River Cess the Latest Flashpoint in Clashing Laws over Land

VONDEH TOWN, River Cess – The people of this area celebrated in 2019 when a forestry company began operations here. The five-year Social Agreement signed with the company, African Wood and Lumber, an Italian-owned company, was supposed to deliver the community US$5,000 each year in scholarship funds, US$15,000 in land rental fees, two feeder roads, and hand pumps in three communities.

But two years on, those hopes have been dashed. The company has stopped all community payments as land and forest bodies in two clans are engulfed in a power struggle over the Gbarsaw and Dorbor Community Forest here in Central River Cess District.

Bob Kofi Zar, a Paramount Chief in the area, believes the delay of the company in paying royalties is due to the power struggle among the forest and land governing bodies.

“If we don’t put our house in order as one community, the company will deplete our forest and we will not benefit anything,” Zar said. “No company will want to work with a group of people who do not trust each other.”

But Cesare Colombo, CEO of African Wood and Lumber Liberia, says the community is not living up to its own obligations as enshrined in the Social Agreement.

“The problem is that there are active pit sawing activities going on in the forest and no one is saying anything about it,” Colombo said, referring to the practice where people illegally cut trees down without a license. “We have to harvest logs to pay the royalties, but we cannot because their sons are in our concession area cutting down the trees to produce planks.”

Colombo is also the CEO of International Consultant Capital. ICC signed a forest management contract with Liberia in 2009. Forest Management Contract Area K covers parts of River Cess, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh.

The dispute is the latest to engulf Liberia’s forest communities, which are trying to secure their rights to land that has been used by their people for generations but whose ownership was never formally recognized before now. Conflicting laws have made it impossible to find a solution in many parts of the country.

In River Cess, leaders of the Community Land Development Management Committees of Gbarsaw and Dorbor, formed and given authority over customary land ownership disputes by the Land Rights Act of 2018, do not recognize the authority of the Community Forest Management Body, and the Community Assembly of the clans’ given power to determine boundaries and resolve disputes by the Community Rights Law of 2009.

The Community Rights Law mandates the community establish Community Assemblies and Community Forest Management Bodies, while the Land Rights Law of September 2018 gives rights to the communities to establish Community Land Development Management Committees.

Both laws propose governance structures and instruments on the community level that should, in theory, complement one another, but it has not worked here or in dozens of other places across the country.

In September 2020, citizens of the Tarsue Community Forest in Sinoe protested the poor leadership of their community bodies, alleging they were unaccountable and the Forestry Development Authority was failing to properly supervise them amid reports of illegal interference by local government officials.

Nora Bowier of the Land Protection Program of the Sustainable Development Institute says there is a need for both policymakers and civil society organizations to develop a framework that will bring these community forest and land governance structures together.

“In parts of River Gee and in parts of Maryland where we also work, we did a small research on the governance relating to forest and land,” Bowier said. “The [Community Forest Management Body] is posing as the authority. They do not consider the [Community Land Development Management Committee] as being legitimate when it comes to forest governance.”

“What is happening now in the forestry and the land sector – different NGOs, the FDA, and the Liberia Land Authority are working together to design a process of how this should happen,” Bowier said. “Maybe from the legal side, the lawyers have their own explanation, but in practice, it’s hard to see it from that perspective.”

Nora Bowier of SDI’s Land Protection Program: Photo: Eric Opa Doue.

In River Cess, while the company blames illegal logging for stopping them from operating properly and fulfilling their obligations, it is clear the community cannot agree on who should even be talking with the company.

Samuel Vonziah, chairman of the Gbarsaw Community Land Development Management Committee, told The Bush Chicken the Community Assembly has refused to even recognize his committee’s existence. “[They] have never contacted us whenever there is a serious community’s issue to be discussed concerning land and forest in the area.”

James Gbordoe, the chairman of the Community Assembly says his assembly remains the parent body when it comes to forest issues in the clans. Gbordoe claims that the Gbarsaw Community Land Development Management Committee wants to go beyond its mandate.

“They are only there to take care of the land after the loggers have left. They have no authority over the forest,” Gbordoe said. “When the logs have been cut from there, they will have the whole land to take care of. [The Community Land Development Management Committee] wants to request funding from loggers on behalf of the clan, something that is not part of its power.”

Gbordoe says the law requires that the Community Assembly preside over meetings since it receives reports from the Community Land Development Management Committee, but members of the committee always disagree on which body should preside over meetings.

Jonathan Yiah, manager of Forest Governance Program at SDI and focal person of the Dorbor and Gbarsaw Clans on forest matters, says there is a need for more education so that these community structures will understand their roles when it comes to governance.

“I think the main challenge has been, the government is good at making good legislation, but the problem is the implementation,” Yiah said. “For example, education of the law should be the first thing before the law can be implemented.”

Yiah says since both institutions are craving the people’s interest, the sooner they start a unitary course, the better it will be for the people they represent.

Jonathan Yiah is SDI’s Forest Governance Program Manager: Photo: Eric Opa Doue.

Amid the dispute, African Wood and Lumber has stopped carrying out its corporate social responsibilities.

Vonziah, the Gbarsaw committee chairman, says as long as his committee is not recognized, the company will not enjoy smooth operations as such his organization strives to take what belongs to it, according to the 2018 Act.

“The company has completely disregarded our tradition,” Vonziah said. “The company has consistently violated our cultural heritage by illegally entering in our shrines in the name of logging, yet, the [Community Forest Management Body] remains speechless on these matters.”

Anthony Flanboy, the chairman of the Community Forest Management Body, says since the company started its operations in 2019, it has paid the US$10,000 in scholarship funds it was required to pay in 2019 and 2020. Additionally, it has remitted US$6,000 in partial payment for the land rental fees.

He said the company owes the balance of US$38,985 in land rental fees for 2019, 2020, and 2021. Additionally, there is US$5,000 in scholarship funds remaining for 2021.

“Because of these misunderstandings, the company doesn’t want to pay us,” Flanboy said. “But from all indications, we are the parent body.”

Boye Solay, a resident of Cee Town and a member of the Community Land Development Management Committee, says his town has not received any of the land rental fees from the company. Yet, Solaye says the Community Assembly continues to defend African Wood and Lumber.

“When the Community Land Development Management Committee makes any attempt, the Community Assembly will step in, arguing that it is the responsibility of the [assembly], not the [committee],” Solaye said. “While it is true the [committee] does not want to engage in a war of mouth with the [assembly], it will be in the interest of the clan if both entities come together for the sake of their people.”

Colombo is not the first person claiming that his concession area is being overtaken by pit sawing activities. Eliza Kroyahn, CEO of EJ&J Investment, another logging company in River Cess, told The Bush Chicken in July that her company has since pulled out of the county because of ongoing pit sawing activities in her concession area with the full knowledge of the county government.

Kroyahn’s claim was affirmed by Rep. Byron Zahnwhea of the county’s second legislative district, who told The Bush Chicken that “indeed, there is pit sawing going on in the county.”

Zahnwhea says he has been receiving reports that there are dozens of sawyers in the forest in River Cess, which he says prompted the County Legislative Caucus and the local administration to convene a meeting of all heads of forest governing committees. That meeting, which was boycotted by the committee heads, is expected to be rescheduled soon, he said.

Featured photo by Eric Opa Doue. This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding came from the American Jewish World Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.