27 February 2006

Liberia: Saving Nature, Protecting Forest - SDI Intensifies Awareness Program

The menace that continues to plague nature in Liberia has been disturbing and what appears to be a wanton destruction of the forest is massive. Apparently based on the recognition of that the Government of Liberia issued an Executive Order #1 ordering forest concession review and reform. One of the groups that has been in the business of protecting the forest of Liberia is the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), and it has been holding series of forums to create awareness for the protection of the forest and natural resources.

The SDI managed to assemble in Monrovia participants from various forest communities and rural areas, civil society groups, workers in the forest sector of the country to discuss the threat posed to the forest and other natural resources, and the challenge to stop the wanton destruction that has already had its toll.

Participants in one of the SDI organized forums last Friday at the YMCA Complex in Monrovia came out with a resolution not only in endorsing and support of the Executive Order #1, but also underscored that local populations and rural dwellers in forest communities have been traditionally marginalized and excluded from decision-making about the forests.

The participants are also concerned about the companies exploiting the rich forests in their communities without a share of the benefits derived from commercial logging.

They believe the involvement of the local populations in the decision-making and management processes of the forest will yield a fruitful result and there would be some control and checks on logging activities. [See full text of the resolution on page 9] The SDI is frantically working to transform decision-making about natural resources in Liberia by promoting and enhancing the participation of civil society, especially rural people, in those processes.

While that task remains tedious, the SDI believes that the participation of ordinary people is crucial to and will greatly enhance transparency and accountability in natural resource management, and to guarantee that greater equity in the sharing of benefits and sustainability of resource extraction are achieved.

The forum, which has the characteristics of public awareness and outreach on concession review and reform, was organized under the auspices of the Liberian Forest Initiative (LFI) and brought together 68 participants from across the forest region, members of the Liberian Legislature, Forest Development Authority (FDA), civil society and the forestry workers union.

The LFI is a multi-donor and international NGO coordination framework that is working with the Government of Liberia and Liberian Civil Society to reform the forest sector.

Financial and technical support for the forum was provided by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (WCN).

The SDI public outreach initiative was launched during the concession review process and to date has facilitated fifteen (15) public meetings across the forest regions in Liberia, including Grand Gedeh, Sinoe, River Gee, Maryland, Gbarpolu, Rivercess, Grand Bassa and Lofa counties.

Close to a thousand locals and others have participated in the various meetings.

The objective of the various outreach and public awareness exercises is well defined - to rally and express public support for Executive Order #1 issued by the President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on February 2, 2006. That order paves the way for reform of the forest sector.

Other specific objectives include the provision of update on the status of the Liberian forest concession review and reform, including specific proposals on the table to solicit input, presenting the report of phase one of the public outreach to the public, soliciting comments and recommendations for concession reform process and by extension sustainable forest management; and increasing the level of awareness within the media, amongst Legislators from the forest regions, and other government representatives about forest sector reform, and the critical need for effective and long-term civil society engagement and partnership.

The Executive Order has two crucial elements - it cancels all forest utilization agreements including concession agreements and salvage permits; and it provides for the establishment of a debarment list of all those companies, along with their executives and principals that were involved in the conflict in Liberia and the sub-region.

About seventeen (17) of the companies that operated in the sector including the Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC), Maryland Wood Processing Industries (MWPI), Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise, MGC, BIN, etc. are expected to be on the list.

The Companies will no longer be allowed to operate or invest in the timber sector until the review and reform processes are completed.

Speaking during the forum Friday, the Director of SDI, Silas Siakor said, "We have been waiting for the last seven months for this decision. Now that it has finally been made, we must publicly endorse and support the government for its full and smooth implementation." Mr. Siakor said the forum has achieved a public show of support by legislators, rural people and others who participated in the forum, and that it increased awareness amongst participants about the current status of the concession review and reform process.

"Two fundamental questions however, remain to be addressed. This forum will begin serious dialogue on those questions. How can we ensure that local people are truly involved in the process of forest sector reform in a meaningful way? And how can participants at this workshop express or show support for the President's decision and support the FDA in the reform process," Mr. Siakor asked.

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