An alarming phone call about a mysterious intruder

Saye Thompson was elected to chair the community board in charge of Blei’s forest in 2011, and he’s held the position ever since. Years of study and on-the-job training has made him an expert in the complicated laws covering community forests in Liberia — so much so that he heads the national trade union for community forestry board members from across the country.

For years, Thompson helmed Blei’s interactions with the agencies and organizations providing the community with support, including Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the government agency that supervises logging, conservation and the community forestry system. To help polish its corporate image, ArcelorMittal was financing the training of community rangers to police the Blei forest, and USAID along with the Norwegian government and the World Bank had pricey aid initiatives meant to encourage good governance of the forest. Thompson was the first point of contact for them all, and it was a position he took pride in.

In 2011, Thompson and the Blei community finalized a management plan for the forest with the help of the FDA. At the agency’s urging, the plan emphasized biodiversity protection, a priority of the donor community’s, and included a “total ban on mineral prospecting.”

Then, in July 2019, Thompson received a confusing phone call from another member of the Blei forest’s management board. The details were murky, but his colleague told him that a mining company was in one of the towns with heavy equipment and had begun chopping down trees to build a road leading into the Blei forest. One of the company’s representatives had told the town’s leaders that they had a permit from the central government.

Thompson was in Monrovia, so he started scrambling to find out what was happening in Nimba in his absence. After calling around, he managed to get a phone number for Bustern Hending, one of the mysterious company’s representatives. Thompson called him and demanded to know what authority they had to enter the protected community forest.

“Was there any explanation to you that before you go into the forest you need to pass through the institutions that are responsible for its management?” he asked.

“No,” Hending replied.

He told Thompson that he didn’t know what a community forest was, but that the company had obtained an exploration license from Liberia’s powerful Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy in Monrovia. Besides, he said, people in the town where they’d started working were happy they were there, and if Thompson had a problem he should contact the local officials in charge in Nimba.

After hanging up, Thompson dialed an important local politician from Nimba. From his perspective, the situation was clear-cut: Blei had obtained its community forest permit through a laborious legal process, and had been receiving technical and financial support from donors for the better part of a decade. The laws were straightforward, too: nobody could enter Blei without first going through the community board he chaired.

But when he spoke with the politician, he was surprised to find that county officials already knew about the company’s operations.

“He told me that it was in the president’s interest to lobby for companies and investors to come to Liberia, and that I shouldn’t embarrass him,” Thompson said.

As he listened to the politician chastise him for causing trouble, a realization dawned on Thompson: the company had the backing of the national government. The community forestry law had, it appeared, simply been brushed aside and ignored.

Thompson traveled back to Nimba, where he arranged a meeting with another high-ranking local official to express his frustration with the government’s disregard for the law. Again, he was told to accept the company’s presence in Blei.

“We know that you people are doing conservation, but we aren’t really benefiting from its impact,” Thompson said the official told him. “It’s slow and doesn’t reach everybody. This time around we want to do mining.”

After the meeting, Thompson wrote to the FDA, USAID and ArcelorMittal, explaining what was happening and begging for help. The community forestry law had been written to prevent precisely this situation from taking place — where were the donors and agencies that had helped Blei set its forest up? For months, he waited for a response. None came.

In the meantime, divisions in the communities that comprised Blei began to emerge. The elected members of the community forest board, like Thompson, wanted the management plan to be followed. But many residents of the towns that collectively comprised Blei were tempted by the life-changing jobs and cash they believed a wealthy foreign investor would bring into their towns. As the board and its allies argued with their opponents, the company continued to haul equipment into the forest with the help of the pro-mining faction.

Finally, Thompson grew tired of waiting for help and decided to file a case in a local court. After a series of delays, a judge ruled in his favor, ordering the company to halt its work.

But by then, it was March 2020. Nearly a year had passed since he’d first gotten wind of the company’s operations, and he and his allies were increasingly isolated. The company had the support of Monrovia, local government officials, and a large segment of the community that wanted to ditch Blei’s conservation management plan.

