Liberia: Watchdog to Empower Forest Communities

Monrovia — Eight forest communities in five counties are poised to benefit from a program to better negotiate logging contracts, exercise their rights and secure their benefits from their forest resources.

The program comes at a time civil society organizations and conservationists fear that growing interest in community forests by logging companies across the country could trigger unsustainable logging, neglect of forest conservation and even result to a scandal.

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) is running the program with funding (USD99, 925) from the European Union through the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. It is in support of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between Liberia and EU whose objective is to curb illegal logging by legal and regulatory frameworks, good governance and conservation.

The eight communities are Gbi and Doru, and Boe-Quilla in Nimba; Zaidu and Teekpeh in River Cess; Blouquia and Neezonnie in Grand Gedeh; Sewacajua in Sinoe; and Bluyeama in Lofa.

"Strengthening Community Forestry Structures and their Governance in Liberia" will run for 12 months (July 2018 to July 2019) and is expected to see SDI work with the leadership of the eight forest communities called the Community Forest Management Boards (CFMBs).

CFMBs were created by the Community Rights Law with Respect to Forest Lands of 2009, which gives communities greater participation in forest management and governance as part of a reform agenda that began in 2005 to raid Liberia of conflict timbers.

Many forest communities have faced difficulty in securing the benefits from the logging company, despite the new law. Gbi and Doru, for instance, have been in a marathon conflict with the Liberia Tree Trading Company over its land rental and cubic meter fees.

SDI, under the program, is expected to work with the leadership of the National Union of CFMBs in the negotiation and monitoring of third-party agreements with logging companies called Commercial Use Contracts (CUCs). The watchdog plans to conduct free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) training with the targeted communities, hold recordkeeping and bookkeeping seminars and, among others, carry out awareness on the Community Rights Law of 2009...

"Today SDI is launching this program to enhance a work that started long ago with the goal to transform the business-as-usual approach and ensure that the rights given to communities are protected," said SDI Coordinator Nora Bowier at the program's launch on over the weekend in Monrovia. "Since SDI was established, it has worked hard alongside various partners, making sure that natural resource governance does not take a business-as-usual trend, where communities are left out from decision-making and management of their forest," she added.

"For us at SDI, this is our goal to ensure under this project."

'Revolution'

Of the eight-targeted communities under the program, six have signed a Community Forest Management Agreement (with the Forestry Development Authority). A total of 21 communities have signed the agreement, while 13 more are to be added to that list soon, according to the FDA. But 129 applications, it says, have been made since the 2009 law was passed.

"Community forestry is becoming the limelight of commercial activities in Liberia, and it has become a grave concern for all of our partners that whatever is being done is done consistent with the law and regulation and there is no repeat of PUPs," revealed Gertrude Nyaley, the Technical Manager of the Community Forest Department of the FDA. She added only one community has signed an agreement for conservation of its forest.

When communities signed a forest management agreement with the FDA, they can choose enter a Commercial Use Contract with a logging company or conserve their forest once it meets the regulations.

Abraham Guillen, team leader of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement Support Unit that hosted the launch, said the program was necessary to help communities play their role amid this community forest "revolution".

"It is very important because economic development in the country has to be based on the regulatory framework, but also communities need to understand their rights and also their responsibilities," he told the launch. "We believe that this is a very important contribution."

The vice president of the National Union of CFMBs Irene Wilson affirmed that communities were focusing on logging as a way of getting benefits. "We want to extend our thanks and appreciation to our partners... but we need more, especially at this point [where] most of the communities are engaging into logging.

David Palacios of the EU stressed that there can be no forest governance without communities playing their part, despite their shared ownership of forestlands.

"You are entitled to some rights but also you have to develop your responsibilities as well, and that is a very important part the communities have," Palacios said.

He said Liberia was a good position to manage its forest and could not miss out. "It will be very sad if in 15 to 20 years that we are like some of the neighboring countries that have patches of green that are not real forest," he warned, referencing Liberia's possession of more than 40 percent of the Upper Guinea Forest that was its wealth and heritage.

'Technical Capacity'

Nyaley of the FDA urged SDI to build the technical capacity of targeted-communities in calculating their cubic meter land rental fees, fees they are communities are entitled to under the Community Rights Law but rely on the FDA for computation of their benefits.

"It is one thing to build their capacity in terms of negotiating contracts and it is another thing build their capacity in the technical deliverables of the management of the resource," she said. "We look forward to the point whereby donors will provide assistance to NGOs in order to build communities' technical capacity--where is the four percent area mark of community forest, how much supposed to be logged? How do I calculate my cubic meter fees? Those are the things that we look forward to."

Nyaley also called on SDI to include communities that have not signed forest management agreements with the FDA, a point that was also reemphasized by Jackon Nobeh of Partners in Development (PADEV).

"Participatory approaches are central to this concept, and practical implementation is relying heavily on community forestry experiences," added FAO Representative Mariatou Njie. "This concept also gives a sharper focus on poverty alleviation and the livelihood of the rural poor," she said.

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