Decoding 10-Year of Tartweh-Drapoh Forest Conflict – The Deception, Actors and Victims

By: Liberia Forest Media Watch

A victim of the shooting incident

Claims and counterclaims about who is right or wrong in the Tartweh-Drapoh forest conflict are enormous as community languishes in abject poverty. Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW) could not logically conclude on who is responsible for the long-running conflict due to the involvement of multiple parties including local government officials and Legislators, with varying interests. However, this article contains sufficient information about the history of the conflict and violations of forest laws and regulations vis-à-vis challenges with community forest in Liberia, Paul Kanneh and Ezekiel Geeplay of LFMW report.

The history of Tartweh-Drapoh forest is characterized by reports of financial inducements and interferences by current and former high-profile government officials, dating back to the period of Private Use Permits (PUP). For instance, a cash receipt dated December 29, 2011 indicates that an amount of US$41,452.50 was allegedly disbursed by Universal Forest Corporation (UFC) to group of people claiming to be members of the Community Forest Management Body (CFMB) as land rental fees. According to the Special Independent Investigating Body report on the issuance of Private Use Permits

commissioned by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2012, as early as 2008, UFC appears to have been deeply involved in the Tartweh-Drapoh forest since the PUP era.  The same report describes the community “embroiled in internal conflict” regarding the operation of their PUP by UFC (the original operator) and Atlantic Resources as far back as 2012.

One month after payment of the above amount, another payment of US$20,726.00 was made by UFC on January 10, 2012 as land rental fees. This amount was reportedly received by one Emmanuel S. Wesseh. On January 11, 2013, the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) supposedly received US$47,038.00 as full

payment for boundary line demarcation of the total parameter of Tartweh-Drapoh Forest from the same UFC.

Payment of the above amounts were uncovered through an investigation conducted by National Security Agency (NSA) and Dorbor Jallah’s committee during the PUP sagas. Findings from this investigation and a report by Global Witness, SAMFU and SDI led to the closure of the PUP by the Government of Liberia under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (). The NSA’s report alleged a former county official received US$15,000, and that the County Legislative Caucasus received US$5,000 from community’s share of the money.  Upon the release of the report by NSA, the government dismissed key staff of the FDA for their involvement into the financial scandal allegedly influenced by UFC and other logging companies. 

After the PUP vis-à-vis Community Forest Era

Following the suspension of the PUPs, and subsequently, the introduction of the community forest initiative, Tartweh-Drapoh Forest Community applied for Approved Forest Community status in 2014, and was awarded a Community Forestry Management Agreement (CFMA) in November 2017.

Fast-forward to 2018, the community began negotiation to award their forest to a logging company of their choice. Surprisingly, UFC, whose alleged bribery trigged the closure of PUP, surfaced again during the community forest initiative.

On December 9, 2018, UFC, with the approval of Magistrate George Karoteh of Tubmanville Magisterial Court along with District Superintendent, Abraham Sokan and Wiah Toe (Land Coordinator) of the Ministry of Land Mines and Energy, some local chiefs, headed by Paramount Chief, Peter Korn, Paramount Chief Henry Saywon, General Town Chiefs, Mitchell D. Padma, – and Peter B. Wiah, Clan Chief, authorized UFC to carry out prospection in the forest without the knowledge of the CFMB the FDA, or the county authority.

In reaction, some community members arrested the foreign experts brought in by UFC to conduct the prospecting. The experts told community authorities that they were sent in the forest by UFC. In an apparent reaction to community’s action, the county security arrested and detained community members on crime of torturing investors. Following the arrest of community members, some concerned Tartweh Community members in Sinoe and Monrovia wrote the Police Inspector General of Liberia, Patrick Sudue, complaining that the county officials tortured them for stopping “intruders” in their forest. 

As head of the county, the Superintendent, Lee Nagbe Chea, launched investigation into reports of illegal entry by UFC in the community forest.  LFMW did establish that findings from the Superintendent’s investigation found UFC representatives culpable of illegal entry into the community forest, thereby taking instruction from an “unauthorized” forest body outside of the CFMB arrangements.  

