Monrovia — Reaching the remote Garwin chiefdom in central Liberia isn't an easy feat. Only about an hour and a half of the journey takes place on a paved road.
"I think that this is the last chance for communities to benefit from their resources, but they're being duped out of it" - Jonathan Yiah said.
The remaining four hours wind their way along a cratered, narrow dirt road through thickets of jungle and the occasional blip of cell-phone coverage in a small transit town or isolated village.
Garwin is in River Cess County, one of the least developed parts of Liberia, but also one of the richest in forests suitable for being cut down and exported by commercial loggers.
Late last year, two clans in Garwin applied for a permit to manage a large tract of nearby forest.
Their application was under a relatively new regulatory framework in Liberia that allows rural communities to exercise a much higher degree of control over forestry than they've had in the past.
Historically, the business of logging in Liberia has been tightly controlled by the central government. Contracts were handed out to companies in which few - if any - benefits were likely to trickle down to the communities that lived in the area.
But a law passed in 2009 revolutionized that system, giving communities the right to apply for "Community Forestry Management Agreements".
The agreements allow them to sign contracts with logging companies on their own, entitling them to as much as 55 percent of the revenue stream.
Liberian activists celebrated the law at the time as a much-needed reform to the country's long history of abuse and corruption. But now some of those same activists are worried that the system is being manipulated by loggers, and that once again Liberian communities are at risk of getting fleeced.
Permit application challenges
Garwin is one of a wave of communities from across the country that has applied for these forestry permits in the past year.
Some officials from the Forestry Development Authority, the government regulatory agency that supervises everything from logging to conservation, puts the exact number at 128.
Jonathan Yiah is the coordinator for the Forest Governance Program at the Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberian non-profit that monitors the relationship between investors and communities in the country.
He suspects that many of these applications are being pushed by logging companies who believe they're a back door to obtaining lucrative contracts at bargain terms without going through competitive bidding.
"I think that this is the last chance for communities to benefit from their resources, but they're being duped out of it," Yiah said.
According to regulations published by the Liberian government, a complicated nine-step process needs to be fulfilled before a community is issued a permit.
These steps include making sure the community's claim to ownership of the forest area doesn't conflict with its neighbors, and culminates with a representative community board being appointed through a democratic process by citizens in the area.
According to the law, only that board has the authority to negotiate with logging companies, and it has the right to consider other options for the forest, including ecotourism and the sale of 'non-timber forest products.'
Groups like Yiah's have encouraged communities applying for the permits to seek advice from lawyers and advocates when they negotiate with companies so they get a fair deal. He says that a competitive bidding process is critical in ensuring that the terms of a logging contract are favorable to the community.
The law, however, doesn't mandate competitive bidding in community forests smaller than 50,000 hectares, leaving it up to the community to decide if it wants to implement such a process.
Tricky bidding process
For a logging company that wants to avoid a potentially expensive competitive bidding process, the temptation to secretly intervene at an early stage in the process and convince community leaders to sign a preliminary agreement might be high.
Yiah says that such an agreement would be unlikely to provide the kind of financial benefits that the community might obtain through competitive bidding or if it's given legal advice from a third party during the negotiation.
Moreover, such an intervention would violate the law, which calls for the formation of a representative community body to be elected once a permit is issued. Only that body is intended to have the legal authority to negotiate contracts.
Gertrude Korvayan, an official at the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) who's supervising the application process, counters by saying that community forestry has the potential to bring huge benefits to impoverished rural people.
"For the first time in the history of this country, communities will now receive direct benefits from their resources," Korvayan said.
"They now have all the opportunities provided for by law to manage and govern those resources."
She adds that the FDA won't tolerate the interference of logging companies into the process, and that if it receives evidence of a company trying to manipulate a community before the permit is issued, it would be "disqualified."
But she acknowledges that limited funding and the sheer number of applications makes it hard to keep an eye on the process.
"It's beyond my imagination that a company would do that, but I also don't stay in the community." She adds, "if a community does that and it comes out, we will be forced to take action."
The Liberian government is under pressure to raise funds in a tough economic climate. The Liberian dollar is suffering inflation as global commodity prices drop, and budget cuts look inevitable. Logging through community forestry is seen by some in the government as one way to help cover shortfalls.
The curious case of Garwin
If the community of Garwin's application process is any indication of how the others are unfolding, critics of how the new system is being supervised have good cause to be nervous.
Garwin's community forest application spans a total of 36,637 hectares - about half the total landmass of the five boroughs of New York City.
Witnesses from the community say that last spring, a logging company called Xylopia arrived in the area and asked the leaders of the two clans to sign a 'Memorandum of Understanding' (MOU) that would give it the sole right to log the community forest once approved by the FDA.
These witnesses, who asked not to be named over fears of reprisal, say that representatives from Xylopia handed out cash, alcohol, and bags of rice to community leaders. The sums were relatively low, said to be around 150 dollars for each of the two clans. In April, the company returned with local government officials for a "signing ceremony."
Alfred Dahn, the elderly chief of one of the two clans, says he wasn't comfortable signing the document, and refused.
"It was nighttime, dark, when they brought the MOU," he said. "I refused to sign, because it was not proper to me. Before any investor comes in the forest and any document is signed, we should take that paper to an NGO or counselor to view it and see whether it's right for you to sign. I asked them to give me ten days before I sign, and they said no."
Dahn says that the leaders of the other clan signed the MOU, along with some members of his clan who weren't authorized to hold leadership positions. In Liberia, clan chiefs are technically government employees, and a few days later he was notified by a local official that he was being fired for not signing the agreement.
"My bossman went and suspended me. He said, why didn't you sign?"
Dahn says that after he asked a senator who represents the county for assistance, he was reinstated, but he still has a copy of his suspension letter.
Forces behind logging bids
During an investigation for this article, a draft copy of the MOU that was later signed was obtained by Mongabay. The terms of the agreement are not generous to the two clans that have applied for the community forest in Garwin.
While it states that 55 percent of the 'land rental fee' - amounting to around $25,000 per year - will be paid to the community, there is no mention of sharing the export revenues or the value of the logs themselves.
Beyond vague reference to a "social agreement," it's unclear what benefits the community receives from having signed the illegal MOU.
Xylopia could not be reached for comment, but records from the Liberia Business Registry in Monrovia indicate that the owner of Xylopia is Thelma Sawyer, wife of Amos Sawyer, who was interim president of Liberia during the country's civil war in the early 1990s.
When asked to comment on Xylopia's involvement with the Garwin community forest application, Harrison Karnwea, the managing director of the FDA, said his staff would conduct an investigation.
Still, the events in Garwin could boost fears that the intention of community forestry in Liberia is at risk of being subverted by logging companies.
If communities applying for the permits are bribed or threatened into signing agreements that are not negotiated in accordance with the law, it is unlikely that those communities will receive anywhere close to the level of financial benefits envisioned by those who pushed for its passage.
Louise Riley, a staff member at Global Witness, an international watchdog organization that investigates corruption in extractive industries, says she's concerned at the potential for abuse in Liberian community forestry.
"If the process isn't followed and governance structures aren't set up properly, that means that the community won't have a democratic say in how the forest is being managed," said Riley.
"It's really important that the nine-step process is followed correctly. Otherwise, people are going to lose out. And we've already seen that they've lost out when it hasn't been done the right way."
Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist with extensive experience reporting in Liberia. You can find him on Twitter at @unkyoka