Africa

SPECIAL FEATURE: Attorney Kofi Woods Address To NGO Coalition On Forest Governance In Liberia

STATEMENT AT THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH OF ADVOCACY STRATEGY OF THE NGO COALITION ON FOREST GOVERNANCE IN LIBERIA

CORINA HOTEL, SINKOR, MONROVIA

OCTOBER 19, 2018

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am deeply honored by your invitation to join you in launching your advocacy strategy.

Attorney Kofi Woods - File Photo

Attorney Kofi Woods – File Photo

This strategy I am told seeks to, among other things, address complaints from forested communities on the lack of knowledge on social contracts signed between various forested communities and contract holders. And when fully implemented, host communities will begin to have access to final copies of contracts and social agreements. This will further enable them demand their just benefits as far as their knowledge on the contract is concern.  Additionally, the strategy aims to minimize tension, mitigate challenges in implementation and help community members take ownership of the social agreement between them and contract holders.  These are noble undertakings for a sector that has historically been a contentious aspect of our conflict history and bane to the development of our society. This approach tends to expand the frontiers of human rights advocacy in Liberia.

I would also encourage you to include and interact with lawyers, legal practitioners and law students to encourage their full participation as it relates to legal questions as well as the provision of legal advice and redress of grievances emanating from this sector. On this note, I offer my personal expertise and support as a long-standing human rights lawyer and advocate.

Let me pay tribute to those who initiated this approach and strategy. This is a major first step in developing a coalition or undertaking collective   action to address various anomalies. The significance of a collectivity is to demonstrate that you seek to affirm that the ideals you espouse is far greater than yourself and transcends the narrow bounds of individualism, thereby elevating your discourse to national and international levels.

This strategy must therefore seek to ensure that people, particularly those who are most vulnerable will be in the position to:

  • Have their voices heard on issues that are important to them,
  • Help to defend and safeguard their rights, and
  • Have their views and wishes genuinely considered when decisions are being made about their lives.

Such rights-based approach will require an advocacy that identifies, assesses, and uses evidenced based research findings to inform, educate and influence policy decisions. In this regard, a strategy cannot be effective without a framework to ensure implementation and monitor its impact.  The most important component is to ensure that communities and people can advocate for themselves – and do so based on knowledge.

Aerial Forest View in Liberia

Aerial Forest View in Liberia

The launch of this strategy will fill a long-standing gap in our national advocacy in Liberia.

For years, we have witnessed the sufferings, pains and agony of a large section of the population hidden behind the dark shadows of our forest.  For many years, our communities have remained hapless and sat helpless as they faced deprivations associated with conditions imposed upon them by the exploitative nature of forest mismanagement due to government’s insatiable quest for rent and at times complicity of some community leaders on one hand, and the excessive greed of some concessionaires on the other. -Whether it is through the looting of the 90s, during war and corruption, or  the Private Use Permits, the complicity of government officials and the onslaught of greedy individuals on our forests, the now proverbial “resource curse” stares us in the face. A classic example is the misuse and abuse of opportunities in the forest sector. The ownership of logging companies by government officials, the Carbon Credit imbroglio and other forms of criminal forage in our forests is a bane of resource development and advancement in Liberia.. The bleeding of our forests must come to an end. I know this is a cliché, but our natural resources must cease being a curse; it must be a blessing!

This strategy you are employing should offer our society (the supply chain) and the international community (the demand chain) redemption from years of pillage, plunder and the callous disregard for our communities, our environment, our land use and our forest. Our unique species of wildlife, Flora and Fauna are being destroyed and it is now time to act for the good of posterity.

We as a nation must understand and this strategy must help us appreciate the connectivity between human survival, the use of our forests and our environment in general and the overall impact on climate change and weather patterns not only in Liberia but around the world.

We have failed to realize that the abuse of our forest is an abuse on human civilization and the threat to our forests and environment represents a threat to human civilization.

“Studies have shown that forests provide protection against flooding. Therefore, the unabated loss of forests in Liberia due to the illegal logging which has become common may exacerbate the frequency of flood we are currently experiencing. It may also increase related disasters with severe negative impact on the environment and inflict havoc on the economy. Sadly, illegal logging without reforestation is bad news for glaring and galloping effects of global warming.”

Researchers and other forest advocates have warned that “Liberians should not sit reluctantly and wait for their government to take action first, but instead every Liberian must begin to create an environmental conscious culture through research, education and people centered grassroots initiatives like environmental restoration, ecosystem rehabilitation and planting trees campaign in every community across the country.”

 

The forests are of vital importance for the livelihoods for millions of West Africans and provide key ecosystem services of local and global importanceLiberia’s Upper Guinea forests (about 43-45% of sub-Saharan forest) are exceptionally diverse, with very high rates of endemism. Liberia holds some of the last remaining, intact forests in West Africa and so reducing deforestation quickly and efficiently would be important in global climate change mitigation.

The Land rights bill has affirmed that all land owned and occupied by communities for hundred of years belong to them, and that their ownership is effective upon its passage without regards to whether they have a deed to it or not. It says that these communities do no need deed from the Republic, because the Republic never owned their land, and so the Republic does not have ownership that it will transfer to them.

The law reaffirms the provisions of the Constitution that the mineral belong to the Republic, but says that the ownership of the surface land belong to the communities (as to community land) or private individuals (as to private land) and government (as to government land. The law also says that community land will also be treated equally as private land. These are recent and interesting developments for your advocacy.