As a result of the investigation, the County Superintendent fined UFC US$1,500 for illegally entering the community forest. But to a great surprise, the very Superintendent who punished UFC, on March 30, 2019, allowed community chiefs and elders to conduct a meeting with the same UFC investors, a meeting the Superintendent himself attended, along with the County Attorney, Police Commander, and other community officials. LFMW leaned that UFC sponsored the very meeting.

During the meeting, LFMW learned that the chiefs and elders assured the management of UFC that they will give them the Tartweh-Drapoh forest. It is following this meeting that tension between the leadership of the CFMB and chief and elders increased on the one hand and between the offices of the District #1 Representative, Crayton Duncan, and the leadership of CFMB on the other hand.  

A surprising feud between the Community Assembly (CA) and CFMB Leadership

Prior to the involvement of the county officials and  Lawmaker in the Tartweh Community forest activities, members of the CA – the ultimate community governance institution in a community forest – and CFMB (who should report to the CA) operated in a normal and cooperative fashion, until rumors of financial influence and interference from government officials became prevalent.  For example, in his May 3, 2019 communication addressed to FDA Managing Director C. Mike Doryen, Mike Neklen, Chairman of the Executive Committee (EC) of the CA, referenced the fair play in the selection process of Atlantic Resource Limited by the community through the CA, EC and CFMB.

As EC Chairman, Mike Neklan serves as Chief of Office Staff to Representative Duncan. He admitted to being the Chief of Staff to Representative Duncan on Forest Hour, a position he has concomitantly held along with his portfolio as Chairman of the EC of the Tartweh Forest Community. The 2009 Community Rights Law limits the involvement of influential government officials into the management and control of community forest. But, Mike Neklan declared on Forest Hour and through telephone conversations that his position is not an influential one. Forest Hour is a radio talk show that discusses forest issues, raises community voices at national levels and ignites nationwide participation in forest governance. 

In his letter, Mike Neklan named four companies that bided for the forest, excluding UFC: “Following the signing of Community Forest Agreement between FDA and the Tartweh-Drapoh Community Forest, which gave us legal rights to the forest, the CA, EC and CFMB have been working within the confines of the regulations to the Community Rights Law With Respect To Community Forest of 2009. The community forest governance body was approached by four (4) companies who expressed interest in the forest. They include Renaissance, Karbadeh, Sing Africa and Atlantic Resource. The community held meetings with each company and allowed them access to the forest. Two months after series of meetings with them separately, the Community Assembly in the presence of the citizens of the forest community convened a meeting in Palatroken to discuss the four companies and selected one. At the meeting, Atlantic Resource Limited was selected. After said meeting, a report on the selection process along with the minutes, photos and signatures of the attendees were submitted to FDA”, Mike Neklan said in his letter to FDA.

Mike Neklan’s letter to FDA Managing Director was as a result of the series of disturbances he claimed had been caused by community members over forest issues including exchange of gun fire between opposing forces over the legitimacy of the forest contract in March 2018. ( ). Neklan had written a letter of regret to FDA for the disturbances that took place during signing of the community-company contract on April 25, 2019. But prior to this day, credible sources told LFMW that Mike Neklan secretly arrived in Greenville on April 25, 2019 ahead of the arrival of delegates who were expected to participate in the signing of the community-company contract on April 27, 2019, which Mike Neklan was reportedly opposed to, after endorsing the selection process.    

Upon arrival in Greenville, Mike Neklan immediately proceeded to the Tartweh Community, where LFMW learned that he engaged the chiefs and elders in two consultative meetings to reportedly interrupt the signing of the community-company contract. Following his consultative meetings with the chiefs and elders, a roadblock was erected to prevent delegates from coming in to sign the community-company contract with a company that he, the EC Chairman, Mike Neklan, had early endorsed through a written communication to FDA. After the road block, police arrested and jailed few people, but the County Superintendent, along with the District Superintendent and Magistrate, signed for their release.

