In Liberia, ClientEarth works in close partnership with national lawyers Heritage Partners and Associates (HPA) to train and support organisations and communities to improve forest management and reduce illegal logging. Jozef Weyns, Law and Policy Advisor in our Climate and Forests team, just returned from Liberia and shares this story of growing legal skills.
I have been working in Liberia now for more than three years, building the legal knowledge and capacity of non-government organisations and community representatives who work on and live in the forests.
A crucial element of this includes organising regular legal working groups. In these groups, ClientEarth and HPA train approximately 50 participants on forest sector laws. One of the subjects we have focussed on includes how communities have the right to benefit from commercial logging on their forest lands.
Essentially, logging companies must sign social agreements with affected communities, which include payments to them – known as ‘cubic meter fees’ after how they are calculated – and provide for infrastructure projects, such as schools or medical clinics. However, too often communities are left feeling short-changed when these agreements are not fully respected.
In the latest legal working group that took place in the capital Monrovia last month, we heard from a community member who has used the legal skills he picked up from our training and meetings. I share his story with his permission below, in his own words.
“In my community, we were suffering because a company was not paying their cubic meter.” Began the story by William V. Page, also called ‘the Oldest’ by his legal working group colleagues. William represents his community in negotiations with a logging company who has been operating in his area. Stories like this are often a common refrain among communities in Liberia. However, it soon took an uplifting turn.
“Do you remember how in the ClientEarth and HPA working groups, they spoke to us about how we should keep our documents?” William asked the legal working group.
“Evidence!” Came to the response amid rising anticipation to hear what story ‘the Oldest’ was about to share. As well as clarifying the requirements in the law, ClientEarth and HPA have offered practical tips for contract negotiation, including the need to document what has – or has not – been paid.
“Yes, evidence,” William replied. “We collected all of our documents. And I am saying our documents were really fine!” Laughter filled the meeting room. “They were fine, and we needed the documents because we decided to take the radical approach.” More laughter followed while others asked for silence to encourage William to continue his story. “We decided that maybe we will go to court.”
“Firstly, we took all our documents to the FDA (the Forest Development Authority, the government agency responsible for forestry). They asked us why we are agitating, but that did not solve it for us. So then we sent all of the documents to everyone: to the company, the FDA, the donors, to all.”
“The company called my phone, asked where I was and then came to my house the very next day. They owed us $16,000 and came to tell me that they had already paid $4,000 to relieve the tensions. ‘So you don’t have to go to court,’ they said.”
By now, the room buzzed with excitement. William paused for a second and then asked, “Do you know what I told them, the company?”
Another pause followed, all of us waiting expectantly to hear what would follow. “I said ‘thank you, for sure now we have enough money to go to court!”
The room burst into applause and cheers. William concluded: “And now they have paid everything, we didn’t even need to go to court. It was the radical approach.” He then smiled and enjoyed the crowd’s response to his approach, which made sure his community would benefit from their forests, now and for a long time to come.
Discussing William’s uplifting story with Counsellor Negbalee Warner from HPA, he added a final thought: “Communities are playing an increasingly important role in the management of forests. When they are affected by timber concessions, they are entitled to share in the benefits and to ensure their forests are managed sustainably. To do this, they need to be able to speak and act with the law in mind.”
I could not agree more. To me, moments like these prove just how powerful a tool the law is, how communities can use the law to ensure they benefit from and are able to protect the forests they relate to.