Residents of District #3B&C in Grand Bassa County on a sunny day in July 2018 gathered in their numbers to celebrate the presentation of an official certificate from the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) that gives them the right to manage their forest. They slaughtered a cow, had a big feast and partied all nightlong.
That was a befitting celebration. District #3B&C had completed a rigorous process to get a community forestry management agreement (CFMA) under the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands. They had to pay US$250 to the FDA, survey their forestland and map it, and did other things as required by the law before getting the certificate. With the CFMA, the community could negotiate with a logging company and sign a contract that could pave their roads, erect a school building and a construct clinic.
"If you live in a deprived community for over 50 years and see that you have an opportunity to change your life for good, you have to be happy," says Benjamin Jorkpehn, an influential elder of Taylueblee, one of the 304 villages of the nine clans that make up the District #3B&C.
But no one in any of the villages knew such a dream would turn into a nightmare nearly one year after.
This forest-enveloped community, some 60 kilometers away from Buchanan and one of the remotest places in the country, finds itself in a conflict with county authorities and community leadership over which company it should sign a logging deal with.
Advocates say it is the latest episode of internal wrangle between locals and politicians over community forest they say undermines the very intent of the Community Rights Law to give communities benefits of forest resources.
Claims and counterclaims
Two logging companies are competing for the District #3B&C forest covering 49729 hectares. County and district authorities are backing West Water, a 'Chinese company;' while the community forest management body (CFMB) is backing Renewed Forest Group (RFG.)
The CFMB under the Community Rights Law represents the interest of the community in logging deals, but county and local authorities--including Statutory Superintendent Joe S. Paygar, Representative Vincent Willie and Superintendent Janjay Baikpeh--question the legitimacy of the body.
According to the James Z. Konmeh, Chairman of the CFMB, the local authorities have been fighting members of the body, and inciting locals against them. "They have done all they can to undermine our legitimacy, but we will not surrender to them," Konmeh says. "We will not back down. We will fight to the end because we are backed by the law," he adds.
"We have the power and the right to negotiate for investors and absolutely no one else. This is the law and if Liberia is a country of laws, we must abide by them," he adds, accusing the officials and two other men--Josephus Zeon and Garmondeh Karnga-- without any evidence of fronting for West Water.
District Superintendent Joe Paygar refuses to comment on the matter, while efforts to reach Superintendent Baikpeh did not materialize. Representative Willie denies any wrongdoing.
Interestingly, Representative Willie, Zeon and Karnga accuse Konmeh; Jeremiah Gayepue, chairman of the community assembly; and Ben Bueh, chairman of the executive committee of corruption and disrespect.
The authorities had an election recently and removed the three men from their posts. Fifteen of the 27 community assembly members representing the affected communities of District #3 B&C voted to remove Konmeh, Gayepue and Bueh. They replaced them with J. Max Kpleh, chairman of the CFMB; Sabato Garblah, chairman of the executive committee; and Sundaygar Kardyu, chairman of the community assembly.
Zeon claims the CFMB and the FDA are trying to "cheat the people of their resources". He accuses Atty. Gertrude Nyaley, Technical Manager of the Community Forestry Department of the FDA, without any evidence of conniving with Renewed Forest Group to land the contract. Atty. Nyaley denies any wrongdoing.
Zeon also accuses the CFMB of not adopting by-laws as mandated by the Community Rights Law. "If you were to go in any of the towns and villages and ask the people what are the laws that govern their forest, the people won't know, because the CFMB has refused to publish these laws," he says.
"The bylaws and constitution are very important to us because it tells us what we are and what we are not... what we are to do and what not to do."
Representative Willie claims the CFMB is not transparent in its operations. "I am told that the CFMB has signed agreement with a company, but I and many of the CA members do not know anything about such agreement," he claims.
"The three guys (Konmeh, Gayepue and Bueh) continue to disrespect our community and people and we must stop that," Willie charges. "We are the ones that are answerable to our people so we must be aware and involved in issues that directly impact or affect them."
The Community Rights Law gives the right to the CFMB to negotiate logging deal, but it mandates the body to consult the community assembly--which comprises the lawmaker of that district, elders and chiefs, the youth, and women--and is the highest decision-making body in the community governance structure.
This communal management of forestland and sharing of its benefits is a hallmark of the Community Rights Law and the Land Rights Law of 2018. However, the former--administered by the FDA--deals with only forestland and the latter--by the Liberian Land Authority (LLA)--involves land in general that could be suitable for things like mining, agriculture and other purposes.
Lack of awareness
The FDA only recognizes the community leadership of Konmeh, Gayepue and Bueh and the deal with Renewed Forest Group, according to Atty. Nyaley.
"I was insulted and almost beaten up all because I want to see the right things done," Mrs. Nyaley says, recounting an incident in March while intervening in the dispute. She says the local officials did not have a "tangible" reason to nullify the logging contract between the community and Renewed Forest Group.
The House of Representatives summoned Atty. Nyaley on April 9, 2019 over the dispute, though the hearing was not held due to the funeral of Adolp Lawrence who died in a car crash. The hearing has not been rescheduled.
Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) blames the lack of proper awareness on the Community Rights Law as a reason for the dispute. He says the Grand Bassa District#3 B&C dispute is just one case of many cases in the country, where members of communities' governance structure are not aware of many aspects of the law.
"What has happened in most communities where the FDA has granted certificates is that the communities do not understand what their bylaws and constitutions mean to them, which is supposed to help them govern their forest correctly," Yiah tells the Daily Observer. "Most times local elites and or local authorities sometimes take advantage of gaps created as a result of lack of information or leadership."
Yiah, however, says SDI has recorded instances elsewhere where community governance structures alienate county officials, which he says is against the Community Rights Law. The law mandates the lawmaker of the district where the community forest is located sits on the community assembly.
"Local authorities most times force themselves into the process when they feel that things are not going right and there are suspicions of clandestine activities... " Yiah says. "They are right to get involved or demand answers to critical questions because they must protect the interest of their people."
Back in Deesoeblee, the crisis continues to dampen the dreams of District #3B&C.
"We thought this supposed to be a blessing for our community, but it is turning into something else for us now," says Moses Chendeh of Varnblee village. "This is not what we were praying for. We want this confusion to come to an end so that whatever company is selected can move in and start to work."
Robert Kardyu of Ceeyah village reechoes Chendeh's point. "The interest of the people should come first in everything we do. We all know the challenges our people are faced with."
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story's content.