Logging in Liberia - File photo courtesy of PBS

Logging in Liberia – File photo courtesy of PBS

Simply banning the timber trade or establishing reserves will not be enough to salvage the worlds remaining tropical rainforests. In order for the forest to be preserved, the underlying social, economic, and political reasons for deforestation must be recognized and addressed. Once the issues are brought into the light, the decision can be made about what should be done. If it is decided that rainforests must be saved, then the creation of multi-use reserves that promote sustainable development and education of local people would be a good place to start. Currently about 6 percent of the world’s remaining forests are protected, meaning that over 90 percent are still open for the taking. However, even this 6 percent is not safe if the proper steps towards sustainable development are not taken. If possible, reforestation and restoration projects should be encouraged if we, humanity, hope to come out of this situation. Contemporary environmentalists have proposed some measures such as:

    • Expanding protected areas
    • Increasing surveillance of and patrols in protected areas
    • Building research facilities for training local scientists and guides
    • Establishing programs that promote sustainable use
  • Compensating displaced people
  • Involve indigenous people, where they still exist, in park management.
  • Promoting ecotourism
  • Ensuring economic success does not result in increased deforestation
  • Encouraging entrepreneurship

I would therefore like to formally launch this strategy with some concluding comments.

  1. We must encourage partnership between our government, communities and interested groups, civil society and investors. We are undertaking an endeavor that affects our lives. Collective investment and participation in advocacy will require shared funding and support.
  2. Government must continue to see itself as providing the needed leadership in regulating the sector. The review of guidelines for negotiations and standard-setting in the areas of infrastructure development, health services, labor relations and dignity, law enforcement to curb illegal logging and mining activities, education and other services are critical to improving the lives of our people and creating wealth.
  3. Our nation, our government and our people must seek to end impunity through the rule of law. Years of pillage whether under the guise of war, looting, historic lack of political will, complicity, lack of integrity, lack of accountability, mismanagement and illegal activities in the sector must not go unpunished.  Justice for this sector is a must. Recommendations on economic crimes in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Report must be implemented to ensure reparations for affected communities and possible repatriation of profits. No one must be spared: Liberians and non-Liberians past, present and future. I therefore speak of justice for the alleged victims and those accused until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.
  4. The inextricable link between all elements of nature and the environment is indisputable. Our land, our forests, our wildlife of different and unique species is all connected. We breathe fresh air and live healthy lives when our land, air and sea are treated, as we want to treat ourselves. This is why I advise that our government and all of us must prevent the erratic interventions in our swamps, our wetlands, sand mining in our rivers beds and our forests or we risk an environmental catastrophe. I therefore urge our government to review its decision on the new development intended for the Bali Island, the Sarpo National Park, forest reserves and other areas. Any interventions must take into account proper assessments, analysis and advice on the environmental impact. We must take into account various international agreements and commitments, invite the UN Environmental Protection Agency and other professional bodies to ensure full compliance or risk punishment.
  5. As a long-standing advocate, I am guided by consistency on values and principles. IF IT WAS WRONG THEN, IT IS WRONG NOW! This country and all that lies within it is on loan to our generation by the future generation, we are under obligation to mange it well. Let me now add my voice to what is refer to as the Resource Swap. We should not begin any discussions in the absence of a public assessment, accounting and disclosure of our natural resource endowment.  No buyer should determine our price but rather negotiate our price. We risk intractable conflicts if we proceed without the necessary safeguards required to ensure distributive justice and wealth creation at all levels of our society. We should have a national resource accounting program that evaluates and determine the bankable nature of our natural resources, not leaving our desperation to be exploited by   unscrupulous people. We might be down now but not out. We might be broke now but not poor.
Political Map of Liberia

Political Map of Liberia

In conclusion, my dear friends and colleagues, People cannot be developed but develop themselves.” With the new thinking, development cannot be viewed as a product made by the “unilateral transfer from an agent (whether a donor or a state) to a passive recipient. The delivery approach to development through assistance is disempowering to citizens, which relegates them to the role of  “subjects” to change or transformation. For it to be an empowering process, development must be seen as a social contract (or compact) among citizens themselves, citizens and the State, The State and donors and citizens and donor.

In the abundance of wealth, we cannot be poor!  Our strategy must help address this paradox.

When I was a child – and I believe every child experiences such – whenever I had the opportunity to express my thoughts about an ambition, I was asked the questions “WHY?” It was common for a child to be asked “why” if they expressed the desire for a professional undertaking such a doctor, lawyer or even president. I believe the “Why” question stems from viewing a child’s ambition from the prism of perceived challenges and impossibilities. From now on we must cultivate the notion to ask “why not” when a  child from anywhere tells you he/she wants to be the President of Liberia or Secretary-General of the United Nations, Let them realize and appreciate the possibility of what is possible or what can be. I therefore ask you to say “WHY NOT” in pursuing this noble enterprise.

Our nation, our government and our people must seek to end impunity through the rule of law. Years of pillage whether under the guise of war, looting, historic lack of political will, complicity, lack of integrity, lack of accountability, mismanagement and illegal activities in the sector must not go unpunished.  Justice for this sector is a must. Recommendations on economic crimes in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Report must be implemented to ensure reparations for affected communities and possible repatriation of profits. No one must be spared: Liberians and non-Liberians past, present and future.

I therefore speak of justice for the alleged victims and those accused until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.

I thank you!

Speech By Attorney Kofi Woods

West African Journal Magazine