By: T. Ezekiel Geeplay, Liberia Forest Media Watch
Mandra, a Logging company operating in the Sewacajua Community forest in Sinoe County, stands the risk of losing its contract with the community if found guilty of non-compliance in a lawsuit filed by community members before the 3rd Judicial Circuit, in Sinoe County.
On June 25, 2017, Mandra Forestry Liberia Limited — a corporation involved in logging activities, signed a Third-Party Forest Management Contract with the Sewacajua Community to harvest logs in an area covering 31,336 hectares of forestland. The contract duration is for 15 years, and subject to periodic review after every five years.
Since the signing of the contract, community members through their leadership have consistently complained of the logging company’s non-compliance with the Social Agreement.
In July of last year, community members met in Gbalawin, Wacaba Statutory District, Sinoe County, to review Mandra’s operations. At the meeting, the community agreed to take Mandra logging company to court for it alleged failure to adhere to the contract.
Sewacajua Community, thru the Chief Officer of the Community Forest Management Body, Oliver C. Clarke, had filed a petition at the Circuit Court calling for the cancellation of the forest management with Mandra logging company.
The Community, in its petition before J. Kennedy Peabody, Resident Circuit Court Judge, among other counts, narrated that Mandra should have furnished the CFMB with copies of Log Data Forms to enable the community to determine actual log harvest the company and the cost thereto attach, but has rightly failed, neglected, and refused to furnish the community with log data form as enshrined in Clause 7, Section 7.3 of the Forest Management Agreement.
“That the Third-Party Agreement provides in clause 3. Fiscal Consideration, Section 3.2 that “Mandra shall pay the amount of US$1.75 per every cubic meter of log harvest and transported by waybill as a benefit to the community,” the suit said.
It added that the company has breached the agreement specifically Clause 5, Social Agreement sections 5.6,5.9 (A) & (B), 5.13, and 5.16 which provide. Mandra shall construct one (2) compartments concrete latrine within each of the fourteen affected towns, and that the construction of these latrines shall be completed within the second year of operation. Notwithstanding, Mandra has failed to do the above as agreed in the agreement.”
According to the community, Mandra has failed and refused to construct hand pumps in fourteen affected towns and rehabilitate those that are damaged and that the work should have been completed within the first two years of the agreement, but the company has failed, neglected, and refused to perform as per the provision of the Agreement.
“Mandra breached the Agreement as to the provisions of 5.9 (A) & (B) for its failure and refusal to construct four schools, two elementary and two junior high schools in its operation areas within three years after the signing of the agreement,” the lawsuit added. “The company also breached the Third-Party Agreement Forest Management Agreement because of its failure and refusal to build a clinic as stipulated in the Agreement during the first three years after signing of the Agreement.”
In the lawsuit, the community said that the response is in breach of the Forest Management Agreement as provided for in Section 5.13, which states “Mandra agrees to build roads and maintain roads in the affected community and also construct bridges on primary roads with solid durable wood like Ekki or other hardwood for longer life”.
“Since then, Mandra has failed, neglected, and refused to even begin the road construction. That the Respondent, in breach of the Agreement has harvested 640,000 cubic meters of log that the log harvested are presently stockpiled in the log yard in Greenville and Sewacajua, Sinoe County. It added that Mandra is engaged in felling under diameter logs/trees which have no market value and leaving them in the forest to rotten in gross breach of the Forest Management Agreement, Clause 4,” the community said.
According to the community, the log stockpiled in the various communities’ forest is valued at US$1,120,000.00 (One Million One Hundred Twenty Thousand United States Dollars), of which Mandra is to pay US$1.75 for cubic meter fees as a benefit to the community.
However, the community said Mandra instead of finding amicable resolution of the issue of the stockpiled logs is engaged in the sawing of planks from the stockpiled logs against the purpose and intent of the Third-Party Agreement.
“Despite several appeals and complaints from petitioner to Respondent for the conference to resolve the matter, respondent has failed and refused to have this matter resolved,” Sewacajua Community suit added. “After two separate communications to Mandra and FDA as per clause 10, section 10.5 of the Third-Party Forest Agreement, the Managements of Mandra and FDA have failed and refused to rectify the breach complained of by the community thru the CFMB.”
In an exclusive interview with Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW) Reporter in Sinoe County, the Chairman of the Executive Committee (EC), Morris Suah lamented that the people of Sewacajua community have loss approximately 1 million United State dollars due to Mandra’s inability to implement the third party’s agreement. He outlined 14 hand pumps, 14 pit latrines, rehabilitation of four feeder roads, construction of four schools and a clinics as outstanding obligations that Mandra is yet to settled with the community since it commenced logging activities.
“We are prepared to take the matter to the Supreme Court if the Civil Law Court doesn’t properly handle this matter to our satisfaction,” Mr. Suah emphasized. According to him, the community has written the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), informing them of their decision to terminate the contract with Mandara.
