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Fighting corruption in Liberia through on-the-ground reporting (insider)

A chimpanzee in Liberia. Photo by Cameron Zohoori/Flickr.

  • Editors from large outlets pass on environmental stories in Liberia all the time, making it harder to hold the powerful accountable for misconduct.
  • There is often no substitute for traveling to the actual location of a story and gathering information from the field.
  • Mongabay is one of the few outlets that understands the value of environmental field reporting and is willing to finance it.

I’ve been sitting on a bench inside the small waiting room at the Liberia Business Registry just off the main drag in downtown Monrovia when the phrase pops into my head: “Monkey still working, let baboon wait small.”

Famously used as the official slogan of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s re-election campaign in 2011, the flowery phrase has a relatively simple meaning: don’t get distracted by people (baboons) who jump up and down and make a lot of noise, trust the quieter types (monkeys) who are willing to do the tedious day-to-day work of being methodical and precise.

In Liberia, those qualities are especially important, because there’s always a staggering obstacle right around the corner. It’s not an easy country for those who govern it, nor often for those who report on it, like me.

At the moment, that monkey feels like my soulmate, because waiting in this rumpled little office for the document I need is deeply tedious. It’s hot outside, just at the back edge of the rainy season in early October when the mugginess hangs heavy and stifling in the city, rolling in over the ocean like a great sentient cloud, ready to grasp and immobilize you wherever you are when it finds you.

Today, it finds me giving multiple different spellings of a company named “Xylopia,” hoping the computer or file cabinet in the ethereal realm where various officials I’ve been speaking with continually disappear into will finally spit out the record I’ve been looking for.

After what feels like an endless stretch of time, a young woman arrives at the counter with a small printout. There it is: “Xylopia, Inc.” Registered owner: Thelma Sawyer. My source’s information confirmed, I take a picture of the record to be sure I have a digital copy, and walk out into the beating afternoon sun.

The sounds and smells of Monrovia rush past like traffic on an expressway: children laughing, creaking metal from the shocks of a nearby taxi, chirping birds. Now, it’s time to head into the jungle.

Just a few weeks earlier, a source in Liberia I’d known for many years quietly dropped me a tip. The country’s new community forestry laws, set up to give the poor more decision-making rights over their natural resources, were being twisted and in some cases outright broken by well-connected politicians and other elites. The laws, written to make a clean break with Liberia’s ugly past of powerful urbanites exploiting the rural poor were, well, enabling powerful urbanites to exploit the rural poor.

Passed in 2009, the so-called Community Rights Law was supposed to finally give poor forest communities a big say in how to manage their land and what to do with the tropical trees that grow on it. Now, they could apply for a permit from the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) to obtain a “community forest,” entitling them to around half of the proceeds of logging and other income-generating endeavors.

A village that manages community forest in Liberia. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo.
A village that manages community forest in Liberia. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo.

But getting such a permit is a long, difficult process involving complex bureaucracy, logistics and costs — not an easy course for people who grew up in a small town without electricity and don’t have much formal education.

If the FDA was doing its job, it would have been helping those communities grasp and weigh their options, going through the community forest registration process ethically, and preventing manipulation from logging companies or corrupt officials. Instead, my source said, they were either looking the other way for powerful political actors who were warping the process, or actively manipulating the system on their behalf. This is entirely believable and not at all surprising for Liberia (or, to an extent, anywhere), but I need evidence to prove it.

My source tells me to look up a company named Xylopia and who owns it. He mentions the name of a former president of the country (interim, but still), and points me toward a remote, densely forested part of the country. When I look at the business registry document, it’s clear that the story he told me is true. Thelma Sawyer, Xylopia’s owner, is the wife of Amos Sawyer, one of the most influential figures in contemporary Liberia and a high-profile power broker who was at the time a close ally of then-President Johnson Sirleaf.

For most outlets, this story would have felt too regional, so specific to Liberia that people (defined as Americans and Europeans) wouldn’t be interested in reading it. But my editor at Mongabay gets it.

She understands that Liberia is home to nearly half of the remaining Upper Guinean tropical rainforest, and that those forests are critical for biodiversity and the livelihoods of rural poor. She understands that if the community forestry system is being exploited, then a huge swath of those rainforests could be under threat for accelerated deforestation — an outcome that would have global implications for conservation as well as the climate.

Alfred Dahn, a chief elder in Garwin, holds a copy of the MOU that he refused to sign. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.
Alfred Dahn, a chief elder in Garwin, holds a copy of the MOU that he refused to sign. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

Community forestry in Liberia was supposed to help balance sustainable management of resources with the need for local economic development. The laws were, at least on paper, exciting. For the first time forest communities were legally entitled to make representative decisions about logging, conservation and other forest management issues.

But for the process to work, the application process had to be aboveboard. If communities were being cajoled or manipulated by loggers, community forestry would become no more than a back door for industrial logging. This is why the law specifically banned communities from entering into agreements with loggers before completing the application process. That way, it was hoped, loggers couldn’t just spread money around and use communities as fronts for their operations.

