Monrovia - When Gbi and Doru Chiefdoms in Gbi/Doru District signed separate logging agreements with the Liberia Tree and Trading Campany (LTTC) in 2011, they had no idea that today they would be battling for the benefits of their forest resources.
Both Gbi and Doru now seek the cancelation of the agreements with the LTTC after the sums are paid.
“We the undersigned of this document, with close consultation with our people of the affected communities, deemed it necessary to submit to this body (FDA) that the company (LTTC) pays our land rental fees and leave our forest,” reads a May 31, 2017 letter by the citizens of Gbi.
Doru Chiefdom also wrote a separate letter to the FDA with the same request on May 4.
The two third party Community Forest Management Agreements mandate the company to build a school in each of the chiefdoms, pave major roads, erect clinics and, among other things, provide safe drinking water.
Clauses in the agreements also mandate the company support religious leaders in the community for the spiritual welfare of locals.
Seven years on that has yet to happen. Gbi/Doru remains the remote community it has been since 1937 when it was established in a district in Nimba County.
There are still no high schools and clinics, roads are not paved, and safe drinking water is not provided. According to Neasiah Goanue, 49, a resident of Nedononwein in Doru Chiefdom, “We are just here like people that are in jail.”
LTTC has also failed to pay Gbi and Doru their land rental fees in accordance with the agreements.
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.
Gertrude Nyaley, the technical director of the Community Forestry Department confirms communities have the right to request cancellation of contracts but stresses that has to be backed by law.
“The law provides that parties go to court when they cannot find a common ground, following exhaustion of the arbitration clause in the agreement,” she says.
Before any legal proceedings, elections for the new corps of officers for the community forest governance structure is should first be held, Nyaley says, in accordance with the Community Rights Law with Respect to Forest Lands 2009 - Forestry.... (CRL). Elections are expected to be held soon.
Nyaley blames the communities for the stalemate with the LTTC, accusing them of not having one voice in their relationship with the company.
She says that when Doru wrote its letter back in April, then Managing Director Harrison Karnwea wrote to the company, giving it an ultimatum for the payment.
But, Nyaley reveals, groups in the community dissented, praising the company for having done its best.
“The community and the company have a cordial working relationship, and because of that they always contribute to any other development project going on in the community, apart from their corporate social responsibilities,” reads a November 8, 2016 letter from the Chairman of Gbi Community Forestry Management Body (CFMB) James Zaryou.
“We dissociate ourselves from them (Gbi/Doru Development Association) and we crave your good office’s indulgence not to give credence to those citizens… in Monrovia,” it continues.
“All these things put the FDA in a difficult position as to who to listen to,” Nyaley says.
Some officials of the community forest governance structures in Gbi and Doru admit that the communities are may not be innocent. Some community leaders don’t know the law; they are divided.
“Sometimes when they call a meeting we just go there and tell us what the company says or what the community wants the company to do,” says Matthew Willie, member of the Gbi Community Assembly, which appoints members to the CFMB that represents the interest of the community.
“They just say ‘Assembly’ but [they can’t call a meeting and explain it better to us],” Willie charges, “We … don’t know our work. We are just members.
“Mrs. [Nyunyun] Toweh has not done wrong to the community, but we the members [of the Assembly] that are working between the company and the citizens are not the fair play to our people.”
Willie accuses the Chairman of the Gbi Community Assembly Arthur Dee of being an accomplice of LTTC. Dee became the Human Resource Manager of LTTC two months ago, Willie reveals, but still has not resigned from the Assembly.
“He is right here, I am not lying on him,” he adds, pointing to Willie standing next to him under at an inn in Wontoe, wearing a green LTTC outfit.
Dee refuses to comment on the matter, saying he prefers to react to the allegation after this story is published. Dee had earlier stopped in the nearby Nedononwein while residents were being interviewed, and turned down an interview for this story.
FPA/New Narratives journalists were denied entry into LTTC’s headquarters in Wontoe Town.
