Environmental organisations operating in Liberia have alleged that there has been “an explosion in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits” issued by the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
A September 4 report states that in the past two years, control over a quarter of all of Liberia – including 40 per cent of the country’s forests – has been handed over to private corporations for the purpose of logging.
The document outlines the troubling nature of these contracts and the manner in which the government’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has conducted many of these land deals.
“These new licenses – termed private use permits [PUPs] – contain no sustainability requirements and therefore would essentially allow companies to clear 40 per cent of Liberia’s forests, including almost half of Liberia’s primary intact forests,” it states. Detailed are cases of allegedly forged documents and “systematic neglect for due process in the allocation of private use permits”.
According to additional information provided by one of the report’s authors, PUPs and other categories of logging contracts now cover more than 36,000 square kilometres – approximately a third of Liberia’s landmass (and an area larger than the state of Maryland) – allowing for the felling of more than 60 per cent of the country’s forests, some of the richest in Africa.
Alerted to such concerns, the FDA board of directors ordered a moratorium on PUPs in February 2012. Since then, evidence has emerged indicating that that directive has been ignored, that PUPs have continued to be issued, and that logging companies have defied orders forbidding new operations.
The United Nations Security Council placed a ban on Liberia timber exports in 2003, after it was found that profits were used to finance the government and rebel groups in a conflict that had, at that point, run for 14 years. Those sanctions were lifted in 2006, and logging exports resumed in 2010.
The government’s issuing of PUPs has been a cause for alarm, said Jonathan Gant, policy advisor for Global Witness, which, with the Sustainable Development Institute and the Save My Future Foundation, conducted a three-month investigation into PUPs and logging in Liberia.
Interviewed in Monrovia, Gant explained that, while logging contracts for public land incorporate specific regulations for a company’s conduct, PUPs, which are only awarded for private properties, carry few conditions.
“The standards that these logging concessions follow are very, very low, as far as environmental safeguards,” Gant said. “The money is also very, very low.” While logging concessions granted for public land will see the government of Liberia collect rental taxes – an expected $107m between 2008 and 2011, according to Global Witness – PUP holders do not pay such levies. Private landholders also receive very little in the way of financial compensation from these agreements. “Maybe $9 a log for a $600 log,” Gant added. “The real winners here are the companies.”
The Global Witness report states that the FDA has issued at least 66 PUPs in less than two years. After reviewing many of the contracts, and documents relating to 35 agreements, it appears that the majority of PUPs issued are based on deeds where the property owner is not an individual, but rather a community.
To understand why people would enter agreements that so heavily favour private companies – many of which are based outside of Liberia – reporters travelled to a remote area named Korninga Chiefdom and met with the individuals whose names appear on the PUP that cedes control of their land.
Tawalata is a small town in the heavily forested county of Gbarpolu. There, Korninga’s elders told a story similar to the anecdotal evidence collected by Global Witness from other PUPs across Liberia.
The community was promised the world. A September 2009 lease agreement later incorporated into the Korninga PUP guarantees a school, a clinic, scholarships and employment opportunities, $1,000 a month stipend for “senior citizens”, and roads and bridges “built up to standard” – priority number-one for every citizen interviewed.
But, according to the elders, meetings were convened under duress, with community leaders told they had one chance to sign for the social services promised. There was no time for documents to be taken to lawyers, or even translated from English to Kpelle, the first-language of Korninga residents.
“We were given 20 minutes to read the document,” said Obester Younga, principal of Tawalata Public School. “The FDA men came and said the time was over … The document was not fully read.”
Kaifa Manjo, paramount chief for Korninga, went further with claims of misconduct. He insisted that the mark beside his name on the PUP was forged. On the contract is a signature in block letters. Manjo’s identification card is signed with a fingerprint, indicating that the man is illiterate.
“They have stolen his name,” the chief’s translator said. “He says it brings bad feelings to him.”
The report drafted by Global Witness describes at least six PUPs with irregularities akin to those found in Korninga Chiefdom. Detailed are similar claims of PUPs issued without landowners’ consent, forged documents, and a list of additional irregularities. According to residents, logging in Korninga began in January 2012. They complained that the only thing that has come with it is heavy equipment that has further damaged the region’s poor roads. FDA officials categorically denied Korninga leaders’ claims, and maintained that communities were benefiting from PUPs.
‘Lies and coercion’
At his office on the outskirts of Monrovia, Silas Siakor, executive director for the Sustainable Development Institute, discussed just how systemic alleged misconduct related to PUPs could be. “Communities have been lied to, they’ve been misled, they’ve been coerced into these agreements,” he said.
Siakor reviewed two maps of the country understood to be drafted by agencies of the government of Liberia. The first map outlines “available areas for forest management contracts” (FMCs) – complicated concession agreements that are only issued for public land. The second map shows “existing private use permit areas” (PUPs), which only deal with private land. Significant sections demarcated for logging on the two maps overlap each other, suggesting that public land is being made available as private land.
Siakor suggested that officials within the FDA are using PUPs as “a lucrative means of allocating logging rights”. He explained that an FMC requires a company to go through a long and elaborate process before it can receive permission to export timber from Liberia. Alternatively, a PUP can be obtained through the FDA as a “one-stop shop”.
“That is why, I think, if you lay the maps over one another, areas that should have been given as FMCs…were given as PUPs,” Siakor said. “Because it’s easier and the therefore the potential for rent seeking is very, very high.”
Asked about these two maps, FDA officials argued that the map for FMCs shows areas “proposed to wait for further verification”, and land that is not necessarily public at all.
At the bottom of every one of more than two dozen PUPs reviewed are the signatures of two government officials – Moses Wogbeh, managing director for the FDA, and Florence Chenoweth, chairman of the board for the FDA and Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture.
At an interview at the FDA’s headquarters in Monrovia, Wogbeh argued that it is “not a strange thing” for so much of the country to fall under the jurisdiction of PUPs. He maintained that private property owners have produced proper deeds for that land, and are therefore entitled to enter into contracts with logging companies.
Wogbeh said that his office had been under pressure to create jobs, and so it may have awarded some contracts without a “definite verification analysis”. But he refuted suggestions that any laws had been broken by members of the FDA.
“Since the board’s [February 2012] moratorium, no PUP has been issued,” Wogbeh said. “We categorically deny all of this.”
Wogbeh has since been suspended from his position as managing director of the FDA. Officials with the Ministry of Agriculture did not make Chenoweth available for an interview.
Authorised to speak on behalf of the president of Liberia, Minister of Information Lewis Brown described the situation as “mindboggling”.
“We were shocked by this news,” he said. “Communities are not benefiting, the government is not getting the taxes that are required, and more than that, these guys [logging companies] are spreading out into the countryside and engaging in massive deforestation.”
Brown emphasised that the president’s office is acting “to deal with this matter decisively”.
“Everything is on the table,” he said.
On August 31, President Johnson-Sirleaf personally appointed a panel to examine how PUPs have been issued. Brown confirmed that criminal investigations could follow, and, if specific PUPs are found to be unlawful, those contracts will be terminated.
Global Witness’ Jonathan Gant noted that the president’s investigation will only be the first step in a long process. Authorities must improve legislation governing the forestry sector in Liberia and address individual PUPs that are found to be awarded illegally, he concluded:
“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.”
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