Thelma Sawyer (and almost certainly her husband, Amos), it seems, didn’t get that memo. Or they read it and didn’t care.

To be absolutely positive the story is true, though, I need to make it upcountry to where the community forest is being set up. It’s not that far from Monrovia; if the roads were good, it would probably be two hours away or so, maybe a touch more. But in Liberia, during the late rainy season, it’s going to take six hours and a very strong 4×4 vehicle that can survive a drag-out fight with hip-deep pits of mud.

Few outlets finance reporting costs for freelancers now, so renting a vehicle like that would usually be impossible. For another outlet, the reporting for this story would likely have been based on the registry records and some investigative digging in Monrovia, or of people with secondhand knowledge of events in the area.

Mongabay, however, agrees to rent a vehicle for two days to help me report the story. This is invaluable, enabling me to pack up and head to the forest where Xylopia is supposedly present. We set out in the shiny white Toyota Land Cruiser, weaving our way through the fronds and canopies that surround the increasingly narrow reddish-brown roads that head toward River Cess, an isolated county in central Liberia.

When we inevitably reach the mud, my driver grimaces, tells me to, “Hold on!” and then punches the gas in the 4×4 to bulldoze through, kicking up huge chunks that splatter the windows and nearby vegetation, before we make it up to the other side.

Finally, we reach the first town. It’s a network of thatched-roof huts dotted with small market stalls selling onions, bouillon cubes and matches. Kids run around outside, parents relax in the shade after long days in the field. Nigerian Afro-beats blare from inside a small tea shop nearby. In that shop, I meet someone my source connected me to. He’s a youth leader from the town, and he has a story to tell, along with the documents to prove it.

Xylopia, he says, arrived during the community forestry application process along with a group of powerful local politicians and started spreading around little sums of cash along with some alcohol and other gifts. A few of the elders took the gifts, and then a few months later the company returned late at night with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that obligated the community to give Xylopia first rights to log the forest once the community application was approved.

From Xylopia’s perspective, this makes sense. Why get into a bidding war when you can make the connections early? There’s just a little problem: It is very, very illegal. The community forestry regulations clearly and explicitly ban any outside party from entering into a formal agreement with a community while it is still going through the year-long application and training process.

After a night spent dodging bedbugs on a mattress on the floor in a local guesthouse, I’m taken by the young man to meet with an influential local chief named Alfred Dahn. In Liberia, chiefs are technically employees of the state — a holdover of indirect rule, modeled largely after colonial administrative practices. Dahn tells me that when he refused to sign the MOU, he was fired.

Others, however, did sign it, and Dahn gives me a copy of the MOU. It’s what I’ve been looking for: hard evidence of illegal conduct. And lo and behold, right at the top margin, the name of Amos Sawyer’s wife is bolded, along with an explicit clause binding the community to “protect and respect any investment made by Xylopia on our behalf.”

If you’re going to do crimes, maybe don’t put them down in writing first.

Ashoka Mukpo reporting in the field in Liberia. Photo courtesy Ashoka Mukpo.
Ashoka Mukpo reporting in the field in Nimba County, Liberia, 2011. Photo courtesy Franzier Lanier.

On the second day of reporting I head back. I’ll carry out more interviews in Monrovia, verifying what I recorded and saw in River Cess, and eventually reach out to the forestry agency to ask for comment. It’s a delicate story. Amos Sawyer is powerful, and even though President Johnson Sirleaf at the time only had a few months left in office, it reinforced the narrative of rampant corruption in her government. The story proves that after highly touted reforms implemented in the forestry sector, an older and more decayed form of doing business seems to still have a stranglehold on the roots of Liberian public life. It’s a frustrating but important story.

And it would not have been able to be told by a journalist if not for the support of Mongabay and its editorial mission to get into the nitty gritty details of environmental issues across the world. The story is a kind of metaphor for the gap between legal reforms and practice in post-war Liberia, and it points toward a systematic abuse of community forestry that could cause a serious scandal along with irreparable harm to the environment.

For a freelancer who writes about these types of stories, Mongabay is an irreplaceable outlet. The editors understand the landscape of conservation, community rights and environmental justice. They know that effective field reporting on environmental stories in places like Liberia requires investment, both in terms of paying journalists appropriately and on time, and covering the expenses we need to get to the challenging places where the most important stories can be found.

This story, published in 2016, had a direct impact. It furthered the conversation about natural resource management in Liberia, highlighted corruption, set off an investigation inside Liberia’s forestry agency, and helped the watchdog group Global Witness guide its own research many months later. This is just one of the stories that wouldn’t be told if it weren’t for Mongabay.

Banner image: A chimpanzee in Liberia. Photo by Cameron Zohoori/Flickr.

Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist with expertise in international development policy, human rights, and environmental issues. His work has been featured in Al-Jazeera, Vice News, The Nation, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @unkyoka.

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