ZAMMIE TOWN, River Cess County – Water dictates the lives of people in this part of central River Cess. With just three hand pumps to supply a town of 7,000, women and children here wake as early as 3 am to fetch water from distant creeks.
But the creek water carries dangers they say: contaminants from gold mining and logging upstream. The water has not been tested but people here say every rainy season brings outbreaks of diarrhea. In 2019 people in eight towns were stricken.
Investigation by Eric Opa Doue, Senior Reporter with New Narratives.
“People almost died in this town from running stomach before we appealed to some NGOs and they built these pumps,” says Blessing Nagbe, the 38-year-old Chief of Zammie Town. “The creek we used to drink, the company make for the tree them to fall down inside. People [are] digging gold there. So during the rainy season the whole water can be muddy.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2018 the communities of the Ziadue/Teekpeh Authorized Community Forest were hopeful that better days were ahead when their Community Forest Management Body signed a five-year Social Agreement with the Liberian logging company EJ&J and it’s Malaysian subcontractor Brilliant Maju. EJ&J is owned by Liberian businesswomen Eliza D.J. Kroyahn.
In the agreement EJ&J committed to constructing an elementary school, 16 hand pumps and to protecting all water collection points in the area. It also agreed to pay US$10,500 as scholarship funds annually for children in the affected communities.
But four years on, despite repeated local efforts to force the company to act including with the help of the Forestry Development Authority, EJ&J has done none of what it promised. All the while the company has continued to take valuable trees from the forest for export.
The company has claimed that it has not been logging because of Covid pandemic and so cannot pay the community agreement. But an FPA/New Narratives investigation found the company has been logging extensively since 2018.
According to Libertrace, the UK/EU-funded project that aims to track every log exported from Liberia, Brilliant Maju owes US$15,943 in stumpage fees to the Liberian government from 2018 until May this year.
Stumpage fees are worked out at $1.50 for every cubic meter so those fees are equivalent to 10,600 cubic meters of lumber. That is the equivalent volume of 300 twenty-foot shipping containers or 1000 semi-trailer truckloads.
The International Tropical Timber Organization, an intergovernmental organization that promotes the sustainable management and conservation of tropical forests and expansion and diversification of international trade in tropical timber from sustainable managed and legally harvested forests, put the price of round logs of the Ekki/Azobe species most common in Liberia US$272 per cubic meter. This means E J and J/Brilliant Maju shipments would be worth US$2,722,500.
Stanley Wizard, General Coordinator of E J and J, has repeatedly told FPA/New Narratives that COVID 19 caused the company to slow down its operation.
“As we speak, our logs are in the bushes and we have not shipped anything,” said Wizard in a recent interview. “Besides the COVID 19, the community themselves had been setting roadblocks that prevented us from carrying our logs for shipment. And you know if we don’t ship, we can’t get money to implement projects for the community.”
Earlier this year Wizard blamed Brilliant Maju.
“One of the reasons was the issue of finance,” said Wizard. “Our partner Brilliant Maju was responsible to carry on the projects but they say their donor went out of money as a result of the COVID 19.”
But the company’s Libertrace filings show that is untrue.
The community first demanded action in June of 2021 when the Community Forest Management Body wrote to Madam Kroyahn, calling for a meeting to discuss the way forward. After months of delay the two sides finally met in September with a representative of the Forestry Development Authority as a witness.
As a result of that meeting E J and J, through Wizard, signed a new agreement to construct eight hand pumps and two pit latrines, give US$13,250 funding to the education of children in the affected communities within six months.
FPA/New Narratives found in May 2022, nine months after that meeting, that the company had again failed to implement the agreement. No hand pumps had been constructed, no latrines and no education assistance funds had been remitted to the community’s account. Although the agreement requires the company to protect water collection points, the community says the company has contaminated all of them.
Companies seeking to undertake commercial activities in community forest areas are required to negotiate a Social Agreement with the community according to the Forestry Development Authority Regulation No. 105-07.
Despite this the FDA has failed to act according to Chief Nagbe, despite many complaints from the community. When there are issues, she says, the Community Forest Management Body files complaints to the Executive Committee which forward them to the Community Assembly for onward transmission to the FDA. That’s where the complaints end.
“You carry complaints to the FDA that just to waste your own time,” Chief Nagbe says. “We [have] been complaining but they don’t do anything about it and the company is emptying the forest.”
The youth of the area planned to stage a protest but Chief Nagbe and other leaders won’t allow that. They want to engage the company through a legal process.
“We told them not to take the law in their own hands, because the NGOs trained us how to engage the company,” says Nagbe. “We first want to inform the FDA about the company behavior. If the FDA don’t come in again, then we will go to court.”
Saturday Bishop is an elder in Kpageeyah, a town in the area. He says he is very angry about the company’s behavior. For him, the company, which is currently on its rainy season break, should not resume operations until it undertakes the commitments it made in the agreement.
Open well left behind by the company: Photo by Eric Opa Doue
“Look at the kind of water we are drinking my son,” says Bishop pointing to a bucket of dirty water. “The place company is taking logs from- carrying our resources. This is a burning issue and I want everyone to know.”
Residents of Kpageeyah say they have been out of safe drinking water for two years now. According to Saturday, the community, out of frustration staged a protest by blocking the road leading to the company’s site before the company thought of digging the unfinished well.
“The company dug this big hole and left it open,” says Sarah Wamah, a leader of the area, referring to an open well in the middle of the town. “We ourselves cover it because we don’t want for our children to fall down inside. The company was supposed to protect our waterside but their machine them dirtying all the water in the area. Every day our children getting sick from the dirty water they drinking.”
A water collection point in Gumue, one of the affected communities: Photo by Eric Opa Doue.
The company has promised to restart operations in October after the rainy season ends but people here insist that will not happen until their concerns are addressed.
Section 21 of FDA’s Regulation no.109-07 empowers it to penalize violators of the National Forestry Reform Law while section 22 mandates the FDA to refer violations or violators to the ministry of Justice depending the magnitude and frequency of the violation.
The Forestry Development Authority did not answer repeated requests for an explanation for their failure to enforce the agreement.
Over a two-week period Shelton Gonkarwor, FDA’s communication person, told FPA/New Narratives that he and other staff of the FDA have not been going to work because there has been power outage at the office. Gonkarwor did not explain how that stopped him from being able to respond to this journalist’s questions.
Jonathan Yiah, Manager of the Forest Governance program at the Sustainable Development Institute, a leading civil society organization working on conservation and governance, says the same factors are playing out across the country.
“I do understand the FDA may be complacent which they have been in many instances,” says Yiah. “So if the community complains and the FDA does nothing, they go for the next course of actions as per the agreement. Whenever a company is not living up to the agreement between the company and the community, there may be provisions or step to be taken including arbitration.”
According to Yiah, Heritage Partners and Associates, a leading law firm in Liberia has a pro bono service available that will provide free legal services to communities who go to them for these kinds of issues.
Korniga A in Gbarpolu, Beyan Poye in Margibi and Bluyeamah in Lofa are communities receiving similar support from HPA according to Yiah.
The CFMB has yet to say whether they will go to HPA for legal service, but they say, all they want now is for the FDA and civil society organizations to compel the company to live up their social obligations “before the people run out of patience.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its Land Rights Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service.