By Paul M. Kanneh
MONROVIA – Located about 55 kilometers from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Compound #1 in Grand Bassa County has been in the news for all the right and wrong reasons. The community is a host to an expensive wood specie called ekki. Report by civil society organizations has hinted that a company called Renaissance Group Incorporated (RGI) illegally harvested about 3.9 million worth of valuable ekki from the community’s forest. This illegality took place 6 kilometers outside of a concession area.
“The investigation uncovered considerable logging, mainly if not entirely of valuable ekki (Lophira alata, or LOP) timber, that took place in the area without a valid Forest Resource License”, the report by CSOs said.
Community residents affected by this massive illegal logging have now broken silence for the first time since the illegal logging was discovered in 2018 by an unpublished special investigation report conducted by the Liberian Ministry of Justice. The voices of the community members were aired on Liberia’s premier Forest Hour radio show held weekly on Ok FM 99.5.
Jacob Powell, the then Forest Administrator said “It is a pleasure today to see media people coming into our forest to interview us on our wellbeing, and to point to the issue of Renaissance. We have been affected greatly by the company”.
Jacob explained to Liberia Forest Media Watch that the community first saw RGI as a blessing, but later realized that it was a curse to them. “When they came, we saw them as a blessing. But later on, it turned out to be a curse in the sense that they harvested our logs without due permission”.
The Former Forest Administrator accused RGI of randomly harvesting and felling logs in large quantities, noting that the company abandoned the logs which are now decaying without implementing its social obligations they had agreed to with the community and which were documented in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). “They promised to build Palaver hut, fix our feeder roads, which they did not do, and have pulled out from the area without any development for the community”.
Jacob intoned that from the look of things, he feels that the community is standing on a “slippery” ground, and that as victims, their logs have been taken away without any benefit to the community. He appealed to the government to give them a clear picture of how they will get their benefits from the company.
Town Chief of Wah Town, Ben W. Gaywhea expressed concerns over the manner the company handled their benefits, adding, “all the things they promised us weren’t done at all, until they brought confusion amongst themselves and ended in court”.
Chief Garwhea said the community, at that particular time, reminded the officials of the company about the status of their benefits, but nothing substantial was done to address their concerns.
George Peter said he was asked to work for the company as a Tree Finder and Fumigator in 2018. He disclosed that he was specifically instructed to find ekki. “When they came in 2018, they called me to take them to the bush to look for ekki trees. We went and found the exact tree they were looking for”. George Peter recalled that he found around 500 pieces of ekki that the company harvested and took to the logs yard.
He accused the management of RGI of owing him six months’ salary. “They were paying me US$200.00 per month and I worked for more than six months. At that time, they never informed us officially that they were dropping us. I am feeling bad. However, if the company does what they promised to do for us, they can come back. But I don’t believe they can do what they promised us”.
While the community decried non-compliance with their Memorandum of Understanding, the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Bassa County, on 13 January 2022 ordered RGI to designate a buyer for the logs it illegally harvested. “In this direction, the FDA, as the government regulator of the forest sector, shall be ordered to determine or appraise the monetary value of the logs while the Petitioner (Renaissance Inc.) shall designate a buyer and sell the logs under the supervision of the FDA, all done under the umbrella, strong, and direct supervision of the Court”, the Court said in its final ruling.
The Court’s ruling was based on Article 21 (h) of the 1986 constitution of Liberia which says “no person shall be subject to double jeopardy”. The Forestry Development Authority had initially fined the management of RGI US$105,000 for harvesting logs outside of the concession area. But the European Union Voluntary Partnership Agreement finds the export of the logs illegal as the logs were harvested in an area that did not have forest resource license, the logs were cut outside of the concession area, and the logs were also not captured by the LiberTrace system.
Amid the court’s order, community members have expressed fear over the lack of the company’s willingness to pay them their benefits now that they have been given the permit to sell the logs. An elder of the community, Samuel Gweh stated that “I want the government to be the one to sell the logs instead of the company because the company’s standing is not good. It did not implement all the things it promised to do. But with the government, we are certain that we will get some of our benefits”, elder Samuel Gweh told Journalists.”