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Friday, July 19, 2024

COMMUNITY RECLAIMS THEIR FOREST FOLLOWING COURT’S RULING 

Date:

By Henry B. Gboluma, Jr.

HENRY TOWN, GBARPOLU, LIBERIAResidents of Korninga B Authorized Community Forest in Gbarpolu County have reclaimed their 31,318-hectare of forest following a ruling by the 16th Judicial Circuit Court presided over by Resident Judge, Zuballah Kizeku in June 2023.

The people of Korninga had contracted logging operations to the Indo Africa Logging Company but the court said in its final ruling “The Third-Party Forest Management Agreement is here by declared cancelled as though same has never existed among and between the parties hereto and that cost of these proceeding is hereby ruled against Respondent”, thereby allocating legal costs to Indo Africa.

The main contention between the community and the logging company was the failure of the company to commence harvesting operations as per the Third Party Agreement and a provision in the agreement that compelled parties to first seek arbitration before the termination of the contract.

The 2009 Community Rights Law gives community the right to control, protect, manage and develop their forest and its resources. Based on this right, the people of Korninga B Authorized Community Forest entered into a logging contract with Indo Africa on March 4, 2019 to harvest logs. But the agreement did not work out as expected, which prompted the community to file a lawsuit against Indo Africa. Following months of review of the case, the 16th Judicial Circuit Court, situated in Bopolu City, Gbarpolu County, ruled in favor of the community, in an instantaneous judgment ruling. An instantaneous judgment is a final decision made by a court based on the statements and evidence without holding any hearing.

The court said its ruling was based on a precedence set by an American Court in 2014 in the case, “Bauchau versus the Government of United States of America” which argued that the parties freely entered into a contract without duress or other legal disability, so the court has no authority to alter the terms, provisions or requirement of the contract.

The court also referenced the verdict rendered by the Supreme Court of Liberia in the case, “Liberia Trading and Development Bank versus Mathies and Brasilia Agency”.  The ruling reads: “under the laws of the Republic, Courts cannot enforce a contract in a manner otherwise than expressed therein, nor the legislature make laws impairing the litigation of a contract.

Indo Africa had argued that the community needed to firstly seek arbitration before going to court. But the court said there existed no dispute for which arbitration was required, and as a court, it did not also have the authority to alter the terms, provisions or requirement of the contract because the failure of the Respondent (Indo Africa) to have commenced harvesting operation was a violation of the agreement and constitute a breach of the agreement which in no way can be considered as a dispute.

It is evident from the agreement and the circumstances upon which the Action was filled that there exist no dispute for which arbitration is required and, this court says she has no authority to alter the terms, provisions or requirement of the contract because the failure of the Respondent to have commenced harvesting operation since the execution of the contract in 2018 up to-date same is a violation of the agreement and constitute a breach of the agreement which in no way can be considered as a dispute, hence, the court answer in the affirmative”.

The ruling means hope for other concession’s communities in need of justice for similar violation as they can now use the precedent and avoid getting bogged down in dispute arbitration wherever there is a clear breach of the contract. This court’s decision distinguishes between a breach of the agreement and a dispute. Meaning that failure of the company to commence logging operations was sufficient to annul the contract.

This victory of Korninga B Community Forest marks the end of a boisterous chapter that began in 2019 when the community entered into a logging contract with Indo Africa, a firm owned by the Gupta family from Singapore. The 14-year agreement, which gave the company the rights to harvest logs on a 31,318-hectare forest was meant to bring financial support and development to the forest dependent people of Korninga B community.

The agreement, copy of which is in the possession of Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW), obligated Indo Africa to pay the following sums of money to residents of Korninga B community: land rental (US$ 39,147.5), educational scholarships (US$30,000) and medical benefits (US$25,000) each year. The company further promised to construct two hand pumps in each town, a youth center, and a paramount chief’s office.

However, the company only paid the community US$65,000 in land rental fees for the four years it held on to the forest land, leaving an arrear of US$91,590 as it failed to commence logging operations within the stipulated time frame in contravention of the logging contract and the 2009 Community Rights Law.

The Chief Officer of the Korninga B Community Forest Management Body, Aaron Mulbah said the community used the fund to begin the construction of a guesthouse in November 2022 in Henry Town, the headquarters of Bopolu Administrative District in Gbarpolu County. This guesthouse project aimed to generate income for the community and support the needs of forest- affected residents, according to the Chief Officer.

The failure of Indo Africa to honor its commitments not only jeopardized the completion of the guest house project but also undermined the socio-economic development of the community. Despite repeated attempts to reach out to Indo Africa for comment, the company remained unresponsive and has since ceased operations in Gbarpolu. With the logging contract now defunct, the community of Korninga B finds itself in a new era of empowerment and self-determination as they reclaim ownership of their forest.

As it stands, residents of Korninga B community are struggling to secure the necessary funds to complete the guest house, forcing them to consider alternative business ventures in order to raise the required capital for the completion of the guesthouse.

Despite the challenges, Aaron Mulbah said he was happy the community had gotten back their forest amid the landmark victory. Aaron attributed their victory to proper record keeping, stating that it didn’t come to him and the community as a surprise. “Because of the proper records keeping on our activities with Indo Africa which was presented to the court, we won that case.

Aaron stated that community members have learned a lot from the engagement with their first company, adding, with the level of understanding on community forest management through education provided by the Sustainable Development Institute and other partners, his leadership will restore the hope of the community very soon.

The head of the Civil Society in Gbarpolu, Lydia Ballah said that the situation of Korninga B serves as a cautionary tale for other communities engaged in forest management agreements with external parties. She noted that the case underscores the importance of ensuring that such agreements are entered into with caution and that all parties uphold their side of the bargain to promote sustainable development and community empowerment.

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