Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County – An eight-bedroom guesthouse, a five-classroom school and a palaver hut are major achievements of a community forest development committee (CFDC) of a community affected by a forest management contract (FMC) between the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and Euro Logging Company in Grand Gedeh County. This CFDC is the only of 23 across the country whose chairman is a woman: Ruth G. Milton.
Under regulations initiated in 2007, and which led to the establishment of CFDCs, the affected community must receive 30 percent of the land rental fees that the Euro Logging Company pays to harvest part of the lush rainforest which flanks Zwedru.
“What is being done at that CFDC is also another good example of how the women can play significant role in the resource management process,” says Andrew Y.Y. Zelemen, National Facilitator for the National Union of Community County Development Committee (NUCFDC).
Milton’s guesthouse is the second most expensive project carried out by a CDFC, according to NUCFDC’s reports.
When she took up the post in 2015, Euro Logging had not paid the affected forest community its portion of land rental fees for five years.
The 61-year-old mother of five rallied the towns within the affected community—Putu, Konobo, Gleo and Kannah—into setting up roadblocks.
That protest or “reaction”, as she prefers to call it, drew the attention of local authorities. The company yielded to the community’s demand and paid more than US$86,000 for one of the five years it owed the community. It was with that fund and a US$11,000 forest product fee her leadership carried out the projects.
Milton’s leadership is characteristic of the gradual rise of women’s participation in the forestry sector at the community level in Liberia.
In 2009 there were 32 women members from CFDCs across the country from a total of 190. Now there are 50, from a total membership of 230 (22 percent), according to NUCFDC. That is more than 50 percent increase.
A five-classroom school in Wille Jailue is one of one of the Milton-led leadership’s projects
Liberia has the majority of the largest rainforest in West Africa, the Upper Guinea Forest.
Warring factions used timber to fund the 14-year civil war in Liberia, which killed an estimated 250,000 people. As the result of a sustained outcry by campaigners, the United Nations imposed a logging ban on Liberia in May 2003.
Following the inauguration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006, a new forestry law was enacted to reform Liberia’s forest sector, focusing on community, conservation and commercial logging.
Reform of the sector has been underway for more than a decade. In 2009, the Community Rights Law with Respect to Forest Lands was enacted. Since 2007 the international inspection and verification company Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) has overseen the Chain of Custody (CoC) in which forest revenues are collected for the Forest Development Authority (FDA), so as to improve accountability and transparency.
Then in 2013 Liberia signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU), the biggest importer of Liberian timber.
This was followed in 2015 by Liberia signing a US$150 million deal with Norway to tackle climate change and protect the rights of locals to forestlands.
These positive developments have, unfortunately, been marred by other transgressions.
In 2013 a US$6 million scandal was uncovered which involved the misuse of private use permits (PUPs).
And more recently a Global Witness investigation found illegalities in many of Liberia’s large logging contracts. Some communities are also still battling to receive the payments they are owed by logging companies.
Figures from across the forestry sector say that greater women’s participation could strengthen governance and accountability across the sector.
NUCFDC statistics shows two CFDCs—one each in River Cess and Grand Cape Mount—have five men and five women. Three CFDCs also have woman co-chairman, up by one, or 50 percent; while 12 women occupy the positions of financial secretary and treasurer across 12 CFDCs, also up by six or 50 percent. There is at least one woman on each 23 CFDCs across the country.
“…Women are the main users of forest products and secondly, the lack of participation of a large number of resource users can lead to weaknesses in the performance of any organisation tasked with managing that resource,” says Ikem Eronini, Knowledge Management Coordinator of VPA Support Unit of Liberia.
“Studies undertaken in India show that the participation of women in forest committees has led to 25 per cent higher control on illicit forestry practices than in communities where women do not participate in these activities,” adds Eronini.
Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) agrees.
“They are good managers, they are good stewards and they are able to account better than men,” Yiah says. “Once we see more women in leadership, I think we will have the forward march, assuring development, assuring stability.
“Not only that they need to be given equal opportunities but…the needs of women are better articulated by women than by men.
So, there needs to be always a good women’s representation in forum about deciding about how they benefit or how they manage the resources they have.”
Liberia ranks 114th place on the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index.
Gender equality is an on-going debate in Liberia despite the leadership of President Sirleaf as the first female, African President.
The country still battles an African custom—mainly in rural communities—that women belong in the kitchen and are meant for childbearing.
“Many of the women are more engaged with farming and keeping the family happy,” says Zelemen.
“They don’t want to be embarrassed with this CFDC work, where many times they have to travel to different communities....”
He is optimistic women, especially in rural communities, will gradually leave the “backseat”.
Eronini agrees with Zelemen but adds women should be placed at the core of the forestry discussion, not at bottom so that they can participate and benefit more from forest resources.
“Traditionally, women have been more users of the forest while the men were engaged in the productive aspects of forestry,” Eronini points out.
“While this placed an unequal burden on women, being more dependent on the forest, they were more at risk if it was improperly managed. Their voice was not generally heard.”
Forestry stakeholders are making efforts to meet the challenges confronting women’s participation in the forestry sector.
In Grand Gedeh, Milton is already taking the lead. Her CFDC is sponsoring women at the FDA Forestry Institute in Bomi County, according to her.
“I think the area of training—where more women are trained—will help to address some of the current deficits and leadership challenges that they have,” Yiah says.
Eronini says the VPA “has worked to ensure that women take part in CFDCs.” Adding women’s participation into forest legislation is the right thing to do.
“In the future, perhaps guidelines could be included in the design stage of programs calling for the rotation of important posts between men and women, as well as the creation of more awareness and women participation in the sector…,” he says.