In one of the meetings in April 2019, following the shooting incident in March of the same year, the County Superintendent, Chea, provided 86,000 Liberian Dollars to community members for the losses they incurred as a result of fighting from opposing forces. The Superintendent later confirmed this on tape recorder at a meeting held on November 28, 2019.

As a result of the shooting incident, Tubmanville Magistrate and his Assistant arrested and charged 22 persons suspected of carrying out the conflict. Of the 22 suspects, six were ordered jailed by the county officials. However, LFMW learned that the Superintendent and the Magistrate released those who publically admitted instigating the violence, but failed to yield to calls to release the six people on bond. It is interesting to note that up to press time, no single perpetrator of the shooting incident has been arrested and prosecuted, even though the Superintendent admitted donating money for losses incurred due to the conflict. 

In an effort to release the six people, some community members along with the CFMB leadership travelled to Monrovia and joined efforts with Monrovia based Tartweh residents to call on the Supreme Court to issue Writ of Mandamus, which the high court did, thus compelling the county authority to release the six people from prison.

After the failure of the April 27 meeting due to roadblocks, the County Superintendent proposed another meeting in the first week of May 2019, as perpetrators of the shooting incident and roadblocks remain unpunished. However, the Superintendent’s request for this meeting was challenged by some community officials: “We wrote the Superintendent and said it was not proper to call meeting when our people are in the bushes, some are wounded and some are hospitalized, but Superintendent refused to listen, and  went ahead to host the meeting”, a letter from the community executives disclosed.In that meeting, the Superintendent, without consultation with community members, proceeded to appoint one Abraham P. Sokan, who is also a District Superintendent, as a replacement of the Chief Officer of the CFMB, Sorbor Wesseh. As claims and counterclaims over ownership of the forest continued, the Chairman of the Sinoe County Caucus, Representative Crayton Duncan, wrote through the secretary, J. Nage Sloh (late) to Sorbor Wesseh on August 27, 2019, requesting him to submit all original documents relating to the Tartweh Community Forest. Mr. Wesseh, along with his corps of CFMB officials, did not yield to the County Caucus’ request. An insider told LFMW that Wesseh’s failure to submit to the Caucus prompted Representative Duncan’s sponsorship of the chiefs and elders to remove Wesseh and his leadership, on ground that Wesseh is being disrespectful to the chiefs elders, and county officials

Copy of the County caucus’ letter

Due to the high-level involvement of the chiefs and elders, some concerned citizens of Tartweh wrote to the Minister of Internal Affairs in August 2019, complaining about the chiefs’ consistent interference in the community forest management. In his response, the Minister mandated the County Inspector, then Acting County Superintendent, to investigate the matter and to share the findings with him. Nevertheless, when the County Inspector invited the chiefs to answer questions, the chiefs and elders asked the Inspector for extension of time so as to afford them time to get a lawyer. In the process of seeking a lawyer, the chiefs and elders came to Monrovia as guests of Representative Crayton Duncan. LFMW learned that the chiefs spent three months in Monrovia under the sponsorship of Representative Duncan, who was out of the country on a visit to the United States. 

Upon his return, credible sources say Representative Duncan gave over US3, 500 to his Chief of Office Staff, Mike Neklan, (who is also the EC chairman) and his political officer to accompany the chiefs back to Sinoe County, where they were expected to take part in a meeting to remove the CFMB leadership in October.  

At a meeting held on October 7, 2019, 20 members of the CA and EC voted to remove the leadership of the CFMB. So, wherever the community often gets money from to organize meeting at the time there is no concession remains a mystery.  However, the meeting was believed to have been influenced or financed by high profile county officials including Representative Duncan.

The signing of the resolution to remove Sorbor Wesseh and the rest of the leadership of the CFMB was witnessed by LFMW and the FDA. Among others, the CA and EC accused Chief Officer Sorboh Wesseh of constantly using his government’s portfolio to arrest and imprison local chiefs, traditional and youth leaders who are critical of his leadership.  

