With the emergence of ICTs as a staple of program design, electronic platforms have been used by development practitioners for mapping conflict, crises, election violence, and a number of advocacy initiatives drawing on stakeholder input and participation. In Liberia, the practice continues in opening up a struggling concessions sector for more efficient and transparent natural resource management between the Government of Liberia’s (GOL) concession-granting entities, local communities, and international investors. Liberia’s National Concessions Portal, however, is more than just a plot of ongoing projects. The public Portal is as much a trust-building platform as it is a management tool, with the potential to rebuild confidence between public servants and the population.
We sat down with Amadou Thera, who’s been at the helm of implementing the larger Concessions Information Management System (CIMS) since 2014, of which the Portal is the public component. Thera began his role with IBI as a Business Process Analyst for USAID’s Governance & Economic Management Support (GEMS) Program in Liberia, continued to a role as the Implementation Specialist for the CIMS, and in addition provided GIS training to fellows in the President’s Young Professionals Program, three of whom are already working as Concessions Officers in various GOL offices.
Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, Amadou. Seeing as how you’ve been with USAID-GEMS since the start of the CIMS component, I thought we’d begin with the basic concepts behind CIMS and the FlexiCadastre Portal. Can you briefly define ‘concessions’ and why natural resource and land management are such important issues to address in Liberia?
Amadou Thera: Concessions – specifically natural resource concessions – are large land parcels that the government leases to investors, or “concessionaires” for, first of all, exploration for a specific natural resource on specific terms and conditions. Then after that, for exploitation of this natural resource. So you have mining, forest, oil and gas, and agriculture concessions. For each concession, you have a land parcel with a known area, a start date for the concession, different terms and conditions. Then you have the end date and the obligations that come with it. So that’s briefly, a general definition for concessions, especially in the context of Liberia.
As for land management, the most important reason to manage land is to avoid conflict. As you probably know, many of the conflicts in Africa are related somehow to land issues. Firstly, you have conflicts between communities that can certainly arise from land issues. Secondly, you have conflicts between communities and concessionaries as well. Many times when a concessionaire is granted land, they go to the local communities without them being informed beforehand. You see a lot of conflicts arise like this. Lastly, there is conflict between government agencies. For instance, the mining and environmental entities compete for protected areas. The primary point is to avoid conflict and bring stability – I think that’s the major thing.
And of course, after that, managing land and having good land administration systems will increase revenue because it will secure tenure for concessionaires. If they feel secure, they’ll want to invest money, create jobs, and will increase the government’s revenue as well. Furthermore, it allows the government to make informed decisions for economic planning and development. To summarize, I would like to categorize it in the three points of avoiding conflict, increasing revenue, and improving planning.
Amadou Thera (left) with fellow team members during the CIMS Launch in Sept. 2015: Jerome Anderson, USAID-GEMS Concessions Advisor (center) and Jaco Crafford (right), representing Spatial Dimension.
Can you explain how you use the FlexiCadastre Portal and what it tells us about the concessions sector?
AT: FlexiCadastre began as a tool to manage mining titles, but we expanded it to manage concessions, which includes more than just mining licenses, since we have agriculture and forestry concessions as well. FlexiCadastre is a workflow-centric database that uses Esri mapping technology to properly manage land titles. We use FlexiCadastre to implement the CIMS, specifically by using three of its components. First, we wanted the CIMS to have a map to show the exact boundaries of concessions, to detect and avoid “overlaps”. That’s a very serious problem at the moment in Liberia, so we want to be able to detect and prevent new overlaps on any incoming concessions. Secondly, the CIMS also has a document management system. We wanted the system to be comprehensive, so that when a user logs in they’ll be able to find all concessions-related documents in the system in addition to the map. A third component is the workflow. The CIMS workflow automates the concessions procurement, operation, monitoring, renewal and cancellation processes in accordance with the current laws and regulations.
An example of a typical concession entry, which includes the boundary, duration and type of agreement, start and end dates, the respective commodity, area (in hectares), name of concessionaire, and status of the concession (Photo: FlexiCadastre/Spatial Dimensions).
And how does the Portal fit into the larger CIMS?
AT: The Concession Portal is part of the main system – the public component – along with the document management system and the database. The Portal is a copy of public domain information from the CIMS. Any modification that you make in the main site will be replicated in the Portal for the public to view – the concessionaire, the area, the commodity, the duration, the start and end-dates, and so on.
What do you think will be the long-term impact, of the Portal in specific, and the CIMS in general?
AT: The concessions sector has had a reputation (and still has a reputation) for being a non-transparent sector, so launching a public Portal to share current data on concessions will be a big step forward toward increasing transparency, fighting corruption, and helping the government regain any lost confidence from the public. It’s good to enhance transparency into this sector and start building public trust.
In addition, better land management solutions will attract higher quality investors. Because, of course, when the sector is messy, you see all kinds of investors – some are serious, some are not – and some of them take advantage of the weak situation. With a more transparent system, you will attract more serious investors who are willing to invest money, perform real work, create value, create jobs, and increase revenue. More job opportunities are great for countries like Liberia where the unemployment rate is very high.
Can you explain the Community Forest Management Agreements (CFMAs) that we see in the legend?
AT: With this, the government now has to go through the local community first in issuing concessions. That’s why now with the Forest Development Authority you see all these CFMAs. The communities apply for the areas that they’re living in, then once they have passed all the processes and they have come to an agreement between the community and the government, the communities can go ahead and look for partners to exploit resources in the area. So they are part of the process – they are actually the main actors in the process. As for before, they usually only knew that a concession was signed when the concessionaire began to work in the area.
Thank you again for your insights, Amadou. Before we wrap up, are there any noteworthy features you want to highlight in the CIMS that we won’t see in the public Portal?
AT: One thing you will not see in the Portal is what we call the ‘map reference’ which shows the area of a concession in the different counties of Liberia. In the management of concessions, there are revenues that should go to local communities. We have this tool in the system which will actually detect the percentage of the total area of the given concession that falls within a given community, county, district, down to the clan level. So users are now able to tell how many hectares of the specific concession is in their particular area, and its percentage. This has allowed for resource sharing, which is another issue here in Liberia.