Liberia: Villagers Seek to Cancel Contract with Singaporean Loggers

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

By Esau J. Farr, with The DayLight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservation 

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

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

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

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

This story was originally published by The DayLight and has been republished here as part of an editorial collaboration.