When contacted, Sorboh Wesseh declined to comment on the matter on grounds that, a senior official and citizen of the county had opted to intervene, hence, talking to the media or CSOs could undermine the peace process. However, a probe by LFMW into reports of Sorbor Wesseh holding influential government position at the time of his leadership at county level proved affirmative. Like the Chairman of the EC, the CFMB Chief Officer, Mr. Wesseh, served as Director of the County Service Center and County Information Officer before his dismissal by the Superintendent in June 2020.  

Following this meeting, on October 28, 2019, the EC Chairman, Mike Naklen, sought further help from a range of groups: “The Executive Committee (EC) of the Tartweh-Drapoh Community Forest is inviting National and International Non-Governmental Organizations (Forest Partners) to conduct investigation to know the perpetrators behind its Community Forest Conflicts in Sinoe County. The EC is also asking FDA to provide clarity as to the unclear purported Atlantic Resource or Delta Timber Company MOU which signing ceremony the Authority attempted to witness in April 2019 in Sinoe County” It is following this request for investigation that LFMW initiated this investigation.

Among others, the EC Chairman accused the leadership of the CFMB, headed by Sorbor Wesseh, of entering into a deal with Atlantic Resource Limited without the knowledge and approval of the EC, even though the same EC Chair, Mike Naklen, is on record of satisfying the process that led to the selection of Atlantic Resource Limited, in a letter addressed to FDA Managing Director on May 3, 2019. The EC Chairman also said, despite so many pleads from members of the EC, the Chief Officer Wesseh went ahead to sign the MOU with Atlantic Resource Limited, which prompted a mass protest from citizens, thus leading to the burning down of houses and exchange of gunfire. The EC chairman also accused the CFMB leader of denying them access to the MOU, noting that “FDA and Atlantic Resource may have altered the MOU for sinister purpose”, which is why, he said, the CFMB Chief Officer has not allowed them to have access to the MOU.

The EC Chairman’s letter also referenced a Facebook post by the CFMB Secretary, Morris Q. Wiah, in which Mr. Wiah is quoted as saying the MOU which was about to be signed was not between the community and Atlantic Resource, but rather between the community and Delta Timber Company. Below are the counts outlined against the CFMB leadership by the EC:

  1. The refusal of Mr. Sorboh Wesseh to allow the community to have access to their forest documents such as Community Forest Agreement, Community Assembly By-Laws and Constitution and the Forest Management Plan.
  2. Mr. Sorboh Wesseh’s denial of the community to have input into and review of the proposed MOU prepared between Atlantic Resource and the community. 
  3. Mr. Wesseh’s leadership of bad governance by his constant act of instituting legal or court processes, arrest and detention actions against the chiefs, elders, traditional leaders and citizens of the community.
  4. Mr. Sorboh Wesseh’s failure to submit a single report to the EC even when the community requested him to do so. 
  5. That in February 2019, Mr. Wesseh was investigated by the EC for misconduct, bad governance and financial misapplication and was found guilty, asked to apologize to the chiefs for detaining them, asked to make available to the community their community forest documents, asked to make a comprehensive report to the EC on his activities, and asked to restitute the community funds collected from GVL contractors, but he failed in all.

Even though the EC Chairman’s letter of investigation accused the Chief Officer of misconduct and FDA for altering the MOU, it is surprising that the same EC Chair wrote to the FDA regretting what he then termed as embarrassment caused to the Authority and the State by the chiefs, traditional leaders and some citizens including those from Monrovia and the diaspora during the signing of MOU on April 27, 2019.

Copy of letter written by Mike Neklen to FDA

Amidst his request for investigation, Mike Neklen-EC Chair organized another meeting in an attempt to remove Mr. Wesseh leadership, with the help of one Emmanuel Saywon (Political Officer to Representative Duncan). This meeting took place on November 28, 2019 in Tubmanville City, Tartweh-Drapoh District.  

