Miners And Loggers Fight Over Community Forest In Gbarpolu

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A mine inside Korninga B Community Forest run by Belle Fasama Investment Company. The New Republic/Mark N. Mengonfia

A mine inside Korninga B Community Forest runby Belle Fasama Investment Company. The New Republic/Mark N. Mengonfia

By Mark N. Mengonfia, with New Narratives

In March last year, Korninga B Community Forest signed an agreement with Indo Africa Plantation Liberia to allow logging in its forest, which stretches across 31,818 hectares in Bopolu District. By now, the company should have made a contribution to the chiefdom of US$30,000 for scholarship and US$25,000 for medical support. It should have also constructed a modern youth center.

But that is not the case. The Ministry of Mines and Energy has awarded two licenses for the same forest. Belle Fasama Investment Company was issued a Class B prospecting license for gold after its initial prospecting license expired. MNG Gold Exploration was issued an exploration right also for gold. That means the two mining firms will operate in Korninga B until next year and 2025, respectively.

Indo Africa claims it cannot work in the forest while they are there and cannot fulfill its side of the contract it signed with Korninga B.

“Mining is mining, and logging is logging. You cannot have logging and mining in the same forest,” says Muksha Gupth, chairperson of Indo Africa’s board of directors. 

“It is dangerous for mining and logging to take place in the same forest,” says Moses Monlonporlor, the company’s coordinator of community forestry.“When you are felling trees and, at the same time, there are miners in the same forest, there is possibility for trees to fall on someone.”

The company lodged a formal complaint with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the government institution that oversees the logging sector.

Korninga B also does not want mining in its forest. Yet MNG Gold and Belle Fasama have already cleared a portion of the forest, cutting down valuable timber, according to Ruth Varney, the FDA’s western region coordinator for Gbarpolu, Bomi and Cape Mount counties.

In September, Korninga B’s community forest management body (CFMB)—the group that represents a community’s business interests—stopped MNG Gold and Belle Fasama from transporting earthmovers into the forest. That led to a dispute between the community and the companies. Gbarpolu Superintendent, Keyah Saah,tried to resolve the conflict but failed, local media reported at the time. 

“We do not want mining in our forest because the agreement we entered into with the FDA says we were giving our forest out for logging,” says Aaron Mulbah, the chief officer of Korninga B’s CFMB. “We asked MNG Gold and [Belle Fasama] to leave our forest.”

Aaron Mulbah, chief officer for Korninga B community forest. The NewRepublic/Mark N. Mengonfia

The CEO of Belle Fasama, Ben Morris, insists that his company will continue to work in the area.“I am not on-the-side miner. I can show you license that I can pay government taxes more than US$30,000 here,” Morris tells the New Republic in a mobile phone interview. “Anybody who will not respect me, I will not respect you.”  

MNG Gold could not be reached as their entire contact phone numbers failed to ring. This reporter visited its headquarters behind the Fish Market on three occasions but could find no one there. 

‘Serious Problem’

Awarding mining licenses in community forests is a violation of the Community Rights Law (CRL)of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands, a pillar of Liberia’s reform of its postwar forestry sector. The statute gives communities the right to benefit from their forest resources—a right they were denied for decades.

However, the Minerals and Mining Law of Liberia—established nine years prior to the CRL—authorizes the Ministry of Mines to issue licenses anywhere, except for private land and national parks.The CRL, on the other hand, is silent on mining, a weakness experts say is the reason for tension in Korninga B.

The government of Liberia needs to fix the problem before it is too late, warns Gertrude Nyaley, technical manager of the FDA’s community forestry department.“Every year, everyday our offices receive lots of letters on these kinds of operations,” says Nyaley in an interview at her FDA office in Paynesville.

A similar situation is occurring in Korninga A next door, and in Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo in Nimba County. “We have tried to engage the Ministry of Mines and Energy because it has become a serious problem,” says Nyaley.

Gbarpolu, by nature, attracts logging and mining alike. It is one of the most forested regions in Liberia, covering 60,900 hectares. The western county has 164 mining licenses as of December 1, the most in the country, records of the Ministry of Mines show. In fact, Korninga means “on top of the rock”—where minerals are found—in the Kpelle language.

Silas Siakor, one of the civil society leaders who helped craft the CRL, says it is illegal and environmentally unfriendly to allow both mining and logging. “Ideally, in a real world, in a sensible world, you will not contract two resource contractual rights in the same space,” Siakor tells the New Republic in an emailed interview. “It is a bad practice for mining and logging to take place in the same area. You have a situation where in the environmental impact is doubled.”

A tree in Korninga B Community forest. The New Republic/Mark N. Mengonfia

The Ministry of Mines issued MNG Gold’s license in February last year, one month before Korninga B sealed the logging deal with Indo Africa, and seven months after the community legalized its right to manage the rocky, muggy woods. The ministry issued the current Belle Fasama license in October, one year six months after the Korninga B–Indo Africa deal. The two active licenses cover more than 22,651 hectares.

The ministry did not respond to queries for comment on the situation in Korninga B. However, commenting on the Blei and Sehyi Ko-doo situation in Nimba, Rexford Sartuh, assistant minister for mineral exploration and research, told FrontPage Africain October that the ministry does not recognize community forests.

“The ministry only recognizes conservation parks established by law,” Sartuh said at the time. “Most of the time,[community forests]believe that we should ask them before we issue license. We should not.”

Anger and Despair

The Indo Africa deal could bring development to Korninga B, neglected by successive governments. In addition to the scholarship and medical contributions in the first year, Indo Africa should have by now—the second year— constructed a chief headquarters and a latrine in two affected communities, a youth center and concrete bridge in the third, a school in the fourth, and another school in the fifth. And the company should have already paid the community US$22,650 in land rental fees, in line with the National Forestry Reform Law of 2006.

The failure of the contract has turned the huge hope that filled the air in this Kpelle settlement back in March last year into deep despair and anger.

“Our people [have] been blaming us for being too soft with this company,” laments Cecelia Kabah, a member of Korninga B’s community assembly, the highest decision-making body under the Community Rights Law. “Since we gave them our forest, we cannot see them. And our people want to go in the forest to make their farms.”

This story was collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.

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