Forest Benefits for River Cess in Limbo

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Stockpile of logs in Rivercess County.

Yarkpah Town, River Cess County – Projects that would have been the first tangible benefits for citizens of River Cess County accrued from commercial logging are now stalled because the money intended to complete said projects is not forthcoming as the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration comes to an end.

Projects yet to be completed include the Yarkpah Town Vocational Training Center, a clinic in Tikep Town and a guesthouse in Yolo.

These unfinished projects were commenced after the Forest Law of Liberia was revised in 2006 under the Sirleaf Administration, thereby setting aside 30 percent of land rental fees paid to the government by logging companies to affected communities.

But as the Sirleaf Administration winds down with reports that the government is facing serious financial problems, citizens of River Cess are worried that those projects will not be completed as the Benefit Sharing Trust Fund is reportedly bereft of funds.

The uncertain fate of these projects is especially grave to Sardy Gardeh, Town Chief of Yarkpah Town.

“These projects are very important to us. For instance, when this vocational training center is completed, our boys who are primarily engaged in commercial motorcycling will go there to learn different things other than motorcycle transport,” Sardy noted.

When completed, Sardy said the Yarkpah Town Vocational Training Center will be the only training center apart from the high school in Cestos City, and it will provide the opportunity for young people in the county to have vocational skills that will reduce their propensity to get involved in motorcycle transport which, according to him, has claimed the lives of many people and left others crippled.

“It is the first time we are expecting to get benefits from our forest since we started knowing ourselves, but as this government is coming to an end and most of our people ahead of the projects running for public offices, we do not know the fate of the projects they told us about. Even though the clinic project is located far from a lot of us, we will manage to go there for treatment if completed. But those heading the Community Forest Development Committee (CFDC) are saying that there is no money to complete it. We, therefore, do not know if our county that is one of the poorest in this country will reap the benefits of the forest that successive governments have harvested over time,” Sardy said.

River Cess is home to a large portion of the Upper Guinea Forest belt of West Africa.

The Oriental Timber Company (OTC) operated in this forest against the UN Security Council Embargo on timber and arms during the administration of convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Proceeds from the forest were used to purchase arms for Taylor, leaving the county without any benefits.

These and other violations may have weighed heavily in the prosecution and conviction of Gus Kouwenhoven, OTC Chairman, in a Dutch court for aiding and abetting war crimes and illegally trading arms during the height of Liberia’s civil war, which claimed over 250,000 lives.  Kouwenhoven was arrested in South Africa last month and the Dutch authorities are now seeking his extradition to the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Sardy is not the only one in River Cess who is concerned about the fate of these earmarked projects that have come to a standstill.

Kar Kollor, a youth of Yarkpa Town, claims that because of the lack of a training center he and his peers are unable to acquire vocational skills.

“We, young people leaving high school or dropping out of school, have nothing to do but to run motorbikes. So we want our project completed to give us the opportunity to learn skills,” he said.

Julia Sando, a mother of three and head of Yarkpah Town women’s group, said because of the lack of a training center, their children are going astray – girls engaging in prostitution at gold mines while the boys are concentrating on commercial motorcycle transport without respect for their parents’ concerns.

River Cess forest is currently exploited by three logging companies including EJ&J Mandra, Liberia Trade & Timber Company (LTTC) and International Consultant Capital (ICC).

The New Forestry Reform Law of 2006 set aside 30% of forest income for affected communities, 30% to other counties in the republic and 40% to the national government.  Companies operating in the forest do so under the Forest Management Contract (FMC), a program designed for sustainable forest management.

Under the New Forestry Reform Law, a company is required to pay a land rental fee of US$2.50 per hectare. The fee is multiplied by the number of hectares, and 30% of the total amount generated is given to the affected communities.

Robert F. Wallace, Coordinator of Commercial Forest Department, Forestry Development Authority (FDA), did not state how many hectares are being exploited by the three companies operating in the River Cess forest, but noted that a substantial amount is generated from the land rental fee.

However, Mr. Wallace said the stalling of earmarked projects in River Cess is due to the failure of some of the companies to comply with their financial obligations. He said some companies owe government a substantial amount.

Clarifying how those projects began, Matthew Walley, head of the Community Forest Development Committee (CFDC), said River Cess received US$1 million from the land rental fee, and the Benefit Sharing Trust Board allotted different amounts for different projects.

For instance, out of the US$1 million, US$48,000 was allotted to construct the vocational training center in Yarkpah Town, but as the project reached roof level, there was no money accrued to the Benefit Sharing Trust Fund.

Mattias Yeanay, head of the Benefit Sharing Trust Board, said they received US$1.9 million in the trust fund, which was used to commence the stalled projects. He said because the 30 percent benefit is not forthcoming, the projects have been suspended indefinitely.

Active logging began in 2009 after the lifting of the embargo on the export of round logs from Liberia. The first legal shipment of logs left Liberia in June of that year to the world market.  Since then, affected communities and others entitled to benefit from the forest were getting their percentages deposited into their respective accounts.

Also strengthening the law for benefits to affected communities is the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), which creates a provision that forest benefits should also impact affected communities.

It came into force in 2011, and it calls for the licensing of all logs leaving Liberia to EU countries under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade (FLEGT) policy. Its main purpose is to prevent illegal logging activities from taking place in Liberia, considering the lessons learned from the civil war.

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives and the Thomson Reuters Foundation with funding from Australian Aid. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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