Gbarpolu County – The December 2016 Act establishing the Gola Forest National Park clearly states government and citizens’ mutual responsibilities in the management of the natural reserve..
“If any land over which the Gola Forest National Park is established is private property and deeded, the Government shall provide prompt payment and just compensation to the property owners.
Where there are towns and villagers within areas designated as the park, these towns and villages shall be set aside and their residents shall be allowed to carry out their normal activities without interference,” states Part 2 Section 8 of the Act.
The Act also states that the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) shall, in consultation with local communities, counties and other local authorities issue regulations governing activities in the park.
But in complete contravention of the terms and conditions of the Act establishing the park, this paper has gathered that operatives of the Liberian government through the FDA have completely sidelined local inhabitants’ participation.
On February 15, 2018 the FDA led a posse of armed hunters in close proximity of Camp Alpha to demarcate areas reportedly falling under Liberia’s new forest park bailiwick.
New Land Dispute Hotspot?
According to Camp Alpha Youth chairperson, a farmer had ran into the town on February 15 to report that some unidentified surveyors and armed men had encroached on his land.
“When we got on the site and approached them, one of the armed FDA-hired hunters attempted to fire at us."
"That’s when we disarmed the two-armed FDA hunters after a lengthy scuffle. We presently have in our possession the two single barrel shotguns that they attempted to shoot at us with,” says the youth chairperson, Robert Garziah.
Camp Alpha Town, one of Kongba District’s 15 towns, is situated few kilometers away from the soon-to-be demarcated Gola forest in Gbarpolu County, northwest Liberia.
It hosts approximately 3,000 inhabitants who are mainly on rice farmers and artisanal diamond miners.
The inhabitants claim to pay taxes to the government of Liberia through the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy even before passage of the Gola Forest National Park Act into Law.
Prior to passage of the Act into law, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in May 2009, along with her Sierra Leonean counterpart, launched an EU founded trans-boundary Peace Park for Sierra Leone and Liberia, giving birth to the establishment of the Gola National Park covering around 88,000 hectres.
The Peace Park was to be managed by BirdLife International in collaboration with five implementing organizations: the Forestry Division in Sierra Leone, the Forestry Development Authority in Liberia, Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (BirdLife in Sierra Leone), the Society for Conservation of Nature in Liberia (BirdLife in Liberia) and the RSPB (BirdLife in UK).
Lack of proper forest governance and limited government capacity have led to limited conservation activities such as law enforcement and improved forest governance. As a result, 70% of the Upper Guinea Forest has been lost and the remainder is highly fragmented.
Liberia holds the largest remaining portion (42%). The Gola National Forest is one of the largest remaining areas of intact rainforest.
The original proposal said the National Park will cover an area where no permanent settlements are found; the communities will continue to have access to the forest area (and its products) outside the proposed park, in what will remain as Gola National Forest.
But, according to Camp Alpha residents, approximately 25 farms and an unspecified spread of diamond mines will be swallowed in the new demarcation.
This seems too a high cost to bear for residents of the area.
They have suggested that the FDA draws the demarcation at least four hours walking distance away from the town to safeguard their farms and mines.
They fear for their safety when the park is demarcated only three kilometers (about 25 walking minutes) away from the town.
“Our message here is clear,” says Issatu Johnson, Camp Alpha Town Chairlady.
“We are not fighting or refusing the orders of government. But we really want them to carry their demarcation a bit further behind and not this close."
"We have children and animals will be leaving the bush and coming to town, which may cause harm to our children. We have nowhere to turn.”
The General Town Chief of the area, Jusu Dunor says they settled in the area following arrangement supported by former Liberian President William V.S. Tubman.
“He allowed us to mine and he gave us paper to mine and farm. I told our county leaders that our people said they need four hours walking distance from the town to the demarcation point,” Dunor said.
“Without consulting with us on the matter, I just saw people coming to do demarcation and so I told them to stop."
"The three kilometers they gave is not enough. My community is populated. I currently have 24 villages under my jurisdiction."
"If the government cannot give me the demarcation, let them relocate us, but we cannot live right next to animals.”
FDA agents Chased
FDA agents, who had gone to draw the line of demarcation, were chased off the site and disarmed. Dunor had earlier ordered that they leave the vicinity.
Karimu Fofanah, Camp Alpha development chairman was part of locals who chase out the FDA agents.
