Ezekiel Geeplay/LFMW-Sinoe County
The idea of the 2009 Community Rights Law (CRL) was to give communities the right to control, protect, and manage their forests along with its resources.
But the lack of finance, and being unaware of the possibility of managing the forest themselves, led to many communities giving their forests to commercial operators to harvest logs/timber.
These commercial use contracts have, however, not existed without challenges such as non-compliance and illegal logging by companies on one hand and misappropriation and mismanagement of revenues by some community’s leaderships on the other hand.
Despite these challenges, some communities are standing tall to ensure revenues received from companies are used to develop their communities. This also has not happened without the requisite capacity building support from local and international development organizations. Sawacajua Forest community in Sinoe County is one of those communities that benefited from said training in August 2018.
The training empowered community members to document illegal logging activities, monitor implementation of commercial use contracts (CUC) signed between communities and companies and resolve and mitigate potential challenges in accessing benefits from the forests-using forest monitoring tools.
Also in January 2019, SDI conducted a two day Record keeping and Bookkeeping training for Sawacajua Community Forest officials as part of an FAO funded project: “Strengthening community forestry structures and their governance”. The two day training strengthened their technical capacities to document and manage community records, record all financial transactions and to manage community funds.
Four years on, the leadership of the Sawacajua forest community has constructed three key social infrastructures from revenue received from the Mandra logging company. Under the community forest management law, companies are to pay US$1.25 per hectare annually, as land rental fee to communities. The law states that 55% of this should go to the community, while the remainder goes to the government. “These infrastructures, especially the clinic, city hall and police station, are the first of its kind in our community”, Morris Suah, Chairman of the Executive Committee asserts. The forest management leadership put the cost of the projects at little over US$77,000 (seventy seven thousand).
“The potential of sustainable community forest management to support local development can’t be overemphasized, provided all parties proceed well in line with the law. Imagine a community building a police station on their own using logging revenues, when all we have known is that only government can build police station”, Jonathan Yiah of the forest governance program at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), said.
Jonathan believes communities can do better if forest revenues are received directly. “In this case, the people themselves decide what is good for them and ensure they implement it to the fullest, as we are now witnessing in the case of Sawacajua.
The guest house constructed in the forest community
Chief Officer of Sawacajua community’s committee set up to oversee the logging contract, (the Community Forest Management Body, or CFMB), Oliver Clarke, and Chairman of the Executive Committee (EC) that the CFMB must report to, have both termed the development as a major milestone in the history of community forestry in Liberia. Both officials praised Mandra Company for paying their land rental and cubic meter fees, and hence, encouraged them to continue.
“Indeed today we can boast of having a modern police station in Bilibocree, A junior high school in Chebioh town, a modern guest house in Gbalawinee and several hand pumps across the forest communities as a result of revenues collected from these concession companies operating in our forest” says Oliver Clarke.
Community members are upbeat about the infrastructure development taking place in their community. Elder Bobby Sampson says “We are forever grateful to the management of the company that saw the need in meeting up with these tasks in keeping with agreements signed with them”.
The Human Resource Manager of the Mandra Logging Company, Kwekue Quedy says his company remained committed to its social corporate responsibility to the community, adding, the company is expected to do more in keeping with the agreement it signed with communities.
The road to achieving those essential social infrastructures by Sawacajua community has been rocky. In May 2019, the community removed officials of the CFMB on allegations of misrepresentation, mismanagement and misappropriation of entrusted funds.
In January 2020, the new forest management body of Sawacajua wrote several complaints to the management of Mandara Company, informing the company of its failure to implement CUC reached between the company and community. Following this, a decision to halt the company’s operations was made by the community. But the Forest Development Authority (FDA) later intervened, at which time the company promised to deliver on its promises. After several months of follow-up, community members say the company again failed to live up to the promise it made before the FDA.
In July 2021, Sawacajua community sued Mandra Logging Company for non-compliance. Well, after a long journey, residents of Sawacajua community are today celebrating a major infrastructure boost as a result of their tenacity, bravery and high level of organization in convincing Mandra Logging Company to comply with an agreement it had made with the citizens of Sawacajua.