Community forestry (CF) is dependent upon Forest Community members being aware of their rights to forest resources; fully appreciating the benefits they derive from their forest resources; and being able to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process over how their forest resources are used. In recognition of this, Section 2.2.(c) of the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands (CRL) establishes, “[a]ny decision, agreement or activity affecting the status or use of community forest resources shall not proceed without the prior, free, informed consent of the said community.” In theory, the requirement for free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) prevents communities from being taken advantage of. This is based on the principle that if communities are aware of the true value of their forest resources, and able to make decisions about how those resources are to be used without being unduly influenced by external actors, they will be able to act in their own best interests.
The high value of forest resources continues to attract the attention of logging companies, who, understandably, seek to profit from the commercial exploitation of timber. As the Public Use Permit (PUP) scandal demonstrated, unscrupulous companies are able and willing to exploit loopholes in the law to avoid consulting and working with communities, if given the opportunity. Sadly, what occurred with PUPs also demonstrated that community leaders could be co-opted to secure commercial terms that benefited logging companies, to the detriment of the majority of community members. Such cases illustrate the need for effective measures to ensure compliance with FPIC in order to protect communities from predatory companies, and from elites that would otherwise seek to exploit the people whose interests they are supposed to represent. This imperative is even more urgent now that it has become clear that many companies are attempting to use the CF program in the same manner as they did PUPs – to circumvent the more stringent regulations for the commercial harvesting of timber, as established under the National Forestry Reform Law (NFRL), the Ten Core Regulations, and the Liberia Code of Timber Harvesting (LCTH).
Forest Communities may very well be interested in commercially exploiting their forest resources – in fact, the CF program assumes they will do so – but they must be given an opportunity to make that choice and to meaningfully influence the decision-making process. And they must be able to benefit from any such arrangement. This policy brief will look at what FPIC means under the CRL, how some companies are attempting to circumvent the legal requirements, and what might be done to improve the current regime.