Armed with little more than his knowledge of the law, Thompson was surrounded.

In the wake of civil war, Liberia vows to better manage its forests

After Liberia’s civil war came to an end in 2003, aid agencies and U.N. peacekeepers flooded into the country to fill the void left by its toppled government. It was by then a devastated nation: 250,000 people had died in the fighting and an additional 750,000 had fled their homes. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank official, was elected president in 2005 on a reform agenda.

Near the top of that agenda were Liberia’s outdated forest laws, and for good reason. Illicit logging had fueled the conflict, with warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor’s government swapping timber for weapons in a scheme that had extended the conflict and helped spread it to neighboring countries.

“The donors, Liberian civil society, and the communities themselves — literally everybody wanted to see some really drastic changes in the way the forest sector was being managed, especially with respect to logging operations,” Silas Siakor, a Liberian activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner, said in an interview with Mongabay.

For Siakor and other reformers, the choice was clear: Liberia had to change how it had been doing business in its rainforests and start giving people who lived in them a seat at the table. With the support and encouragement of the U.S. and other postwar donors, in 2005 Liberia enacted the National Forestry Reform Law, which reworked the way logging contracts were managed and mandated the development of a new community forestry system.

That system was born via the 2009 Community Rights Law, which established the legal framework for community forestry in Liberia. Communities that wanted decision-making rights over their traditional forests could now go through a series of steps that would culminate in the election of a board, development of a management plan, and the FDA’s formal recognition of their authority.

The new law had teeth. Loggers were barred from harvesting timber inside a community forest without the written consent of the management committee, after consultations with the wider group that elected them, and would have to pay a sizeable portion of their revenue into a community development fund.

For Siakor, it was the culmination of years of advocacy and hard work.

“It was a big deal. For the first time, we were coming from a situation of total exclusion and marginalization to a situation in which the community’s right to manage its forest was being recognized and formalized,” Siakor said.

But setting up the new structures was costly, difficult and time-consuming. Literacy rates in the towns and villages that would be applying for the permits were low, and training board members to carry out their new responsibilities wasn’t going to happen overnight. The FDA was tasked with supervising the application process, but like most Liberian government agencies after the war it was underfunded and struggling with a dearth of qualified managers.

Parts of the donor community saw an opportunity. Liberia was a crucial biodiversity hotspot, containing nearly half of West Africa’s remaining upper Guinean rainforest. But pressure on the government to raise revenue was high, and a wave of investment deals were rapidly being inked with mining and palm oil companies, some of which crept up to the edge of high conservation value rainforests — or even overlapped with them.

For some of Liberia’s international partners, community forests were a solution that could help bridge the gap. The law permitted logging, but if some of the communities were given the right support, they might be pushed toward rainforest conservation instead.

The U.S. and Norway took the lead. USAID began with an $8 million project that provided support to three pilot community forests in Nimba, including Blei. In 2012, it followed with a five-year, $20.4 million contract granted to the U.S.-based consulting firm Tetra Tech to implement a project that expanded USAID’s support to include nine new community forests. In all, USAID would eventually spend more than $50 million on community forestry in Liberia by 2020.

As part of its own landmark $150 million deal with the Liberian government designed to prevent deforestation, Norway joined the World Bank in spending $10.5 million on a community forestry support program that was connected to REDD+.

Right as USAID’s expanded project kicked off in 2012, a scandal erupted in another corner of Liberia’s forestry sector. A loophole in the forest reform laws had been exploited by corrupt public officials, logging companies, and in some cases members of forest communities themselves.

In just two years, dubious land titles, some forged, had been used to hand out almost half of the country’s forests to loggers.

“You had these private sector actors — whether it was at the national or local level — taking advantage of weak governance to exploit the population,” Siakor said. “It was a total breakdown of the rule of law.”

The embarrassing scandal wasn’t directly connected to the nascent community forest system, but it was an ill omen for what lay ahead. No matter how strong the new laws looked on the books, without the political willpower to back them up they were just words on paper.