Efforts to speak with company officials in Monrovia were also rebuffed.
Willie also accuses the Gbi CFMB of not being in favor of the people, unilaterally making major decisions on the company.
He says Zaryou has lost the confidence of the people to the agreement of the Chairman of the Gbi/Doru Development Association John Glaywea.
“James Zaryou is on the company’s side because sometimes they give him $1 or $2, so the citizens are working to take him from there as the CFMB chairman,” Glaywea alleges.
Zaryou declined an interview, demanding FPA/New Narratives journalists pay another visit to Gbi/Doru to get his side of the story. He was in Monrovia when reporters visited the remote community, some 12 hours on a motorcycle from Tappita.
Deficiencies and Missteps
Campaigners blame FDA for the issues with the Gbi and Doru agreements. They were among the first agreements singlehandedly done by the FDA that did not follow the law.
As early as 2012, the FDA conceded over the errors in CFMAs. Its board of directors, then chaired by former Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth, imposed a moratorium on the issuance of new agreements.
Following continued campaigning by civil society, the FDA committed to enforce the moratorium in 2013. A new board of director chaired by Sister Mary Lauren Browne in April 2014—at the onset of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia—lifted the moratorium.
The new board mandated the FDA to within 90 days “cure all deficiencies and missteps” in the 10 troublesome agreements.
“It was procedures in that case, what you’re having now is managerial issues,” Nayley says.
Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute disagrees, saying the errors made at the onset are a recipe for the confusion today, still uncorrected, “far-reaching” and “very costly”.
There are two different agreements, Yiah explains: one signed for 25 years with the company and another signed for 15 years with the FDA.
“CMFAs should not have been signed as in the older agreement with the petition. It should be the Chairmen of the CFMBs of the two communities,” Yiah stresses, citing two different agreements regarding the same Gbi and Doru.
The FDA says it has done much to avert recurrence of missteps in the first CFMAs. About 128 communities from 13 counties have applied for community forest rights.
More civil society organizations are assisting communities to understand their role, responsibility and rights. There is support from a Norwegian government grant meant to combat climate change.
“If you see the contracts that we are signing now, they will most likely not enter into confusion,” says Nyaley.
Global Witness, the international corruption watchdog group, says there are still loopholes that need be sealed.
Pay our money
In November 2016 the FDA drew out a 45-day payment schedule.
In early 2017 the LTTC paid US$103,000 via the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA). That was the company’s first attempt to pay the communities their land rental fee, only adding another twist to the seven-year stalemate.
The CRL mandates payments to the community through its CFMB.
This means 55 percent of half of the sum should have been paid to Gbi and Doru separately, and the remaining 45 percent of both halves paid into government coffers in accordance with the National Forestry Reform Law of 2006.
Nyaley admits that the procedure for payment was not followed, blaming SGS—the contractor that collects government’s forest-related revenue—for the error. She says the communities will get their share.
In all, both Gbi and Doru have received just US$50,000 in cubic meter fees from LTTC, says the Chairman of Doru CFMB Sisco Gbortoe. Zaryou of Gbi also confirmed this in a May 18, 2017 letter to the CFMB Union in Monrovia.
The payment came from logs the company harvested in 2013 but was unable to export due to Ebola in 2014, the FDA says.
Zaryou in the letter to the Union expresses concern over how the company arrived at amount. Gbortoe says Doru, too, had an issue with that but could not reject the money.
“The people should pay our money and leave our forest because they are not able to live up to their promises,” Gbortoe emphasizes.
The first part of this series focused on the implications of the lack of secondary schools in the two communities.
James Harding Giahyue
This story was produced by James Harding Giahyue and was written as part of a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and New Narratives and funded by Australian Aid. The funder had no say in the story’s content. This story is the last of a two-part series on Community Forest Management Agreements (CFMAs) in Gbi and Doru in Tappita, Nimba County