The forest of Gbarpolu County from outside of Bopolu, Liberia. Travis Lupick, Flickr

Do forest rights empower communities in Liberia?

In conversation with Jonathan Yiah

With around 4.3 million hectares of lowland tropical forest, Liberia is the most forested country in West Africa. Liberia’s forestry sector contributes significantly to the national economy. Moreover, about one-third of the population lives in forested areas, many of whom depend on forests for their livelihoods. The government has developed a legal framework, which recognizes customary rights of local communities to access and manage forests. Crucial in this has been the Community Rights Law of 2009.

Under the Community Rights Law, communities can obtain a Community Forest Management Agreement, giving them the right to use and manage a forested area of between 5,000 and 50,000 hectares. This agreement lasts for a period of 15 years, and can be renewed an indefinite number of times, as long as all requirements are met. The idea is that this empowers communities to engage in the sustainable management of Liberia’s forests, but there are still many challenges, says Jonathan Yiah.

Yiah is the head of the forestry programme at the Sustainable Development Institute, located in Liberia’s capital Monrovia. He has been involved in Liberia’s forest sector for about 20 years, both as a researcher and activist, and recently conducted a study on how the Community Rights Law plays out in practice. Here, Yiah talks about some bottlenecks of the Community Forest Management Agreements, as well as the ways forward.

DE FACTO LOGGING CONCESSIONS

A community that obtains a Community Forest Management Agreement can choose to manage the forest itself, or enter into a contract with a commercial company for harvesting timber. In practice, many communities are opting for the latter option. According to Yiah, however, logging companies tend to take advantage of the communities, and agreements essentially become logging concessions.

How common is it for communities with a community forest management agreement to enter into contract with a commercial company?

It seems to be the default option. We know that of the 40 communities that have agreements signed, at least 20 have signed so-called commercial use contracts with logging companies, and many others are planning to do so.

Why are these logging contracts the default option?

The FDA [The government’s Forestry Development Authority] is actively pushing for this. They talk to communities and persuade them to give their forest to companies. Although the Community Rights Law was already installed in 2009, the mentality of the people working at the FDA has not changed much. According to them, the only option for forest management is to engage with commercial logging companies. That’s what they are experienced with. Moreover, they are being pushed by the central government to generate revenues through taxation of commercial enterprises.

Community forest management workshop in Zorzor District, Liberia. Photo courtesy of SDI
Community forest management workshop in Zorzor District, Liberia. Photo courtesy of SDI

POWER IMBALANCE

A company that enters into a commercial use contract with a community needs to pay US$1.25 per hectare annually, as land rental fee. The law states that 55% of this should go to the community, while the remainder goes to the government. In addition, the community will receive an amount for each cubic meter that is extracted—this amount is negotiated with the company. The revenues go to the community fund, managed by a Community Forest Management Body, which uses the money for collective expenditures, such as schools and water pumps. Still, Yiah thinks the communities are often on the losing end.

Why are these contracts problematic?

Negotiations are seldom in favor of communities, because they have a weak bargaining position, and because they have limited information. The FDA should provide guidance and assistance to communities to help them engage with companies, but it doesn’t. It leaves them to the whims of the company. So, it becomes a one-sided thing, where the company has the power.

Would you say these companies take advantage of the situation?

Liberia has a recent history of civil unrest and violence, and the country is in the early phases of building up steady democratic institutions. The governance systems are still fragile. I believe this is attracting companies that like to take advantage of the situation. We see that a small number of foreign companies come in and establish Liberian front companies. These companies can then enter into contracts with communities for areas up to 50,000 hectares. This means they do not have to enter into the bidding process that is required for permits that are larger than that.

Are their logging practices sustainable?

There are many question marks. I have seen reports stating that timber is being extracted under the diameter limits. And I also heard of a company logging outside of its concession. Officially, the FDA has to monitor how much timber is being extracted, and whether sustainability standards are adhered to. But this is currently difficult to assess. Since the new government came into power in 2018, there have been many changes at all levels of the government, and it seems the FDA has stopped monitoring. Until the government has its act together, CSOs need to step in, in order to monitor what is happening on the ground.

Can communities take action when regulations are violated?

In theory they have the option to go to the FDA to report illegal activities. But the problem is that they often do not know how to approach this. They may sense that a company is breaking the rules, but they don’t know how to prove it and take action. And in the rare case that they do, the FDA’s response is grossly inadequate and often in favor of the logging company.

Timber at the Port of Buchanan, Liberia. Photo by Flore de Preneuf, PROFOR
Timber at the Port of Buchanan, Liberia. Photo by Flore de Preneuf, PROFOR

Are communities able to operate logging businesses themselves?

This is not yet happening, but it is an idea that is currently being discussed by CSOs. We believe there are opportunities, for example through chainsaw milling, so we have started developing proposals to mobilize CSO support to turn this into action.

COMMUNITY GOVERNANCE

To obtain a Community Forest Management Agreement, a community needs to set up a governance structure, consisting of a Community Forest Management Body, an Executive Committee, and a Community Assembly. The governance system is designed to encourage transparency and participation of villagers in decision-making. However, these new structures may collide with chiefs and elders, who traditionally hold the power to make decisions. Conflicts have been common.

What are these conflicts about?

They are about power. The new governance structure that is introduced is based on democratic principles. It bypasses the traditional leadership of community elders. This creates tensions. There have been cases of violent conflicts between those associated with traditional authorities and members of the new governance bodies. Also, there are cases where people associated with local authorities managed to infiltrate community forestry governance bodies in order to influence the decisions from within. Because these people come with traditional authority, this may jeopardize the democratic decision-making processes. Ultimately, what’s at stake, is the control over the forest resources and who engages with logging companies.

What could be a solution?

The main problem, in my opinion, is that there is not enough communication between formal governance structures, traditional authorities and other community members. For example, the Community Assembly is supposed to report to the community as a whole, but this is seldom done adequately. This creates an information gap, and that’s where confusion and tensions grow. So, the first step to prevent conflicts is to improve communication. Way down the line, we should also explore how the law can be revisited so it acknowledges traditional authorities. But this is complicated matter. It requires a balancing act between traditions on the one hand, and democratic principles on the other.

THE FUTURE OF COMMUNITY FOREST MANAGEMENT IN LIBERIA

So far, community forestry in Liberia falls short in achieving its proponents’ objective of empowering local communities. Additional steps are required. First of all, monitoring, transparency and communication need to be improved, says Yiah. And communities need to be supported with developing and implementing sustainable forest management practices themselves—on their own terms. It should make them less dependent on companies and the government. Moreover, new laws provide a significant opportunity to further community rights. Recently, the Land Rights Act of 2018 has opened up the possibility for communities to apply for a full ownership title. Yiah thinks that this has the potential to further empower local communities, as long as the lessons from the recent past are taken into account.

This interview also appeared on the website of Tropenbos International. For more interviews, publications and videos on forest tenure reforms around the world, visit: communityrights.tropenbos.org

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