ZOR-PATA, Nimba County – In April earlier this year, Blei community forest signed a US$99,000 memorandum of understanding with ArcelorMittal Liberia. The fund is intended for Blei’s forest guards to monitor species and maintain its border with the East Nimba Nature Reserve (ENNR), home to endangered and endemic plants and animals such as the West African Chimpanzee, the Nimba Toad and Nimba Flycatcher. Blei is also seeking support from the United States Forest Service to set up an ecotourism program in the over-631-hectare forestland across the Gbehley-Geh, Yarmein and Sehyi districts.
Report by James Harding Giahyue, Contributing Writer
Next door, the Sehyi Ko-doo community forest—all of its 1,538 hectares in Sehyi District—has five forest guards on stipend and training as part of an ArcelorMittal biodiversity conservation program for the ENNR. It hopes to have all 16 forest guards on the program and commence its agroforestry, reforestation and microfinance initiatives for residents.
But all of these developments in Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo could stall. In February, the Ministry of Mines and Energy issued Solway Mining Incorporated license to explore Mt. Blei, a mountain in Blei community forest, and Mt. Delton in Sehyi Ko-doo. Both communities have signed a joint MoU with the Liberian-Russian company changing their forest management plans from conservation to “multiple use area” to incorporate exploration. The company will pay the communities a combined US$30,000 for all three years of the license, according to the MoU. The company’s budget for the project is $13 million, says Boima Morgan, its CEO. So, two percent of that money or US$260,000 will be spent on health and education projects in the affected towns and villages in line with the Minerals and Mining Law of 2000.
That amount is way smaller than the money international organizations have invested on conservation in the area. Forest Incomes for Environmental Sustainability (FIFES), a five-year program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, is investing US$23 million in 11 community forests in Nimba and Bassa. Blei and Delton are two of them.
The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has had no say in the MoU.
The agreement has been criticized by civil society and the FDA alike. Questions are being raised over Liberia’s commitment to conserve its forest, with international organizations having spent millions to save the country’s 42% portion of the Upper Guinea forest, a global biodiversity hotspot. The situation also highlights how community-rights issues relate to the country’s mining law, the oldest in the Mano River basin. It predates progressive statutes like the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands and the Land Rights Act of 2018, which recognize communities’ rights to manage their forests and their full customary land ownership, respectively.
“We are disappointed in the way the Ministry of Mines and Energy handled things,” says FDA’s Managing Director C. Mike Doryen in a mobile phone interview with FrontPage Africa. “We think it has the propensity of discouraging our donors from making anymore investments in the conservation area of our country.”
“The communities cannot operate their community forest under the CRL by allowing mining under the forest,” says Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). “If this trend continues, community forest management in Liberia will be greatly undermined. The two operations are undertaken under two different regulatory arrangements, and I don’t see the justification.”
Morgan denies any wrongdoing. He says Solway is his response to President George Weah’s call on Liberians “to no longer be spectators in their own economy.”
Assistant Minister for Mineral Exploration and Environmental Research Rexford Sartuh refutes those criticisms. He argues the ministry only recognizes national reserves as enshrined in the mining law, not community forests.
“They have their right to their land but when it comes to the issuance of mineral rights in Liberia, we don’t consider them,” he says. “They believe that we should ask them before we issue license. We should not.”
Solway’s exploration will be the first on Blei and Delton. The two forest-capped mountains are on the Nimba Range, recognized for their high conservation importance and at the same time for a huge potential for iron ore. Nimba Range was discovered by Scottish geologist Sandy Clarke on December 24, 1955. It was this same chain of mountains the Liberia American-Swedish Minerals Company (LAMCO) mined, between the late 1950s and 1989. And ArcelorMittal is currently mining Mt. Tokadeh, another mountain on the range.
‘Time for Conservation is Over’
Solway license covers 152 hectares of Blei forest and 70 hectares of Delton, the MoU shows. The company has already paid US$10,000 to both communities for the first year of exploration—US$6,000 for Blei and US$4,000 for Sehyi Ko-doo.
But it was not that easy to arrive at the MoU. The community forest management bodies of Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo initially sued Solway at the Sanniquellie Magisterial Court for illegal entry into their forests. The court halted the company’s work on two occasions, court filings show. The communities’ leaderships opposed the license as it did not meet their consent. The matter dragged on for months before being settled by a mediation of county officials and payment of a $3,000 fine.
Unlike their forest management bodies, the townspeople of Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo do not have issues with Solway’s license. Backed by local officials, residents welcome Solway. The exploration deal has been way more beneficial in few months than conservation has in at least three years, they say. Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo have been running their conservation programs since their establishments as community forests in 2011 and 2017, respectively.
In Blei, particularly, the Solway divide runs deep.
One side comprises residents—some of whom are members of the community assembly, the highest decision-makers under the CRL. This side believes conservation will not provide jobs, build schools nor pave roads they lack that Solway agrees to deliver. In March, angry and suspicious members of the faction stopped a team of journalists, including me, from entering the forest to photograph trails of Solway’s exploration works. They accused us of being supporters of their rivals.
“Their presence here brought some benefits to the community people,” remarks Oliver Geh, a resident of Zor-Tapa, a settlement with 3,658 people in Gbeley-Geh. Solway hired him and other townsmen to work on a 3.2-kilometer road from the community to the peak of Mt. Blei. “We wish that they remain and continue the work here.”
“Thanks to the national government for giving us Solway,” remarks Jenkins Johnson, the commissioner of Gbehley-Geh, one of the signatories of the MoU. “Solway came to us as a blessing from the sky.”
“The time for conservation is over. It is now time for commercial,” adds Nico Tuo, the town chief of Zor-Tapa.
These sentiments overshadow the view of the other side of the divide, the forest leadership. Saye Thompson, chief officer of the community forest, who leads the opposition, had insisted conservation clauses be placed in the MoU before he signed it. Solway agrees in the document to support conservation in the remaining swathes of the two forests and fund reforestation of the degraded areas of the forests at the end of its work. But overall, it is clear Thompson is not a fan of the deal.
“We who think the legal provision is good and we should stand by it are seen as [trouble makers], stopping their opportunity,” says Thompson. “If a land is meant for conservation, it should be used for conservation. We have huge opportunities to conserve our forest but we do not have the mindset.”
Ericson Flomo, Thompson’s Sehyi Ko-doo counterpart, sees it differently. It is all about residents.
“We are acting on behalf of the community. The people themselves want the company,” Flomo says. “We have our own way but it is the community people that we are working for. Once they have consented, it is something that we should be looking at.”
But the Blei-Delton-Solway saga is not yet over.
The court is yet to lift the stop-order it imposed on Solway’s operations in March.
Also, Representative Prince Tokpah of Nimba County electoral district No.2, where the two communities are located, refuses to sign the document. Tokpah demands Solway explains why it distributed T-shirts with the photograph of the late mother of President George Weah among residents. The T-shirts brandish: “In memory of Mother Anna Weah.”
“That registered in my mind that perhaps are people in government …that call themselves Solway to move there and see how they can exploit our people,” Tokpah tells FrontPage Africa in an interview. “There’s where I stand until they can make that correction.”