Global Witness calls on Liberian government to enforce laws barring civil war-era loggers from timber sector, claims inaction is encouraging 'predatory' logging companies to abuse logging permit system, gain access to rainforest

Wendy Lisney

Wendy Lisney

Jun 7, 2013 – Global Witness

LONDON , June 7, 2013 (press release) – The Liberian government’s failure to enforce its forest laws is encouraging logging companies to find new ways to bypass rules to gain access to the country’s rainforests and exploit local communities, according to a new report from Global Witness. Those involved include loggers who reportedly worked with the Oriental Timber Company, which trafficked arms, committed human rights abuses and felled large swathes of forest during Liberia’s brutal civil war. Individuals are supposed to be barred from the timber sector under Liberian law if they aided or abetted conflict.

In December 2012, a government investigation reported that a quarter of Liberia and 40 percent of its forests were covered by illegal logging licenses called Private Use Permits (PUP) (1). Intended for use by individual landowners, PUPs had been targeted by industrial logging companies to get round social and environmental safeguards, with fraud and exploitation of forest communities widespread. In response to the findings, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf swiftly halted operations by PUP companies and committed to sanction those responsible. (2) The government says that it is working to fulfill the President’s commitments, but six months later no PUPs have been cancelled and no criminal charges have been filed.

“The government’s own investigation has shown that Liberia’s forests are in crisis – the use of illegal permits and exploitation of communities by logging companies is rife,” said Jonathan Gant, a Policy Advisor with Global Witness. “But government response has been weak and the problem is getting worse, not better. The government must punish those responsible for abusing the permit system, otherwise predatory logging companies will feel emboldened to find new ways to get round the laws and into the forests.”

Meanwhile, Global Witness has received reports which if true would suggest that Liberia is not enforcing laws barring loggers who operated during Liberia’s natural resource-fuelled civil war. (3) Two current logging companies that hold PUPs and other logging licenses have senior staffers with the same names as people who worked for the Oriental Timber Company while the company was trafficking arms during the war. When asked to comment, one of these companies adamantly denied wartime involvement of the staff in question.

“There can be no starker warning about how bad this crisis is than the return of wartime loggers to Liberia’s forest sector,” said Gant. “The Liberian government has laws designed to ensure that those responsible for Liberia’s conflict timber trade are kept out of the timber sector. It should investigate all current logging companies to make sure these laws are being followed.”

This failure of the Liberian government to enforce its laws is encouraging logging companies, some of which are now trying to abuse another type of logging permit. When the government halted logging under PUPs in August, companies immediately began submitting large numbers of applications for Community Forest Management Agreements (CFMA). However, CFMAs are intended to allow communities to manage forests themselves, and it is illegal for anyone other than communities to submit CFMA applications. Once again, companies are targeting small scale permits and exploiting communities to get access to the forests.

This abuse of CFMAs is also damaging efforts to promote genuine community forestry in Liberia. International donor partners like USAID have spent considerable time and money supporting communities in preparing a number of legitimate CFMAs in Liberia, work that shows how community forestry done right could be the future. This work is jeopardized by the attempts of logging companies to flout Liberian law by pursing CFMAs.

“The Liberian government has stated that it is not currently approving CFMA applications, which we welcome,” said Gant. “But this new rash of applications suggests companies know that they just need to bide their time to find a new loophole to get into the forests. The best way for the Liberian government to dispel that idea is to crack down on those behind the abuse of Private Use Permits and keep timber barons from the war out of the sector, as its own laws demand.”

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