The Fenix ferro-nickel mining project operated for a few years in the late 1970s. The Solway Group, the Russian conglomerate that now owns the project, started up operations again in 2014. Photo by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.
The Solway Investment Group’s “Fenix” ferro-nickel production facility in eastern Guatemala has been plagued by allegations of pollution and disputes with local Indigenous groups. Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.

From Russia to Switzerland to Nimba

At first, Thompson had trouble finding out who the company that had entered Blei was or where it had come from. The details were vague, but eventually a name emerged: Solway Mining Incorporated.

In an emailed statement to Mongabay, a spokesperson for Solway Mining Incorporated confirmed that the company is a subsidiary of Solway Investment Group, an international mining and metals firm with operations across the world. On Solway’s website, it says it specializes in “projects that are not as attractive to major market players because of complex local social and economic conditions.”

Solway is headquartered in Switzerland, but has its origins in Russia. According to Forbes, Solway’s founder, Daniel Bronstein, is a former Soviet official who earned much of his fortune through aluminum smelting deals during Russia’s privatization whirlwind of the 1990s and early 2000s. Bronstein’s business partners have included high-profile Russian oligarchs such as the billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who in 2018 was placed on a sanctions list by U.S. authorities.

Among Solway’s investments is a troubled nickel mine in Guatemala that has a years-long history of conflict with nearby Maya Q’eqchi communities who have accused it of polluting waterways and failing to respect coronavirus restrictions. In 2017, Guatemalan police opened fire on protesters who were demonstrating against the mine, in an incident that forced a local journalist into hiding. Solway has also been accused of using “transfer pricing” to underpay revenue obligations to the Guatemalan government.

Boimah Morgan, Solway Mining Incorporated’s Liberian CEO, emphasizes the parent company’s base in Switzerland, telling the Liberian press that insinuations of Russian influence made by local journalists are a “manipulative suggestion aimed at damaging the company’s reputation.”

In 2019, Solway was granted a permit to explore for iron ore on 152 hectares (376 acres) of the Blei forest and an additional 70 hectares (173 acres) of another nearby community forest.

A satellite map of the border between northern Liberia and Guinea. The Blei Forest lies along the southernmost tip of the East Nimba Nature Reserve – the orange area that joins the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve.

After the court ordered a halt to Solway’s operations, Thompson traveled to Monrovia to directly appeal for help from the FDA, hoping it would intervene in support of the law. But he says the official in charge of supervising community forestry told him her hands were tied.

“My brother, this is Liberia business,” he recalls her saying. “If we put our mouth inside this issue we will lose our jobs.”

He would, she told him, have to fight the battle on his own.

In Blei, Solway was hard at work trying to undercut Thompson’s opposition to its operations, handing out gifts and making promises of employment to come.

“We brought like 40 chiefs together to discuss this with them, and we came to the conclusion that the people needed some form of compensation,” Morgan said in an interview. “So I worked out an agreement with them.”

The communities around Blei were poor, and forest conservation had brought few tangible benefits. For many, the allure of an international mining firm with deep pockets overshadowed any attachment they may have once had to the conservation plan.

Thompson began to receive threats. The dispute had embroiled Blei, and on the radio he overheard a man suggest he might disappear if he didn’t drop his opposition to the project. Local politicians were accusing him of lying to the community and blocking economic development. In the end, it was too much.

In late April, as the coronavirus pandemic raged, Thompson sat down with Solway representatives, the other board members, and a group of local government officials. Exhausted and against his better judgment, he signed a memorandum of understanding that formally invited Solway into Blei’s forest and obligated the community to abandon its prior conservation management plan.

The MOU is light on details. It makes no promises that Solway will provide a set number of jobs to residents of Blei, nor that its operations won’t irreparably damage the forest. Liberia’s mining law requires investors to pay 2% of their exploration budget on health and education for nearby communities, and a provision of the MOU says those funds will be deposited into an account controlled by the community forest board.

