Liberia: Miners, Loggers Clash over Gbarpolu Forest

A View of Korninga “B” Community Forest. FrontPageAfrica/Moses R. Quollin

KORNINGA, Gbarpolu County – On March 4 2019, Korninga B, an authorized forest community, signed a logging contract with Singaporean-Indian logging company Indo Africa Plantation Liberia Incorporated. To log in the 31,818-hectare forest in the Bopolu and Bokomu districts, the company promised to make an annual contribution of US$ 30,000 for scholarships, US$25,000 for medical support, annual road maintenance and other things within the first six months after signing the agreement. Indo Africa also promised to build a youth center in the chiefdom.

Report by Moses R. Quollin, with New Narratives

However, one year and 10 months later, not a single project has been done. Indo African says it cannot implement these projects as promised because two other mining company is operating in the same forest. Belle Fasama, a Liberian-owned company, has two gold prospecting licenses and MNG Gold has an exploration license here. The two companies have cleared portions of the forest, felling marketable timber species, according to Ruth Varney, the coordinator of western region of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), which also includes Bomi and Grand Cape Mount. The mining companies’ licenses expire in 2021 and 2025, respectively.  

“Mining is mining and logging is logging. You cannot have logging and mining in the same forest,” says Muksha Gupth, who chairs Indo African’s board of directors.  

“It is dangerous for mining and logging to take place in the same forest,” adds Moses Monlonporlor, the company’s coordinator of community forestry. “When you are felling trees and at the same time there are miners in the same forest, there is possibility for trees to fall on someone.”

The logging company has reported the matter to the FDA.

Korninga B also opposes mining in the forest. In September, the community stopped Belle Fasama and MNG Gold from deploying earthmovers into the vast, green woodland. Tension brewed in the area. Gbarpolu County Superintendent  Keyah Saah tried to resolve the conflict but failed Voice of Gbarpolu reported at the time.

“We do not want mining in our forest because the agreement we entered into with FDA says we were giving our forest out for logging, [not for mining],” says Aaron Mulbah, the chief officer of Korninga’s community forest management body (CFMB), which negotiates forestry contracts for the chiefdom. “We asked MNG Gold and FM to leave our forest.” 

Ben Morris, the CEO of Belle Fasama insists his company will continue to work in the area. “I am not an on-the-side miner. I can show you the license that I can pay government taxes more than US$30,000 here,” Morris says in a mobile phone interview. “Anybody who will not respect me, I will not respect you.”    

MNG Gold could not be reached as all their contacts failed to ring. The team of reporters visited its headquarters behind the Fish Market three occasions but could find no one there. 

Mining Law vs Forestland Act

Awarding a mining concession in a community forest contravenes the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands. The Constitution gives the state ownership of all minerals anywhere in the country, while the Minerals and Mining Law of 2000 mandates the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) to issue licenses everywhere, except for national parks and on private lands. However, the forestland law, crafted nine years after the mining law, is silent on mining. It is this loophole that the government is exploiting, experts say. Apart from Korninga B, there are similar situations in Korninga A—just next door—and the Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo community forests in Nimba County.

A Bridge in Korninga B Community Forest Indo Africa promised to reconstruct. FrontPage Africa/Moses R. Quollin

 The FDA and the MME need to coordinate in order to put an end to the issues such as the one in Korninga B, says Gertrude Nyaley, the technical manager of FDA’s community forestry department.

“We have been trying to engage the [Ministry of Mines and Energy because it has become a very serious problem, Nyaley Gertrude says in an interview at the FDA’s headquarters in Paynesville.   “Our offices every year, everyday receive lots of [complaints] on these kinds of operation. In the cases that are occurring, you see that FDA has worked with these communities and they have been granted community-forest status on pieces of properties that the communities own. But on these same properties, the [Ministry of] Mines and Energy gives licenses.” 

Gbarpolu attracts miners and loggers alike, recognized in its flag, which features a forest-green field, a tree and a diamond. The western county has 179 mining licenses as of January 6, the most in the country, records of the Ministry of Mines show. Korninga even means “on top of the rock”—where minerals are found—in the Kpelle language. At the same time, it is one of the most forested regions in Liberia, covering the 60,900 hectares.

Silas Siakor, one of the crafters of the Community Rights Law, argues that allowing mining and logging to go on in the same forest will lead to more deforestation and forest degradation.

“Ideally, in a real world, in the sensible world, you will not contract two resource contractual rights in the same space,” Siakor says in an emailed interview. “It is a bad practice for mining and logging to take place in the same area. You have a situation where in the environmental impact is doubled.”

The Ministry of Mines issued MNG Gold’s license in February 2019, one month before Korninga sealed the logging deal with Indo African, but seven months after the community legalized its right to manage the forest. The ministry also issued the current Belle Fasama license in October, one year six months after the Korninga-Indo-African deal. The two active licenses cover more than 22,651 hectares.

The ministry did not respond to queries for comment on the situation in Korninga. However, commenting on the Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo in Nimba, Rexford Sartuh, Assistant Minister for Explorations, told FrontPage Africa in October that the ministry does not recognize community forests.

“The Ministry only recognizes conservation parks established by law,” Sartuh said at the time. “Most of the times they believe that we should ask them before we issue license. We should not.”

 ‘The agreement has expired’

The Indo Africa deal could bring development to Korninga, neglected by successive governments. In addition to the scholarship and medical contributions in the first year, Indo Africa should have by now—the second year— constructed a chief headquarters and a latrine in two affected communities and concrete bridge in the third, construct a school in the fourth, and another school in the fifth. Then the company should have already paid the community US$22,650 in land rental fees in line with the National Forestry Reform Law of 2006.

The community blames Indo Africa for the failure of the contract despite acknowledging the presence of the miners in the forest. It wants to cancel the contract with the logging company. “We do not want to work with Indo Africa Plantation Inc. since they have grossly violated and failed to meet up with any social [responsibilities] in the community,” reads a letter it wrote the FDA on October 26, demanding the payment of the US$30,000 and US$25,000. “The agreement has already expired.”

That anger is commonplace in this Kpelle settlement in the middle of the western county.

“Our people been blaming us for being too soft with this company,” Cecelia Kabah, a member of the community assembly—the highest decision-making body under the Community Rights Law—representing the Manowelleh Town. “Since we gave them our forest, we cannot see them and our people want to go in the forest to make their farms.”

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.