the school in Gbarmue,” said Benedict Belekabolu. 

But Bonnah, the Gbelekabolus and other residents agreed on other things. They all accused Cole, the representative of District Number Three covering the Jorpolu Clan, of concealing the MoU and hijacking their agreement with Huiren.

No one, except an elderly man, had a copy of the document, not even Bonnah or Benedict Gbelekabolu who signed it. A recent survey by CSI or Civics and Service International, a nongovernment organization,  found that 94 percent of the Jorpolu Clan have not heard of the MoU. The survey also found 95 percent of the people were unaware of it. 

“The MoU shouldn’t be in [hiding],” said Otis Bundor, CSI’s country director. “If the MoU is available to the public, it will be easier to get the full level of accountability.”

Marvin Cole Representative District Number Three  At His Capitol Building Office. Facebook/Hon J Marvin Cole

In an interview with The DayLight at the Capitol Building in Monrovia, Cole said he had misplaced the document and would look for it.

Cole helped draft the MoU, canceling a previous MoU because of “lots of weaknesses,” and that it was a “disservice” he had not participated in drafting it.

“They needed to specify when they do the [semi-industrial] mining what would come to the community,” Cole said. “Those were the issues I raised, and I think it was based on my level of intelligence and understanding. I was on the [House’s] Committee on Mines and Energy at the time.”  

The result of Cole’s arrangement does not justify the lawmaker’s actions. Turns out, the current MoU is weaker than the previous one and is ambiguous like its predecessor.

In the initial document, the community was entitled to US$2,500 quarterly, which amounted to US$10,000 annually.

Interestingly, locals are entitled to US$9,600 yearly in the Cole MoU. That is US$400 less than the annual financial benefits in the discarded document.  

That aside, the unavailability of the MoU has wrapped the community’s relationship with Huiren in secrecy. Townspeople do not know whether the miners have paid them any money or not.

Bonnah, who is one of the signatories to the community account, said he was unaware of any transactions.  Bonnah added he had not heard from the two other signatories of the account, including a staff in Cole’s office named Solemane Sesay.  

Washington Bonnah, the Commissioner of Jorquelleh District, Bong County. The DayLight/Charles Gbayor

Cole said he was unaware Sesay was a signatory to the account but told reporters Sesay had traveled to the United States.

“We were authorized to open the account. [I don’t know the signatories], except I look on the bank statement to know who are those signatories to the account,” said Cole.

Efforts to contact Sesay were unsuccessful. Emory Saylee, a staffer in Cole’s office promised to share Sesay’s contact but did not. Bonnah and other locals did not have it either.

But Cole’s comments are not backed by fact. It was the lawmaker who oversaw the establishment of the bank account, according to a May 10, 2022 letter.  Before then, Huiren hand-delivered the money in town hall meetings.

Representative Marvin Cole’s letter to Huiren Mining Inc.

“I present compliments and wish to inform the management of Huiren Mining Inc. that all payments to the following account details,” Cole wrote Huiren. It was an account at the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), entitled “Washington Bomah.”

Bonnah said Cole did not inform him before opening the account. That appears to explain why his name was misspelled as the account title.

Daniel Toe, Huiren’s project manager, said the company has been making periodic payments into the account, and could not be blamed for the stalemate.

“If they say they are not receiving it, they have to be asking their leadership concerning this money,” Toe said in a phone interview.

The DayLight obtained a receipt of a US$4,000 payment from the company made in May last year.  Toe said the company would not make future payments until the account issue was resolved.

Toe conceded that the company failed to construct Jorpolu’s roads but blamed the locals for the failure of the other projects.

“They have not come up with any definite project yet for us to get involved,” Toe said.

At a recent community meeting, Fanseh Mulbah, the Deputy Minister for Planning, at the Ministry of Mines, praised the Jorpolu Clan for being peaceful

Mulbah said the Ministry of Mines would investigate the matter.  

The United States Embassy provided funding for this story. The DayLight maintained editorial independence over the story’s content.