Liberia: CSO Warns Pres. Weah Against 'Direct Interference in Forest Matters'

National Coordinator of the National NGO Coalition of Liberia

The National NGO coalition of Liberia has, in very strong words, called on President George Weah to desist from playing direct role in community forestry issues -- a situation that, if not aborted, would create unwarranted tension in the management of community forest in the country.

The Coalition, at a press conference on Friday, October 25, 2019, said the President is trampling on the law, and usurping functions that should be exercised by relevant authorities that are governing or supervising the sector.

The group added that it is becoming an habitual act by President Weah to directly interfere in resolving disputes that should be handled in accordance with law, especially the National Forestry Reform Law (NFRL) of 2006, and the 2009 Community Forest Law (Community Rights Law of 2009). The group fears that if this trend continues; it will adversely affect the delivery of the Forestry Development Authority's (FDA) statutory mandate.

National Coordinator of the group, Richard Hoff, II, told reporters that the President's direct intervention appears to be undermining the oversight responsibilities ascribed by law to the FDA, according to chapter 2.2. of the NFRL.

A classic case in point, according to the Coordinator, is the unending community forest crisis that has engulfed District #3 B&C in Grand Bassa. A vote of no confidence in the leadership of the Community Assembly (CA) and Community Forest Management Body (CFMB) reportedly cast, has been stalling progress in the county.

Instead of the President prevailing on the FDA to resolve the crisis in the confines of the law, he constituted a committee that many stakeholders believe is contravening the laws its proceedings in the resolution exercise.

Headed by Grand Bassa County District#5 Representative, Thomas Goshua, who is also chair of the county Legislative Caucus, the Committee, which members also include Bishop Gweh and Chief Zanzan Karwar, held a mass meeting recently in the county.

Coordinator Hoff narrated that officers of the coalition formed part of the FDA delegation and the President visited District 3 B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County to resolve a dispute related to vote of no confidence in the leadership of the CA and CFMB.

Fight over Forest

Two logging companies have since started competing for the District #3 B&C forest, which covers 49,729 hectares, according to the FDA. County and district authorities are backing West Water, a Chinese company; while the community forest management body (CFMB) is backing Renewed Forestry Group (RFG).

The CFMB, under the Community Rights Law, represents the interest of the community in logging deals. However, county and local authorities -- including Statutory Superintendent Joe S. Paygar, Representative Vicent Willie and Superintendent Janjay Baikpeh -- questioned the legitimacy of the body.

Suspended CFMB chairman, James Z. Konmeh, says 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. "We will not back down. We will fight to the end because we are backed by the law," he adds. It is because of this, some thought, that President Weah decided to get involved to resolve the crisis, but many feel his committee is doing the opposite instead.

But what appeared to have been a good-intentioned intervention by the President, he said, is now turning into an unhealthy development as the legitimate leadership of the community is being pushed aside by powerful people who are driving personal interests.

To confirm the purported vote of no confidence in the community leadership at the meeting, members of the CA, the highest decision making body of the forest governing body, were asked to take a vote if the allegations against District 3 B&C leadership were accurate and correct.

"Three times a vote was taken of Community Assembly members present, but two thirds could not be attained, to remove the accused officers according to their Constitution and Bylaws. This was after at least two recounts to attain the required two-thirds," the NGO Coalition official said.

Despite this shortfall, the President's committee and the FDA still went ahead and suspended both the CA Chair and Chief officer of the CFMB, he said.

"It was also agreed for the acting leadership that was constituted to invite FDA at a later date to undertake further investigation so that the accusers will provide evidence to confirm reason for their removal or they be reinstated -- none of which has happened up to date."

An ad-hoc committee was constituted and charged with the responsibility to work with FDA to peacefully resolve the dispute. But contrary to the meeting outcome, on September 14 the ad-hoc committee wrote the FDA to visit the community forest to sign a third-party agreement with another company, while there is another third party agreement the community earlier entered with another logging company.

"We have been reliably informed that the community has requested and FDA is carrying out, or has completed, demarcation of the community forest to separate between the existing third party, and a new and allegedly illegal third party. This is totally unacceptable as it contravenes the laws that govern our forests," Coordinator Hoff said.

District #3 B&C in 2018 completed a rigorous nine-step process leading towards the community forestry management agreement (CFMA) under the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands. With the agreement, the community could negotiate with logging companies and sign a contract that could pave way for developments in the community. But no one had the slightest thought that this "blessing" would have turned into a nightmare nearly one year after.

This forest-enveloped community, one of the remotest places in the country, finds itself in a conflict with local, and county authorities, and community leadership, over which company it should sign a logging deal with. Advocates say it is the latest episode of political penetration and elite influence over rural communities' forest lands.

"From the NGO Coalition's perspective, we believe that the whole allegation against the accused officers are driven by interests and are not based on concrete justification," Hoff said. "The fact that a two-thirds vote could not be attained during the meeting supports the assertion that there was no meeting held where CA members cast vote of no confidence in their officers."

What is more mind-boggling, he said, is the fact that the Ad-hoc Committee, on no legal grounds, would suddenly invite the FDA to the community forest to sign third party agreement with another company while there is an existing contract.

"This means a higher power beyond those of the communities and the FDA is driving the process to hatch an illegal enterprise that may escalate within a short period of time.

Hoff said that the handling of the situation is unlawful and is being influenced by the President through his committee, which he constituted to intervene," he said. "If this trend continues it may lead Community forestry governance in Liberia down a spiraling path of bad forest governance that can rightfully be compared with the abuse of the Private Use Permit (PUP) in 2011 and 2012 that led to loss of revenues to both National Government and affected communities," Hoff warned.

"While we may understand the President's zeal and courage seeking to ensure well-managed forest resources of Liberia, this cannot and should never be achieved by usurping the function of the FDA Management, as such will in the short to medium term adversely affect the delivery of the authority's statutory mandate," Hoff said.

In order to ensure checks and balances, he noted that it would be prudent for the President to refer disputes in community forests governance to the FDA management using the established legal framework and processes enshrined in the 2009 Community Forest Law.

"As President of the republic, we can also accept that you will take action against the FDA management if it is found to be ineffective and bias."

He said any process established outside the Community Forest Law by setting up a committee parallel to the FDA, which has the statutory mandate to manage Liberia's forest resources, is not just wrong, it is undemocratic and will automatically damage the entire law, sending Liberia back to zero, where community forests can only exist at the will and pleasure of the political class.

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