That sum could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Given Liberia’s recent history with community revenue-sharing, however, it is far from certain those funds will be paid on time — or at all.

Ten years, a headline-grabbing legal reform, and millions of donor dollars later, it was still an all-too-familiar story. After a decade of intensive support and training to the community board responsible for acting as a check on exploitative natural resource deals, it had been thoroughly pushed to the side the first time the system was put to a real test.

Thompson says he regrets signing the MOU, but in the absence of any meaningful support he felt he had no choice.

“There’s nothing in there,” he said. “No infrastructure development, no employment opportunities, nothing.”

A decade of aid under threat in Blei

Liberia’s community forestry law was designed to be an answer to the historical exclusion of poor rural communities from decision-making over the forests they live in. Conservation of Liberia’s rainforests and wildlife wasn’t at the heart of the law, but it provided an opportunity for donors to step in and partner with those communities to protect biodiversity. The arrival of Solway and its successful dismantling of the Blei community forest board’s authority is a warning sign that Liberia’s ambitious postwar forestry reforms are now on shaky ground.

But while the Liberian government may have paved the way for Solway’s entrance into Blei, it was divisions within the community over the value of conservation that tipped the scale.

To understand those divisions, and what they mean for community forestry as a model for protecting Liberia’s rainforests, it’s helpful to examine documents published by USAID about the projects it funded to help establish that model.

USAID implemented two major aid projects that were intended to support biodiversity conservation projects in 11 pilot community forests. The contracts to manage those projects were awarded to two U.S.-based consultancy firms, Tetra Tech and ACDI/VOCA. The first, which ran from 2012-2017, cost $21.5 million, and the second, from 2016-2020, just over $22 million.

Both projects included an array of activities, but with two primary objectives. The first was to train the FDA and the community forestry boards to properly manage the new system. But to protect biodiversity in the forests USAID was supporting, the communities would have to be given incentives to stop hunting and practicing slash-and-burn farming inside of them.

Thus, the second major priority of the two projects was to establish income opportunities that would provide those incentives.

According to evaluations of the two projects, the consultants hired by USAID tried to do this by encouraging different forms of agricultural production and small business development, primarily by training farmers, providing them with seeds and tools, and offering alternative plots of land where they tried to grow everything from cocoa to palm oil to peanuts.

The problem was that none of it worked. In 2018, a midterm evaluation of the second USAID-financed project excoriated its results, saying that far from compensating communities for the changes, incomes had instead dropped for people living in the community forests that were under conservation management plans. Crop yields were lower than they’d been with slash-and-burn, and the cost of bringing what was successfully grown to nearby markets was higher than the prices they fetched there.

As the authors of the evaluation wrote, the project had “likely degraded the livelihoods of the people who own the [community forests] by reducing their supply of stable foods, reducing their cash incomes, and exposing them to fluctuations in market prices for cash crops.”

If the objective was to prove to the communities that conservation could improve their lives, it was failing, and failing badly.

One source with working knowledge of the two projects told Mongabay that part of the problem was that USAID’s ideological approach, set in Washington, D.C., was ill-suited to the context faced by the communities supposedly benefiting from the projects.

“One of the problems with USAID’s approach had to do with the Trump administration’s focus on private sector solutions to everything, including conservation,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “But it was unrealistic to assume that commercializing the sale of mushrooms or other non-timber forest products would lead to amazing conservation results without also investing in other types of incentives as well.”

Instead of benefiting from conservation in their newly established community forests, people’s incomes shrank as USAID-financed business ventures failed or never got off the ground.

This meant that when Solway arrived in Blei, it found a community where at least some people had grown disillusioned with conservation, and which was primed for a new pitch. USAID’s assistance had at least partially succeeded in creating robust community management of the forest, as evidenced by Saye Thompson’s in-depth knowledge of the law and willingness to fight efforts to subvert it, but the community itself had little incentive to follow his lead.

“I’m not sure what you could have done to really get them to buy in to it at an early stage,” Siakor said. “It makes you feel like unless someone develops a conservation model that puts cash in the hands of communities, it’s not going to fly.”

