13 December 2005

Liberia: Is Community Forestry Practicable in Liberia?

In an effort to include the respective communities in the governance and management of forest resources for commercial and non-commercial purposes, in spite of the incoming ruling party's (Unity Party) platform, an international workshop on Community Forestry aimed at sharing vision and action frame for community forestry in Liberia is taking place in Monrovia.

The Unity Party's platform states, "The Unity Party (UP) welcomes the results of the forestry review exercise recently undertaken. We will take the necessary steps and actions to ensure that the key recommendations are implemented for the benefit of all Liberians. We will ensure the sustainable management of forest resources, including a national reforestation program. A Unity Party led government will protect investors' rights while ensuring that resources generated from the forest are efficiently managed and targeted towards expanding education in the country and improving the living conditions of the Liberian people." The Forestry Review Committee's recommendations, though endorsed by the international community and UP, are yet to be approved by the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL). Report says the transitional government through the Minister of Justice is contemplating on forwarding the committee's report to the Supreme Court.

While the Environmental Desk (EnDe) welcomes the UP platform declaration on the natural resource management as positive, EnDe thinks the development of a Community Forestry policy document aimed at including rural people in the management of the nation's rich forest resources is imperative. In the absence of a well-defined and workable framework for Community Forestry now, the incoming government might not address the question of subsistence, livelihood improvement and poverty reduction, social, cultural and religious significance from timber and non-timber product production, wildlife management, the conservation of biodiversity and maintaining the quality of the environment in a short period of time.

The Community Forestry is one aspect of the New Forestry Law of Liberia. The other two for which policy or framework has been developed are, commercial forestry and conservation. Therefore, to strike a balance between commercial forestry and conservation, greater attention need to be given to the ongoing workshop on community forestry in Liberia. A community forestry policy/framework that addresses the issue of land tenure, accountability and transparency will not enhance socio-economic development in the country, but equally see the lifting of the United Nations Security Council's timber sanction on Liberia in the first 100 days of the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led-administration.

The idea of community forestry, although strange, would be workable in Liberia only if we are prepared to literally kick inequities out of natural resource management.

Dr. Wilbur G. Thomas, Director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said, "We must literally kick inequities out of natural resource management. As we all know, one of the central dilemma's throughout Liberia's history has been that Liberia's rich natural resources only benefited a small number of people." According to the USAID boss, Rural Liberians with their needs and aspirations have been neglected for too long, adding, "USAID supports community forestry development because we believe it provides an entry point for all of us to address these fundamental inequities that exit in the Liberian society." Dr. Thomas told the participants that the concept of community forestry really means giving all stakeholders a chance to exercise stewardship. "My bible tells me that good stewards are godly. It tells me that everything belongs to God and not individuals. In this regard, all natural gifts that we find on earth must be protected and used judiciously for all," he noted.

Giving an overview of the workshop which seeks to share vision and action frame for community forestry in Liberia, the In-Country Coordinator of Liberia Forest Initiative (LFI), Mr. John Woods observed that generally, communities have claims to land but they do not own it.

Mr. Woods, former Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), said if community forestry is to be established in Liberia, the participants must review the land tenure system and recommend how forestland ownership can be conferred on to communities.

He challenged the workshop to also consider capacity-building facilities for communities to build up socio-capital and skills to control and manage their own forests. According to Mr. Woods, this will curtail the uncontrolled access to forest resources, which has led to the lost of an estimated average of one to two percent of the forest every year.

"Similarly, an estimated US$60m dollars is traded in bush meat each year without taxes or fees," he iterated.

Declaring the workshop officially open, FDA Managing Director D. Eugene Wilson, challenged the participants to discuss with an open mind in the Liberian context, adding, "Develop meaningful policy that would benefit the Liberian people." UNMIL Environment and Natural Resources Advisor, Dr. Webby C. Bwanali, observed that Liberia lacks a holistic national land use policy and that commercial forestry over the years took precedence over both conservation and community forestry. Dr. Bwanali called upon the participants to develop a land tenure policy and ensure that the community forestry framework to be developed will promote public participation in decision-making and management of natural resources.

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