By Jacob S. Tweh, Jr
The tussles over forest issues or logging contracts between district legislators and Chief Officers of Community Forests in Liberia is close to becoming a new threat to sustainable forest management despite clear delineation of responsibilities in the forestry laws of Liberia.
By law, Representatives of the districts within which community forests exist, are members of the Community Assembly (CA). But this membership is limited to only advisory roles. Whereas Chief Officers of community forests are the Chief Administrators that run the day-to-day affairs of community forests, including representing communities’ interests to companies. (Chapter 4 section 4.2 P-12/CLR).
But over the years, districts’ legislators have taken advantage of their proximity to the management of community forests to institute undue political influence that has either derailed progress in community development or instigated long standing conflicts. One of such conflicts was well documented in a briefing note produced by the Media.
Al though no official reason has been established for the undue political interference from legislators, experience shows that most Liberian Legislators eyeing reelection often see Chief Officers of Community Forest Management Bodies (CFMB) as threats to their ambitions based on the popularity and influence they (Chief Officers) command as a result of their positions.
Like other communities, Bloquiah Community Forest in Grand Gedeh County is a scene of media attraction due to the existing conflict between District #3 Representative, Alex Chersia Grant and the Chief Officer of the CFMB, Sampson Zammie. The both have been at war with each other-showing supremacy as to who is in charge as it relates to the management of the community forest.
The Chief Officer, Sampson Zammie indicated that the conflict started when the Lawmaker requested him to turnover to him, land rental fees paid by the Liberia Hardwood Company (LHC), an order Sampson said he disobeyed, prompting the lawmaker to effect his arrest with no formal charge. But he was later released by the police.
The reported interference by Representative Grant is responsible for delays in getting companies to express interest in logging in the community forest, according to the Chief Officer. Sampson says Alex Grant’s action has also brought activities of the CFMB to a stalemate, leaving election matters to fall behind against anticipated plans. “The possibility of a company taking over the Bloquiah Community Forest is slim as the lawmaker has vowed to do all in his power to prevent companies from investing in the area as long as I remain the Chief Officer”, Sampson Zammie noted.
During a follow up with community members in December 2022 in Gboe-geewon and Zean, sources confirmed to LFMW that Representative Alex Chersia Grant and Sampson Zammie were in a serious conflict, and that the Lawmaker has made it known that he will not work with the current leadership headed by Sampson Zammie.
A community’s resident, Tommy Clark said their Lawmaker’s action is jeopardizing local efforts to mobilize interested companies to log in the community forest, and at the same time undermining the chances of other potential investors that might be willing to invest in the community. Clarke blasted Representative Grant for his undue interference in the operations of their community forest, using his legislative power at the detriment of community members.
Sampson Zammie accused Representative Grand of masterminding the contract’s termination with Liberia Hardwood Company (LHC) in 2016. Some residents interviewed lamented that since the termination of the contract with LHC, there has been no concession in the area due to the misunderstanding between Representative Grant and Sampson Zammie.
In an effort to bring peace, Sampson said, he and Representative Grant, along with Grand Gedeh Senator, A. Marshall Dennis and the management of the LHC met at Royal Grand Hotel in Monrovia in 2017. Hoping for amicable resolution of the crisis, with the aim to give the company a second chance, Sampson said, he and Representative Grant burst up into a heated argument at which time the Lawmaker told him (Sampson) that as long as remains the Chairman for the CFMB, there would be no concession company in Bloquiah Community Forest.
Sampson explained that the Grand Gedeh District #3 Representative has been using his legislative power to impede attempts by his leadership to engage with investors to take over the Bloquiah community forest.
He pointed out that Representative Grant also influenced the lawsuit filed by LHC against the CFMB in 2017 at the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Gedeh for damages totaling US$4 million. But the court ruled in favor of the CFMB and the people of the community, Sampson revealed, noting the Supreme Court also upheld the lower court’s decision following an appeal.
The Bloquiah Chief Officer also accused their district representative of instigating the disruption of the election for officials of the CFMB in November 2022, in which Sampson was a candidate. “During that period, we saw group coming from Monrovia calling themselves concerned citizens of the Bloquiah community forest. They were sent by Representative Grant and this was detected by me from the calls that the representative made in my present”, Sampson disclosed on Forest Hour radio show.
In that election, Sampson’s main rival, Jacob Chelley, protested that Sampson’s tenure had expired and, hence, he was no longer eligible to contest. But officials of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) present clarified that Sampson was still eligible to contest election on grounds that his first term was not recognized by authorities of the FDA. The response from FDA seemed to have angered the camp of Jacob Chelley, who allegedly led the disruption of the election on November 9, 2022.
The Assistant Facilitator of the National Union of Community Forest Management Body (NUCFMB), Isaac Saylay declared on the November 24, 2022 edition of the Forest Hour that Sampson Zammie is eligible to contest because the previous election could not be held due to the outbreak of COVID-19. “As we speak, Mr. Zammie is still the Chief Officer and FDA has reminded the other party that election will be conducted”, said Isaac Saylay, via a telephone conversation with Forest Hour show on 24th November 2022.
Representative Alex Grant could not respond to calls for comment on the matter despite frantic efforts to have him narrates his side of the story. But a supporter of the Lawmaker, Marcus Gbaryolo refuted the allegations against the legislator on Forest Hour, saying, Sampson has already served his two terms of office and has been in power for 12 years.
Introduced as an alternative to controversial Private Use Permits (PUP), community forest is becoming breeding grounds for political and economic corruption despite a progressive legal framework put in place by Liberia and its international partners. Duty bearers, mainly from the Legislature are key players in the political and economic corruption within the forestry sector.
In a Global Witness Report (Holding The Line), which was published in 2017, three Liberian Legislators were indicted for owning logging companies that have lied, cheated and stolen from the Liberian people through illegal logging activities. In February 2022, another Liberian Legislator was involved in the illegal extraction of Timbers in Western Liberia.