In an email to Mongabay, a USAID spokesperson rejected the idea that the two projects were flawed, providing a list of accomplishments that included the creation of 90 agricultural collectives, financing for local eco-guards, and advocacy skills training for the community management boards.

“The PROSPER and FIFES programs have been very successful, and it would be incorrect to characterize them in any other way,” they said. (USAID asked Mongabay for its responses to be attributed to a spokesperson rather than a specific individual.)

‘The time for conservation is over’

Whatever the effectiveness of community forestry aid initiatives in the past decade may have been, the decision to ignore the law in Blei falls at the feet of the Liberian government. And advocates say they fear the events of the past 18 months are a foreboding sign of what may be to come for other community forests, some of which also lie on top of deposits of gold, diamonds, and other valuable minerals.

“The community forest law only allows forest management, not mining,” said Jonathan Yiah, forest governance researcher at the Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberian community rights watchdog group.

But officials with Liberia’s Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy have a different take. They say the bottom line is that they don’t accept the notion that they have to ask communities anywhere in Liberia for permission before issuing a mining permit — whatever the law says.

“[Community forestry] is done under the forestry law, and they have their rights under that law,” said Rexford Sartuh, assistant minister for mineral exploration and environmental research. “But when it comes to the issuance of mining licenses, we don’t consider that.”

Solway’s exploration license isn’t the only warning sign that community forestry isn’t panning out to be the change that reformers intended. Two years ago, Global Witness released a report saying that the system had been “hijacked,” with logging companies taking advantage of weak government supervision of the system to turn community forests into a cash register for timber exports.

One high-placed source from inside Liberia’s donor community who asked to remain anonymous told Mongabay that the data present a grim picture: the volume of timber being shipped from inside of community forests has skyrocketed in recent years, indicating that logging companies aren’t working in sustainable cycles, and are instead trying to strip the forest of valuable timber as fast as they can.

With Global Witness saying in its report that there were 133 pending community forestry permits covering 45% of Liberia’s total land mass as of 2018, a repeat of 2012’s headline-grabbing scandal could well be around the corner. What was once a promising solution to illegal logging and the exploitation of rural communities may in the end turn out to be a welcome mat for catastrophic deforestation.

“We have a broader governance environment that is not conducive or enabling to real community management of forests,” Siakor said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for conservation or commercial logging, we’ll get the same outcome.”

In Blei, the story is unlikely to have a happy outcome. The pattern of excitement over the arrival of an investor eventually giving way to anger over unfulfilled expectations is an old one in Liberia. The last big wave of foreign investment deals was celebrated as transformative at the time, but within a decade most were plagued by riots and unrest. Many of the companies that signed those deals have since packed up and departed, leaving once-hopeful communities with little to show for their presence.

Solway’s exploration license will last until late 2022, at which point it may choose to negotiate a Mineral Development Agreement with the Liberian government — a far larger contract that would require review and debate by the national legislature. If it is adopted, another industrial iron ore mine will arise in the Nimba Range.

Saye Thompson says he thinks the MOU between Blei and Solway will turn out to be another chapter in a long history of rural Liberian communities getting the short end of the stick in natural resource deals. If the government isn’t willing to follow through on the commitments it’s made for effective grassroots management, “the forest will be gone, whether in a day or a decade.”

“The international community, through the Norwegian government, USAID and other donors have established a framework and platform for the proper management of the Liberian forest,” he said. “But as time goes by, with regimes coming and going, I have the fear that it will be jeopardized by politicians and their influence, and that communities themselves are not going to benefit from their forests and resources.”

For some residents of Blei, those problems are far off in the future. The rewards of a few dollars a day to cut roads through the jungle or help unload a truck are just too desirable to pass up.

Nico Tuo, a town chief who was one of the first to welcome Solway into Blei, put it bluntly: “The time for conservation is over,” he said. “Now it’s time for commercial.”

Banner image: A village near a community forest in River Cess County, Liberia, 2016. Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

Article published by Ashoka
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