“When we heard they were in the bush, the town chief gave an order for them to leave but they attacked us, and so our boys were able to take their arms and other weapons from them,” Fofanah said.
“We got information that after we reported to the Paramount chief that we do not want to see the people into our forest without addressing our plight; that people from FDA were in the bushes drawing the demarcation line. We said we needed to sit with the FDA people and have a discussion on this distance business before they can cut the demarcation.”
The Way Forward
Inhabitants of the affected communities comprising Camp Alpha, Kungbor, SLC, Tima Village, Sign Board communities, and others, are afraid that their farms and mining claims would most likely be affected by the FDA demarcation.
In a bid to somehow amicably resolve the crisis, the affected communities last weekend held a meeting with Tonglay Clan chief Momo Sirleaf in Monrovia to acquaint him with developments leading to the current impasse.
After listening to his constituents’ lamentations for more than three hours, Chief Momo Sirleaf assured that he would meet with Gbarpolu County District No. 3 Representative Joseph M. Matthew to find an amicable resolution to the looming crisis.
“Anything that affects my people in Tonglay Clan affects me. We will make sure to have this issue resolved in the shortest possible time. I am sure our honorable representative will do his best to meet with his colleagues in the Legislature to harmonize the Gola Forest National Park issue,” he stated.
When contacted about the Gola Forest National Park fracas, the FDA through its National REDD+ Coordinator, Saah A. David, Jr., affirmed that indeed an altercation had taken place involving some Camp Alpha townspeople, the FDA and SCNL personnel.
Mr. David maintained that the FDA, as chief custodian of the Liberian people forests, has all legal rights to protect the forest and help communities manage usage of the forests.
“We also have the mandate to demarcate the 88,000 hectares of rainforests for national park purpose in accordance with the 2009 community rights law,” says David.
The FDA official stated that the government of Sierra Leone has already demarcated its national forest reserves, unlike Liberia where the process has been stalled because of lateness in the passage of legislation.
“It was only in December last year that the Act establishing the Gola Forest National Park was finalized,” he said.
David said the Act calls for consultations among affected communities and regulating agencies.
“Sometime last year we (FDA and SCLN) held community meetings with locals where we explained the process to Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties’ community leaders."
"We even recruited their sons and daughters to form part of the ensuing demarcation process."
"Since then the demarcation process has gone well, up to 90 percent. But coming towards the Camp Alpha belt is where we have encountered problems.
“We are told there is a Malian national called Mr. Talawally who claims he obtained license from the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy to carry out mining activities in the then-proposed park, which is now the Gola Forest National Park.
"When people from the community asked this Talawally to show his mining license, we are told he said he would only provide such license to representatives from the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy,” David said.
He said while the demarcation was proceeding, Talawally led nine people to obstruct the demarcation exercise.
“Given our experience in Sarpo, we advised our workers not to respond whenever they are attacked; but to leave the area and report the incidence immediately – which was done in the case of Camp Alpha. After receiving the report, we contacted our partner SCNL who have staff based in Kungbor, and they confirmed the violent encounter,” David said.
The FDA official said the gravity of the situation has prompted a plan meeting in Camp Alpha on Friday, March 15, 2018 in collaboration with representatives from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, and the Bureau of Concessions to find an amicable resolution to the impasse.
The Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia (SCNL), when contacted, corroborated the FDA’s account of the Camp Alpha saga, through its head, Mr. Michael Garbo.
“No one in Camp Alpha should say they are not aware of the demarcation exercise,” says Garbo, while maintaining that during one of the general meetings with Grand Cape Mount and Gparpolu Counties community leaders, Camp Alpha citizens, through their general town chief Jusu Dunor, requested the FDA to allow Camp Alpha citizens four hours walking distance into the Gola Forest National Park.
“We ended the meeting with the agreement that we would allow Camp Alpha townspeople three kilometers into the park to conduct communal activities which will be in line with the forest reserve guidelines. To be frank, the decision by a few Camp Alpha people to attack our workers and their own citizens who were hired to form part of the demarcation exercise does not go down well with many of the townspeople. Some of them have even threatened to deploy masquerades (country devils) into the forest to stop anyone who tries to obstruct the demarcation process; but we told them no,” Garbo asserted.
Conflict resolution pundits are of the strong opinion that if the Gola Forest National Park issue is not properly handled, it could spark another crisis for the new government that is already saddled with adjusting itself to addressing the pressing development needs of the citizenry.
Report by Edward Blamo, FPA Contributor