Presidential Committee wants to split Bassa Forest between two companies
By William Harmon, with New Narratives
COMPOUND THREE, GRAND BASSA COUNTY – A high-level committee constituted by President George Manneh Weah wants to divide a forest between two logging companies to settle a dispute in the Grand Bassa District No.3 B and C. That move violates the Community Rights Law (CRL) with Respect to Forest Land that was created for communities to render their own decisions in order to benefit from their forest resources.
District No.3 B and C have been embroiled in conflict, with one section of the community—backed by local authorities—favoring West Water (WW) and the other Renewed Forest Group (REF). The tussle over the 49,729-hectare forestland has dampened locals’ expectations for development just over a year since this remote part of Bassa obtained the right to manage their own forest.
The presidential committee, which comprises Representative Thomas Goshua of District No.5 (its chairman), Chief Zanzan Karwor of the National Transitional Council of Chiefs and Elders and Bishop Matthew, says it has resolved to divide the forest between WW and RFG to settle the dust.
That move violates the law, with President Weah and the committee receiving criticism from civil society organizations. Under the CRL, only the community forest governance structure in consultation with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has the authority to negotiate contracts.
“As President of the republic, we can also accept that you will take action against the FDA management if it is found to be ineffective and biased,” Richard Hoff of the National NGO Coalition of Liberia tells Daily Observer. “In order to ensure checks and balances, it would be prudent for the President to refer disputes in community forests governance to the FDA management using the established legal framework and processes enshrined in the 2009 Community Forest Law,” Hoff adds. His group issued a statement in October on the District No.3 B and C stalemate, making the same call.
Hoff urges President Weah to dissolve the committee, saying its intervention is hurting the intent of the CRL. “We want to openly say that any process established outside the Community Forest Law by setting up a committee parallel to the FDA, which has the statutory mandate to manage Liberia’s forest resources, is not just wrong, it is undemocratic and will automatically damage the entire law sending Liberia back to zero where community forest can only exist at the will and pleasure of the political class,” Hoffs says.
The office of the President refutes Hoff’s criticism. Solo Kelgbeh, Presidential Press Secretary, argues the committee’s move to divide the forest among the two companies was the best way to resolve the problem.
“This will give the equal operating rights to everyone,” Kelgbeh claims. “The President wants the forest divided in order to ensure that there is calm in the district,” he reemphasizes. He discloses President Weah had had a meeting with citizens, the two companies and the FDA on the impasse.
Representative Vincent Willie, whose constituency includes District No.3 B and C and is a member of its community assembly—the highest decision making body under the CRL—backs the presidential committee’s decision. “This is what our people have told us that they want,” he says, asking rhetorically, “So why can’t they be granted their wish?”
Josephus Zeon, an eminent citizen of the community, supports President Weah’s intervention. “He is the leader of the land and it is his responsibility to in intervene in situation that has the propensity to create confusion.”
However, Gertrude Nyaley, technical director of FDA’s community forestry department, says it was not possible to split the forest unless District No.3 B and C amends its agreement with the FDA and reflects that change in its management plan. Under the law, communities must sign an agreement and present a management plan to the FDA before signing a logging contract.
“If such thing was to happen I think I should know, but I can tell you that I do not know of any demarcation,” she says, denying knowledge that the distribution of the forest had already begun.
Representative Willie, however, is firm on the decision to share the forest among the two contesting companies. He accuses the FDA of masterminding the district’s dispute.
Nyaley denies the accusation. Representative Goshua, Chair of the committee, has yet to comment on the matter.
But tension is high in the district over the legitimacy of its leadership.
Janjay Konmeh, chairman of the community forest management body (CFMB); Banjamin Bueh, chairman of the community assembly; and Jeremiah Gayepue, chairman of the executive committee, are all suspended. Under the law, the CFMB represents the community in logging deals with the supervision of the executive committee.
An ad hoc committee was set up to replace the men at a meeting Representative Goshua chaired and FDA officials attended in September. Konmeh was replaced by Matthew Zangar, Benjamin Bueh by Bonkai Goffa and Jeremiah Gayepue by Sam Z. Joe.
The suspended leadership is contesting their removal. “We are still the legitimate people to act on behalf of the community and we have not signed another third party with any company.
Civil society actors who attended the meeting in September where they were suspended say their replacement is illegal.
“Three times a vote was taken of Community Assembly members present but two-thirds could not be attained, to remove the accused officers according to their constitution and bylaws,” recalls Martin Vesselee of Partners in Development (PADEV). He says the three men’s accusers presented no evidence of their wrongdoing to the meeting.
“We didn’t see any merit in the complaints the aggrieved community members had against the leadership of the community,” says Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). “There were absolutely no merits in the claims against the leadership as per what we observed at the meeting in Bassa.”
Yiah says the ad hoc committee is contributing to the crisis. He says the committee should have held elections for new officials of the community governance structure, but it began negotiating for another logging contract with another company from day one after it was set up. “We the acting leadership and community assembly members write to invite you to the signing ceremony of the third-party agreement with West Water (Liberia) Incorporated,” reads a letter the ad-hoc committee wrote to FDA, signed by Zangar, its acting chairman.
RFG has filed a writ at the Temple of Justice to compel the company to halt the division of the forest and give it the exclusive right to operate the forest. The suit was filed against the community through District Superintendent, Joe S. Paigar.
Dave Williams, RFG’s chief executive officer reveals the Supreme Court has referred the case to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to resolve the dispute in the district.
A cloud of regret and disappointment still hovers over the district.
“It is unfortunate that the community has been involved in crisis since it obtained the certificate to harvest logs in its forest,” says Emmanuel Williams of the Rally Road community. “It is so frustrating that our community has not been able to move forward almost two years since we joyous received our certificate.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of a Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.