Amidst these allegations, LFMW tried to contact the management of Mandra through one Kweku Queday (identity as the Human Resource Officer) but to no avail, as calls placed on the mobile phone rang endlessly up to the publication of this story.
The struggle by Sewacajua Forest Community to have Mandra Logging Company comply with the third-party agreement commenced two years ago when the community expressed a vote of no confidence in the previous leadership of their Community Forest Management Body (CFMB) on May 11, 2019. 18 out of 28 members Community Assembly (CA) unanimously voted to dissolve their CFMB on allegations of mismanagement and misrepresentation.
Four months following the vote of no confidence in the CFMB, the community through the CA issued a stop order to Mandra on August 10, 2019, mandating it to stop all logging operations and shipments until the conduct of new CFMB elections.
“You have been operating for over five months without CFMB representation, thereby making the Community to lost thousands of dollars. This is unfair and it is a slap in the face of Sewacajua. It has taken FDA five (5) months and yet to intervene to witness the conduct of our new CFMB elections”, a stop order from the community read.
On September 7, 2019, residents of the Sewacajua forest community through the Community Assembly elected a new leadership of the Community Forest Management Body (CFMB). Oliver C. Cleark, Chief Office, Jenkins S. Saywon, Secretary, and Levader G. S. Jallah, Treasure, were among those elected to run the affairs of the Community Forest for 5 years.
In a transition considered highly controversial, the community through the CA filed a lawsuit against the former CFMB Chief Officer on September 17, 2019, for his alleged refusal to turn over files/documents and other properties belonging to the community despite receiving written communication. Items include bank book, 1 laptop, printer, 2 motorbikes, Log Data Form (LDF), and forest certificate.
During the latter part of the leadership struggle in October 2019, a member of the Executive Committee who was also removed from office, Sargbeh Quiah is reported to have clandestinely withdrawn US$13,000 from the community forest account. He was later arrested and placed behind the bar in Greenville.
In May 2020, the newly elected leadership issued its first stop order to Mandra for the following reasons: failure to notify CFMB of the recent short down of operations and “disregard” to the construction of community road project, failure of Mandra to begin the construction of four schools in selected communities, failure to complete the pit-latrines and hand pumps promised in the agreement, failure to deposit scholarship fees for 2019/2020 academic year.
Not until the lawsuit, the Liberia Forest Media Watch established that Mandara Logging Company failed to address community concerns, which prompted the community to take the company to court in July 2020.
VPA implementation at risk
Two years of consistent agitation by rural residents for their fair share from logging contract, without any meaningful intervention from national forest stakeholders leaves one to reason that, the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) reached between the Liberian Government and European Union is far from being realized.
VPA is a legally binding trade agreement between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU. It aims to ensure that all timber and timber products destined for the EU market from a partner country comply with the laws of that country. Additionally, the VPA address the causes of illegality by improving forest governance and law enforcement, which means the VPA looks beyond trade to consider governance, development, and environmental issues. Both the EU and Liberia ratified the VAP in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Under the arrangement, once Liberia has met the timber legality assurance system and other commitments outlined in the VPA, it will receive a FLEGT license to export to the EU market only verified legal timber products. But the requirements put forward by the VPA cannot be achieved in the blue sky, unless with serious efforts from a partner country, which among other things include an honest and determined response mechanism to illegality and non-compliance.
The failure of Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and National Civil Society Actors to comprehensively address two years of back-and-forth complaints from one party of a logging contract put the VPA implementation at risk of not being realized any time soon despite enormous financial and logistical supports from the EU and World Bank.
In a briefing note written and published by Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and Foundation for Community Initiative (FCI) in December 2019 under the caption “FLEGT in Liberia: Ongoing challenges in the VPA and opportunities for change”, the two local civil society groups stressed a number of challenges facing the VPA implementation in Liberia. The groups reported poor coordination between government agencies in the forest and land sector, and that government has been slowed in implementing the Land Rights Act.
“The forest sector is facing increasing Government pressure to deliver revenues with a focus on community forestry”. SDI and FCI hinted in their briefing note, communities’ vulnerability to external third parties and demonstrated the need to strengthen community capacity to manage their Community Forest Management Agreements (CFMAs).
Media effort to support information dissemination and expose illegalities in support of the VPA has trigged unfavorable reactions from officials of FDA. At the NGO Coalition Awards night of Good Forest Governance in December 2019, FDA’s Deputy Managing Director for Operation, Joseph J. Tally accused the media of providing misinformation to the public amidst the countless number of unresolved issues raised both on electronic and print media. Mr. Tally’s statement against the media was in an apparent response to series of critical issues raised on the weekly Forest Hour radio advocacy# program produce by the Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW).
Sawacajua’s situation is just a drop in the ocean of unresolved illegalities and non-compliance in a country already challenged with good governance, it leaves one to wonder how soon the EU and the very Liberian government can achieve their goal of meeting the VPA, which supposed to qualify Liberia for the FLEGT license to export legal timber products to the European Market.