WHEIN TOWN, PAYNESVILLE – More than 60 townspeople of Doru chiefdom in the Gbi/Doru District of Nimba County spent the sixth straight night at the headquarters of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) here, demanding the cancellation of a logging contract between their community and the Liberia Tree and Trading Corporation (LTTC).
LTTC, owned by former Representative Ricks Toweh, signed a 15-year logging agreement with Doru in July 2011, giving the company the right to log 35,000 hectares of the community’s forestland. In exchange, LTTC promised to pay a yearly land rental fee of US$48,125, build a high school, pave roads, provide safe drinking water and construct clinics. The agreement even compelled the company to help build churches and give pastors “some incentives while they serve their people spiritually”.
Nine years after it was signed, none of that has happened, the protestors say. The community and the company have been embroiled in a number of lawsuits over the years over benefit payments, and the community has seen itself tossed into an endless internal wrangle. Protestors say this sleep-in protest will be the last stand in the controversy that has rocked one of Liberia’s remotest districts.
“For nine years, the LTTC company has held our forest hostage, have not cut one tree,” claimed Gelenyon Debois, the spokesman of the protestors, in an interview with FrontPage Africa over the weekend.
“We have come to live at the FDA headquarters, to live outside their fence until our demands are met.”
Elders lay outside the walls of the FDA while the women prepared meals. Debois said their sleep-in would continue until the FDA began the process leading to the cancellation of the contract.
Efforts to reach the LTTC did not materialize up to press time.
Attorney Gertrude Nyaley, the technical manager of FDA’s Community Forestry Department, said the FDA could not honor the community’s request for cancellation of its contract with the LTTC because the matter was in court.
The Doru protestors have been to court on three occasions already. In the first case in July, Judge Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay of the Eight Judicial Circuit Court of Nimba ruled that the FDA start arbitration on the cancellation of the contract. In the second case in August, the Supreme Court upheld Judge’s GBeisay’s ruling after another group of Doru villagers asked the high court to dismiss the case. And in the third case in October, the Eight Judicial Circuit Court of Nimba, this time through Judge James Gilayeneh, ruled against the protestors.
“Accordingly, the entire action/suit is dismissed for lack of jurisdiction in the court, and the parties are hereby ordered returned to status quo ante as though this action was never filed,” the third ruling read. The protestors are expected to appeal the decision.
LTTC and the other group of villagers argued that Cisco Gbotoe, who represented the community in the initial arbitration case, was not the legitimate leader of Doru’s community forest management body (CFMB). Gbotoe was suspended over alleged corruption in March this year and was replaced by James Tiah, another villager, in an election overseen by the FDA. The CFMB represents the interest of community in logging deals, according to the law. Its members are appointed by an assembly of district lawmakers, elders, women and youths.
Atty. Nyaley said the FDA could not do anything to resolve the situation in Doru unless the community shed its divisions, the same position of the FDA when FrontPage Africa investigated Doru’s dispute more than two years ago.
“That is why we have asked management to find money right away, so that we can go in and resolve the conflict,” Nyaley told FrontPage Africa in a mobile phone interview over the weekend.
“Doru has been a challenging situation for us,” she conceded.
Some citizens of Doru disagree with the actions of the protestors.
“Though we know that [LTTC] has been there for several years and is not doing well, the procedure that [the protestors] are following is not the right procedure,” said John Glaywea, chairman of the Gbi/Doru Development Association.
According to Glaywea, only the Tiah-headed group has the authority to request the FDA for cancellation of LTTC contract, not Debois or the suspended Gbotoe.
Glaywea accused Debois of fronting for Booming Green, a Chinese logging company operating in River Cess County without evidence. Jerry Wang, Booming Green’s boss denied any wrongdoing, while Debois refuted the accusation in interviews with FrontPage Africa.
Debois countered that Glaywea was a stooge of the LTTCC, which Glaywea denied when asked to comment on Debois’ counteraccusation.
In a letter last Saturday, Representative Johnson Gwaikolo of Nimba County District No. 9, to which Doru belongs, appealed to Debois, chiefs and elders not to stage the protest.
“I believe that steps taken to resolve any dispute relating to the leadership of the [community assembly] or any other matter of such nature should begin at the seat of the CA, which is Gbi/Doru Administrative District,” Representative Gwaikolo wrote, announcing a mass meeting in a week’s time to discuss the conflict.
The Doru-LTTC agreement was one of the first 10 signed under the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands. Like the New Forestry Reform Law of 2006, the CRL was an effort by the Liberian government and its partners for communities to share the benefits of their forest resources. The intent was to move away from the time of “conflict timbers,” when natural resources were used to support warring factions during the Liberia Civil War (1989 – 2003).
Under the CRL, communities must first obtain a community forest management agreement from the FDA. To obtain that CFMA, they must complete a rigorous nine-step process, ranging from conducting a survey of the relevant forestland to forming a governance body that secures communities’ benefits. With that, communities can enter into a logging contract with a company.
Doru faced challenges from the outset. It was one of the communities that saw their nine-step process marred by errors grave enough to warrant suspension or cancellation of their community forest status, according to a 2014 resolution of the board of directors of the FDA. Those errors were later corrected.
The FDA is expected to meet the protestors today, and the outcome of that meeting could end their protest or see them head for their seventh straight night.
This story was a collaboration with Front Page Africa for the Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.