By Joaquin M. Sendolo, with New Narratives
SANNIQUELLIE, Nimba County – It should have been a good year for Blei Community Forest in Gba and Zor, east of Sanniquellie.
It had signed up to a range of promising projects to sustainably benefit from the forest including a partnership with the United States Forest Service to set up an ecotourism program in the 631-hectare forest across the Gbehley-Geh, Yarmein and Sehyi districts. It had a US$99,000 memorandum of understanding with ArcelorMittal Liberia to monitor wildlife species and maintain its border with the East Nimba Nature Reserve (ENNR). And there was support, too, from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to conserve biodiversity in the rocky forest.
But all that hit a roadblock at the start of the year when Solway Mining Inc., a Russian-Liberian company, turned up and cleared swathes of the forest without the consent of the forest’s management.
The Blei community and next door, Sehyi Ko-doo where Solway’s license extends 1,538 hectares into the Sehyi District, have found themselves victims of a weakness in Liberia’s developing laws for managing its natural resources.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy issued Solway’s exploration license to four community forests, according to the FDA (the other two are Korninga “A” and Korninga “B” in Gbarpolu County), back in October last year claiming it was its right to do so according to the Minerals and Mining Law of 2000. The law authorizes the ministry to issue licenses anywhere without the consent of residents, except private lands and national parks.
But the community believed the Community Rights Law (CRL) with Respect to Forest Lands, passed nine years after the Mining Law, supersedes that earlier law and gives them the right to decide what happens in their forest.
The CRL was created to give communities benefits from forest resources, abused by warring factions during Liberia’s 14-year civil war (1989-2003). Having completed a legal process to acquire community forest status, rural towns and villages can sign logging contracts with the FDA’s approval. Blei was one of the first communities to do so in 2011. The statute is an integral part of the country’s postwar forestry reform. However, in a failure that has now left communities like Blei in legal limbo, the CRL is silent on mining.
Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo sued Solway in February for breaching their rights under the CRL and the company paid the communities a US$3,000 fine for illegal entry, according to filings from the Sanniquellie Magisterial Court. The court placed a stop order on the company’s work in March and has not lifted it. Representative Prince Tokpah, the lawmaker of Nimba District No.2, where Blei is located, whose name is on the MoU, refuses to sign it. The FDA has yet to approve the lease agreement as is required by CRL.
The lack of clarity in the CRL is a weakness according to Ali Kaba, a Liberian PhD scholar at the American University in Washington D.C., studying customary land governance, rural migration, foreign investment, and sustainable land use and natural resource management.
“The Community Rights Law is a management tool, not an ownership right,” says Kaba. “It doesn’t give communities clear ownership of the forest and ownership of the land on which the forest is located. That gives it a type of weakness.”
Without a clear solution coming from government ministries, the community ended months of tension with Solway by agreeing to change their management agreements with the FDA from “conservation” to “multiple-use” to allow mining. Solway’s exploration will cover 152 hectares of Blei forest and 70 hectares of Delton, according to the MoU.
That has infuriated conservation activists who say the action signals the government’s commitment to mining over conservation.
“To encourage the community to change its plan, ignoring or manipulating legal requirements will send a message that the government is not committed to conservation of its rich forest heritage,” says Silas Siakor, an environmentalist who helped steer the forestry reform process. “If the tradeoffs are skewed towards mineral development, no matter the cost, then the country is in deep trouble because, bit by bit, the forest will be decimated and turned into minefields.”
Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) agrees with Siakor. “If the mining company is allowed to have its way over the communities in this particular case, then it spells doom for community forestry contributing to sustainable forest management in Liberia,” Yiah says. “Communities may then be of the opinion that they may lose the community forest so even some community members will begin to connive with outsiders to undermine community control.”
The Ministry of Mines, however, insists its decision to grant Solway the license is legal.
“Community Forestry is done under the Forestry Law. They (the communities) have their right to their land but when it comes to the issuance of mineral rights in Liberia, we don’t consider them,” Rexford Sartuh, Assistant Minister for Mineral Exploration and Environmental Research, told the Daily Observer. “Most of the time they (communities) believe that we should ask them before we issue a license. We should not.”
Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo have attracted international support due to their proximity to the East Nimba Nature Reserve, home to endangered and rare species such as the West African chimpanzee, the Nimba toad and Nimba flycatcher. In fact, the mountains in Blei and Seyhi Ko-doo Solway is licensed to explore are part of the Nimba Range internationally acclaimed as an area of high conservation importance. Both communities are beneficiaries of Forest Incomes for Environmental Sustainability (FIFES), a US$23 million, five-year program for 11 communities in Nimba and Grand Bassa, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). And a portion of the US$150 million Norway grant to help Liberia stem deforestation goes to community forests.
Mike Doryen, FDA’s managing director, says the Ministry of Mines is undermining the investment of the international community to protect Liberia’s forest, the largest in West Africa.
“We are disappointed in the way the Ministry of Mines and Energy handled things,” Doryen told FrontPage Africa in September. “We think it has the propensity of discouraging our donors from making anymore investments in the conservation area of our country.”
“This saga…raises questions about our commitment as a country to sensible and sustainable environmental management, adds Siakor.
‘Time for Conversation is Over’
In Blei, the Solway saga has divided the community.
On one side are residents—some of who are members of the community assembly, the highest decision-makers under the CRL. This bloc believes conservation has not provided the jobs, schools, or paved roads that Solway has promised to deliver.
“Their presence here brought some benefits to the community people,” remarks Oliver Geh, a resident of Zor-Tapa, a township of 3,658 people in Gbelay-Geh. He is one of the townsmen Solway hired to work on a 3.2-kilometer road from the community to the forest. “We wish that they remain and continue the work here,” Geh says.
“The time for conservation is over. It is now time for commercial,” says Nico Tuo, the town chief of Zor-Tiapa.
These sentiments overshadow the view from the other side of the divide – the forest leadership. Saye Thompson, chief officer of the community forest, made sure conservation clauses were placed in the MoU before he signed it. Solway agrees to support conservation in the remaining portion of the two forests and fund reforestation of the degraded areas of the forests at the end of its work. But overall, Thompson is not a fan of the deal.
“We who think the legal provision is good and we should stand by it are seen as [trouble makers], stopping their opportunity,” says Thompson. “If a land is meant for conservation, it should be used for conservation. We have huge opportunities to conserve our forest but we do not have the mindset.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.