At this meeting, Mike Neklan and the rest of his campaigners, again, reportedly failed to form a quorum to remove the CFMB. FDA and CSOs were all represented at the meeting. The FDA representative at this meeting, Alvin Roberts, said the processes leading to the Nine Steps were legally followed. Alvin noted, however, that the EC did not get the two-thirds majority required to remove the CFMB. The Core Chairman, Moses Teh-Swen, and Secretary, Samuel Jelemue, both of the EC, along with 13 member of the EC, distanced themselves from Mr. Neklan’s resolution to remove the CFMB. In a strong recorded statement, County Superintendent Lee Nagbe Chea is quoted as saying that he has personal issues with the chairman of the CFMB. He, therefore, instructed the FDA to organize an acting CFMB until elections are held. Like others, Superintendent Nagbe Chea endorsed the vote of no confidence reached on November 28, 2019.

Shockingly, the FDA’s representative Alvin Roberts, who admitted that the CFMB followed the law during the Nine Steps process, later endorsed the vote of no confidence. However, Sorbor Wesseh and his corps of officers out rightly objected to their removal, claiming they were not accorded due process.

During a follow-up with parties involved in the conflict, this is what some have to say about their role in the conflict:

  1. Land Coordinator, Wiah Toeh-“Sorbor Wesseh is causing serious trouble for the community which want development. He has refused to disclose the draft social agreement to community members. We want him to resign and let new vetting process of companies for our forest starts. We call on you civil society to investigate this matter because the chiefs and elders are not respected by the CFMB. (Statement made on March 1, 2020).
  •  Sorbor Wesseh, CFMB Chairman-I am willing to resign my post as Chairman of CFMB once we sign the social agreement with the legally vetted company. As for the conflict, I don’t want to talk about it because a senior official and citizen of the county had opted to intervene, and hence, talking to the media or CSOs could undermine the peace process”.
  • Madison Togba, victim of beaten-“I was beaten on April 28, 2019 on the order of the Clan Chief, Peter Blay Wiah, for being a supporter of the CFMB Chairman, Sorbor Wesseh. They beat me in the presence of EC Chairman, Mike Naklen and the Political Officer of the office of Hon. Duncan.
  • Henry F. Saywon-Paramount Chief-Upper Tartweh-Sorbor Wesseh don’t respect the chiefs and elders. He holds two government positions, and he is using his positions to jail the chiefs and elders. We are the leaders of the community, and so we have saying over the forest”.
  • Mike Naklen-EC Chairman“I made this request several months ago. Why now? However, I cannot stop you. But we have had the intervention of other key stakeholders. Thanks for your interest. (Statement made through text message on March 4, 2020).

Sorbor Wesseh beaten

In June 2020, Sorbor Wesseh was ordered beaten by the Superintendent for refusing to turn over the keys to the County Service Center, where he, Wesseh, served as Head. Superintendent Chea, in an emotional live radio conversation via telephone on Forest Hour, admitted ordering Wesseh to open his office and turn over the keys to him for administrative reasons. According to him, Wesseh refusal to obey his orders led to the scuffle between him and the law enforcement officers of the county.

Sorbor Wesseh and Mike Neklen leaderships dissolved

On December 18 and 19, 2020, the leaderships of Sorbor Wesseh (CFMB Chief Officer) and Mike Neklen (EC Chairperson) were dissolved following a two-day probe by five-member facts-finding and Investigation Team from FDA-CSO, headed by Mrs. Weedor H. Gray of the Community Extension Services and Mobilization Manager of Forestry Development Authority (FDA).

Participants at the December meeting

The removal exercise was in response to request made by the Executive Committee of the Community Assembly of the Tartweh-Drapoh Authorized Community Forest on allegations levied against Sorbor Wesseh, which led to chaos in the community.  Other charges levied on Mr. Wesseh by the EC Chairman, Mike Neklen, include failure to report since 2017, constant arrest and detention of the chiefs and elders, and his refusal to publicize the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Community and the Company. 

