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Liberia's Logging Loophole: Selling off the Forest

Illegal logging permits could lead to mass deforestation and disastrous repercussions for Liberia's population and environment.
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Anthony Kamara at a logging site in Korninga Chiefdom, Gbaprolu County. Photograph by Travis Lupick.

Monrovia, Liberia:

Anthony Kamara stands at the end of a long mud road rendered all but impassable by heavy logging equipment. In a vast expanse cut from the forest around him, he’s surrounded by piles of logs marked for transport out of the country.

“Our resources are gone and our people will not benefit,” he says. “The road is appalling. There is no development – nothing.”

Kamara speaks as a resident of Korninga Chiefdom, Gbarpolu County. The community’s elders claim their land was taken from them illegally and leased to a private company for logging.

More than 60% of Liberia’s forests – comprising one-third of the country – have been signed over to logging companies since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006 according to statistics compiled by Global Witness. A September 4 report – drafted by Global Witness along with Liberian NGOs Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) and the Sustainable Development Institute – calls specific attention to “an explosion in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits” issued by the government’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA) over the last two years.

“These new licenses – termed private use permits [PUPs] – contain no sustainability requirements and therefore would essentially allow companies to clear 40% of Liberia’s forests, including almost half of Liberia’s primary intact forests,” it states. The report also details cases of forged documents and “systematic neglect for due process in the allocation of private use permits”.

Social and ecological repercussions

Robert Nyahn, programme manager for SAMFU, says that if logging goes forward on the 66 PUPs his organisation knows to exist, “the losses would be immense”.

“We are talking about almost a quarter of the entire country that will be cleared,” he emphasises. “The forest will be swept away.”

Nyahn argues that this is not just a problem for Liberia, but a cause for concern for the whole planet. He notes that an estimated 40% of what remains of West Africa’s untouched forests grow within Liberia’s borders. These areas are rich in biodiversity and home to many endangered species such as the pygmy hippo and a rare breed of elephant, explains Nyahn. And then there are the people who survive off that land and have used it in a sustainable manner for generations.

“If you cut clear these forests, you put people who live in the forest in danger,” he says. “No matter how much amount of money you can provide for them, you will take away their livelihood.”

Mixed messages

Alerted to such concerns, the FDA board of directors ordered a moratorium on PUPs in February 2012. However, according to the September 4 report those instructions were ignored, the FDA continued to issue PUPs, and logging companies flouted orders prohibiting new operations.

On August 31, the president reiterated her support for a moratorium on PUPs and appointed an independent panel to investigate how those contracts were awarded. She also suspended the FDA’s managing director for the duration of that investigation.

In stark contrast, an unsigned draft of a report on the findings of an August 14 senate hearing on PUPs recommends that the FDA “reinstate the permits and restores their operation with immediate effect”. It’s unclear what will happen if this draft document is ratified and officially comes into conflict with the orders of the president.

Backdoor dealings

The history of Liberia’s logging sector is an ugly one. In 2003, the UN Security Council found that the country’s timber was fuelling all sides in a civil war that had at that point run for 14 years and claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 people. A ban on exports followed. Later, in 2006, new forestry legislation was introduced, international sanctions were lifted, and logging exports resumed in 2010.

The creation of PUP contracts was part of the reforms carried out by Johnson Sirleaf's administration. They were designed to allow for small-scale logging on private land, Nyahn recounted. But what has happened over the last two years is that officials within the FDA have colluded with multinational corporations to use private use permits as a “backdoor” around more stringent contracts designed for larger concession arrangements. Nyahn called attention to one example: Atlantic Resources, a subsidiary of the Malaysia-based logging giant Samling Global, which has allegedly used PUPs to acquire control of over 8% of all of Liberia.

Nyahn added that Liberia’s primary forests – land that has never been logged – are especially at risk. He explained that while concession agreements designed for multinational corporations forbid the clear cutting of untouched forests, PUPs contain no such provisions. Rules outlining how a company can use land obtained through PUPs mostly reside in social agreements. Nyahn said that several of those contracts examined by SAMFU allow for the felling of primary forests, and then the conversion of that land into plantations for crops such as palm oil.

“Once it has been logged, it [the land] turns to secondary forest,” he says. “And once it has become secondary forest, anybody can go there and turn it into a plantation.”

Nyahn argues that responsibility for so much land given away so quickly falls on Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth. Think Africa Press is in possession of copies of more than two dozen PUPs. At the bottom of every contract reviewed are the names and signatures of two government officials: Moses Wogbeh, the managing director for the FDA whom the president suspended without pay, and Chenoweth.

“She [Chenoweth] has had advanced knowledge of everything that is going on,” Nyahn says. “I think she is one of the main problems.”

The agriculture minister did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

At a meeting convened before his suspension, Wogbeh argued that all PUPs issued are based on private properties where landowners have produced legitimate deeds for their land. “Everything that has been done has been done in keeping with the law,” he said. “We categorically deny all of this.”

Long road ahead

Speaking on behalf of President Johnson Sirleaf, Minister of Information Lewis Brown claims that the president’s office was “shocked” when it learnt of the extent to which PUP contracts have been abused.

“This is why we have moved very quickly,” he says. “These guys are spreading out into the countryside and engaging in massive deforestation....This was never the intention.”

Brown reveals that once the president’s panel reports its findings, criminal investigations could follow, and contracts deemed illegal will be cancelled. “Everything is on the table,” he emphasises.

Jonathan Gant, a policy advisor for Global Witness, notes that the president’s investigation is only the first step in a long process. Authorities must improve legislation governing the forestry sector in Liberia and individual PUPs should be reassessed. “Only when it tackles these issues will the Liberian government be able to boost rural livelihoods and stop unscrupulous logging companies from reaping the benefits of Liberia’s forests at expense of its people and environment,” Gant concludes.

Meanwhile, residents of Korninga Chiefdom have resolved to take matters into their own hands. In Henry Town, a shopkeeper named Old Lady Kamara vows that the community’s women will not let another truck through their village.

“We will block the road,” she says. “They will not pass. We have already planned this because the women are suffering here.”

During a meeting of community elders in nearby Tawalata Town, the men of Korninga expressed equal frustration. “What the women are saying, we are in,” one shouts. “We will stand behind them.”

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