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Lawmakers Back Reform in Forest Management Law

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MONROVIA: Members of the House of Representatives and Liberian Senate committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries have declared their support for a draft legislation, seeking reform in the National Forest Resource Management Law of Liberia.

The proposal seeks to amend Section 14.2 (E) of the National Forest Reform Law of 2006 (amending title 23), Liberian Code of Laws relating to allocation and distribution of land rental fees.

As it stands, the National Forest Reform Law and its attending regulations say communities affected by logging operations be given 30% of land rental fees paid to the government of Liberia by companies which are operating in their customary forest on the strength of forest resource license issued by FDA/Gol.

Stakeholders in the forestry sector think this law is not benefiting the affected communities, therefore want payment of community shares of Land Rental Fees into an account managed by the National Benefits Sharing Trust Board, and counties shares of Land Rental Fees into an escrow account established by the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, Central Bank of Liberia, and Ministry of Internal Affairs and payment of stumpage and forest product fees to support cost of the protected area network to a bank account managed by FDA.

The declaration of support by the lawmakers was made recently at an ‘explanatory session’ on the draft amendment of the law at Boulevard Palace in Sinkor.
With support from the UK government through UK Aid, the gathering was organized by Heritage Partners and Associates (HPA), a local law firm providing technical support to the process.

Making remarks at the opening of the forum, Margibi County Senator and Chairman of the Senate committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Jim Tornolah, said the meeting was important because it would give lawmakers the opportunity to have a deeper understanding so that they would make informed interventions once the matter is being debated up Capitol Hill.

According to the Margibi senator, it was unthinkable for the government to owe the forest community four million United States dollars. He added that the money could make serious impact on the lives of the people, but advised that there should be a breakdown of the money owed per county. Speaking at the event also was Nimba County District # 2 Representative, Prince O. S. Tokpa.

Representative Tokpa said the proposal was welcoming, saying for more than four years, communities have not been able to get their land rental fees paid to national government. “You can’t say the money is for the community and they can’t receive it”.

He said lawmakers are under pressure from their respective counties, as they’re often accused of conniving with government and forest license holders of “eating” their money.

“We’re under stress. We’ll push this at the legislature to see the amendment passed. Our people can say we are eating their money. They accused us of conniving with the people of eating their money,” he told the gathering.

For his part, River Cess County Senator Wellington Geevon-Smith said his county has not received her share of the land rental fee paid to national government for the past six years, thus voicing out his support for the amendment.

“For the past six years, River Cess has not gotten a penny from the county forest resources”. We really appreciate this initiative. This thing is strangulating us. For us, whose county has been considered least developed, it’s the government that is strangulating us by holding onto what supposed to help us,” he added.

Commenting on the matter, Montserrado County District # 1 Representative, Lawrence Morris, called on his colleagues and civil society to include the charcoal industry in the forest management law of the country.

According to him, the sector is a source of income, as such, including them would generate more revenue for the government.

“Charcoal production comes from the forest resources. They raise more than 2 million US dollars annually,” he disclosed.

It’s being reported that for over ten years, some of the companies operating on the strength of the existing forest resource license have made payments of land rental fees to the government of Liberia through the consolidated revenue account, but the government of Liberia has delayed in paying the larger portion of the land rental fees to the affected communities.
According to the stakeholders, the Liberian government is indebted to forest communities for over USS4, 000, 000. 00 (four million United States dollars), causing serious concern among all stakeholders, as well as the legislature.

It’s said nearly all sectors of government that participated in a stakeholders’ dialogue address delay in payments of communities shares of Land Rental Fees, have recommended that the law and its attending regulations which provide for direct payments into consolidated revenue account should be changed, if the issue of delay in payments is to be handled successfully.

Accordingly, there have been measures put into place by the legislature to commence part payment of GoL outstanding indebtedness to forest communities, but the measures may not address concerns of reasonable payment of community shares of land rental fees paid to GoL by companies in the future.
It’s believed the receipt and use of the 30% of total land rental fees allocated to and belonging to the affected communities will be efficiently done and more impactful when paid by the forest license holders directly to the communities through the National Community Benefit Sharing Trust Board established and operating through existing regulations.

If amended, it will enhance Liberia’s compliance with the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) agreement, the government of Liberia undertook to implement its own laws with respect to forest and logging; furthermore, the VPA definition of legal timbers requires that communities affected by logging operations benefit from proceed received from logging activities. The country can easily implement or amend the laws and regulations concerning payments of affected forest communities shares and land rental fees. I would also ensure communities receive their benefits directly and in a timely manner; writes Trokon Freeman

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