New officers elected

In April 2021, Tartweh-Drapoh Forest Community went to the pool to elect their new corps of officers to manage their forest. The Community right to manage and control their forest is contained in the 2009 Community Rights Law (CRL).  Two months after the election, the new leadership is engulfed in power struggle. In a communication dated June 30, 2021, the CA members expressed vote of no confidence in their new Chief Officer, Mr. Myer Kuman Padma. Mr. Padma is accused of receiving US$2,500.00 from KISVAN Timber Corporation and diverting said amount to his personal use. KISVAN Timber Corporation is one of 3 companies that bided for the Tartweh-Drapoh Forest Community. Among others, the CA also accused the Chief Officer of rejecting the crafting of the third party agreement, opposing the Executive Committee (EC) decision to constitute an MOU committee and his refusal to participate in the dissemination and explanation of the third party agreement to the community assembly.

When contacted for comment, Chief Officer Padma told the Liberia Forest Media Watch that he did nothing that violates the CRL and its regulations. He termed the decision of the CA as politically motivated. “My brother, our people elected us based on trust and more beside we are not willing to dance to any political decision; trust me, we will do what is right and not the other way those politicians feel and want to play on our people,” Padma explained. Padma accused the new Chairperson of the CA, Hilary Quaetoh, of inciting some CA members to remove him, but the EC Chairman, Hilary Quaetoh could not respond to call for comment. His phone rang endlessly. He could not also respond to our text message until press time.

Representative Crayton Duncan is once more suspected

The Lawmaker of Electoral District #1 in Sinoe County is once more at the center stage of the conflict. He is accused by elements of the new leadership for influencing the selection process of logging companies that applied to harvest logs in the Tartweh-Drapoh Forest Community. He is suspected of fueling the conflict with interest in a logging company named Sino Forest Liberia Corporation. Section 3.4 of the 2017 Regulation to the CRL of Liberia grants the District Representative (through selection by County Caucus) of the forest community the right to serve on the Community Assembly. Such rights shall be limited to Advisor only, and not a decision making role. Community Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the Authorized Forest Community. 

Despite such limitation, LFMW has painstakingly observed that Representative Crayton Duncan has endeavored to influence the decision of the CFMB in deciding the selection process of companies to harvest logs in the Tartweh-Draph Authorized Community Forest. His alleged act of manipulation is often channeled through current and former and CA members with political alignments to him, including his Chief of Office Staff, Mark Neklan (former CA Head) and Hilary Quaetoh (current CA Head).

Timothy Swen told LFMW how disappointed he was in his colleagues in the selection process of companies.  “For some of us we were not able to talk because majority takes the day in term of the decision that selected the Sino forest company as a result of the money Hon. Duncan pumped in the process”, a member of the CFMB Timothy Swen lamented. Swen disclosed that each CA member received US$100 to sign in favor of Sino Forest Liberia Corporation; a company believes to be owned by Representative Duncan. I told them over and over but those guys used the cash violence on them,” Swen told journalists. Swen maintained that instead of the selection process being transparent or done in the open, it was done in a secret house where they put out the journalists, women and youth groups in the name of taking it at traditional level.

Representative Crayton Duncan, when contacted, neither denied nor accepted, his involvement. He told LFMW that he reserved commit on the issue on ground that he is currently out of the country and upon return he will have time to speak to this issue. “Ezekiel thank you for making this effort to reach me via WhatsApp, but I will be in the country soon and I will provide clarity to this gossip” he said.

Another aggrieved CA member, Madam Victoria N. Saydee, said major decisions are made unknown to the locals and even to CA members.   According to her, like Timothy Swen, she, too, rejected US$1,000 to sign a forest agreement with a concession company. She said the process of awarding the forest to the Sino Forest Corporation was done among few learned CA members and local leadership of the county. 

Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the CFMB, F. Kwankon Saytue, has denied reports of inducement in the selection process of Sino Forest Corporation and the involvement of Representative Duncan. He said the Sino Forest Corporation was selected based on its capability and not on patronage basis as is being alleged by his colleagues.  “We needed a company with the capability. Three companies applied, and Sino Company agreed to build concrete bridge over Plazon River, while the other said they will build Log Bridge.

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