Gbi/Doru District, Nimba County - The Chairman of the Community Forest Management Body (CFMB) of Doru Chiefdom in Gbi/Doru District has appeared before a court in Nimba County over money and materials given to him by the Liberia Tree and Trading Company (LTTC) for the community.
Chairman Sisco Gbortoe was ordered to appear before the Eight Judicial Circuit Court, Nimba County, earlier this month after a complaint was filed by the company. The judge’s verdict is expected any day.
“…The respondent (Gbortoe) was entrusted with ten (10) bundles of zinc, fifty (50) pieces of ceiling tiles, two hand pumps, forty seven (47) bags of cement and US$5,000 (five thousand United States Dollars), and a motorcycle to facilitate his movement in the fulfillment of the task he was requested to perform,” one of LTTC’s petitions in the writ read.
“The respondent was caught using the bike for commercial purposes. For this reason, the bike was taken from him and he refused to give the key to the bike petitioner.
“Wherefore, and in view of the foregoing, petitioner prays your Honor and his Honorable Court to grant its petition by ordering respondent to account for the materials and money given him.”
Gbortoe disputes the company’s account. He phoned this reporter on June 28, claiming that he had been attacked by Nyunyun Toweh, the General Manager of LTTC. He alleged that the motorcycle had been forcibly taken from him while on his way back from the Doru to Monrovia.
The company headed to the court the next day.
Gbortoe denies any wrongdoing. His lawyer says a verdict is expected about a week’s time.
The materials in question were seen and photographed by a team of two New Narratives fellows in May in the home of a local, Joseph Quikpeyee.
“LTTC bought 10 bundles of zinc and 50 pieces of ceiling tiles,” he told the reporters. I am keeping them now,” Quikpeyee said then.
Both Doru and Gbi chiefdoms have been in a lengthy battle with the LTTC over separate third party agreements for commercial forestry in their community forestlands signed in 2011.
The company has not paid Doru an annual fee of US$48,125 for 35,000 hectares for five years and Gbi the sum of US$43,312.50 for 31,155 hectares for the same period, according to the agreements.
The agreements mandate the company to pave roads, build schools and, among other things, provide safe drinking water in both communities. However, none of these have been done seven years on.
The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) in April this year gave LTTC a 45-day ultimatum to pay the communities but that, too, has not happened. An earlier attempt to pay the communities US$103,000 in November 2016 recorded another chapter to the saga.
In an error that has yet to be explained, the company paid the money directly in the Liberian government account via the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), not into the communities’ accounts. The payment should have gone directly to the communities according to the FDA.
Nonetheless, the FDA has yet to forward the payment on to the communities.
The FDA has said it intends to forward the money but has so far blamed “procedures” for the failure to do so. The US$5,000 is the only payment made to Doru so far, out of nearly US$50,000 owed the community.
Both communities are now calling for the cancelation of their agreements with LTTC.
They are prepared to go to court over the matter, but authorities at the FDA say they must exhaust the entire arbitration clause in the Community Rights Law with Respect to Forest Lands 2009 - Forestry before heading to court.
The FDA Managing Director Darlington Tuagben said it could not comment on a matter already in court.
“If the parties are in conflict, there is an extent to which we can intervene,” Gertrude Nyaley, Technical Manager for Community Forestry Department said in May earlier this year. “The law provides that parties go to court when they cannot find a common ground, following exhaustion of the arbitration clause in the agreement.”
A source at the FDA said suing Gbortoe would only worsen the already sour relationship between Doru and LTTC.
The Community Rights Law mandates that the Executive Committee to handle matters of mismanagement and misappropriation. Section 7.2 of the law under fines and penalties says:
“Where there are reasonable allegations that the Community Forest Management Body (CFMB) or any of its members is mismanaging community forest resources or has engaged in misconduct or misappropriation of the community forest funds, the Executive Committee, with technical support from the [Forestry Development] Authority, and prepare a comprehensive report.”
The law also allows a lawsuit outside of the community forest governance structure.
“Any person harmed by the violation of any provision of this law may bring an action against any responsible person in a court of competent jurisdiction,” it says in Section 7.4.
However, Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute thinks that the lawsuit against Gbortoe is more than legal.
“It might be a diversionary tactics that they are using,” Yiah said. “Because of the money they owe and the CFMB Chairman Sisco Gbortoe has been advocating and agitating, so they want the community to turn against him,” he added.
“That might be the issue.”
Gbortoe has the full confidence of Doru. He was reelected Chairman of the Doru CFMB barely a week before the lawsuit against him.
The election was a requirement by the law for Doru to further engage LTTC. “Sisco Gbortoe is on our side."
He is demanding that LTTC pays our money or they leave our forest,” the Chairman of the Gbi/Doru Development Association John Glaywea said of him back in May.
“The person we will put there will have interest for the citizens and the district,” he said of the then pending election for new corps of officers of Doru, eventually won by Gbortoe.
This story was written and reported by James Harding Giahyue in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and New Narratives and funded by Australian Aid. The funder had no say in the story’s content