World Rainforest Movement

Logging in Liberia: reform process or business as usual?

Liberia has just emerged from a civil crisis. The sanction on the exportations of Liberian Timber was lifted in 2006 by the United Nations Security Council UNSC. The timber industry, which provided substantial revenue for government, is closed pending the completion of a forestry reform process.

But unemployment is at an alarming rate. There is an increased demand for timber on the international market and the interest of commercial logging companies is clearly seen on the table; all these presently stand as factors to undermine the on-going forestry reform process if the government does not complete this process. If the reform process is not carried through to a logical conclusion, there is a high possibility of starting business as usual in the sector.

On July 31 2008, the NGO Coalition of Liberia (1) issued a press release accusing the government of Liberia of putting the reform process in jeopardy (2). The coalition expressed fear that the reform process is gradually failing because the FDA (Forest Department Authority) is flagrantly violating the reform law and lowering the standards by which logging companies are to be evaluated. For example, most of the companies that bided for new Forest Management Contracts, some totaling up to 120,000 hectares, lack both financial and technical capacity to implement those contracts. None of them has prior logging experience and none meets the minimum requirement for capital investment.

The granting of two Timber Sales Contracts and one Forest Management Contract on privately deeded land belonging to communities in Gbarpolu County (3) does not only violate the law but it is a very strong recipe for conflict between the state and the people on one hand, and the people and the logging companies on the other hand when logging starts. In a resolution presented to the county leadership in mid July, those communities said they would resist any attempt to log on their land without their consent and approval. The refusal of the FDA to provide information to the communities, which they requested since May this year, goes against the spirit and intent of the reformed forestry law which provides for public access to information from the FDA; the fact that their request for information focused on the circumstances surrounding the identification of their land for these contracts makes it even more suspect.

Additionally, the failure of the Government of Liberia to establish a debarment list of the 17 companies barred from entering the sector and failure of the FDA to respond to questions raised by the public surrounding the undervaluing and miscalculation of the volume of abandoned logs sold to Unitimber, a Lebanese owned logging company, all point to a failing system.

There is growing fear in many quarters that the forestry sector is gradually sliding back into the old ways of doing business. Some observers and experts say if these issues are not properly addressed before logging starts there is no doubt that the rule of law would be seriously compromised and the sector would once again descend into anarchy. Also there are high possibilities for logging companies who plundered the logging industry to return to the sector.

This is bad news if the Government of Liberia is determined to reopen the sector by October 2008, regardless of the challenges facing the sector. Local communities will once again be put at risk and logging barons will be laughing all the way to European and Chinese markets with Liberian timber.

“Liberia hosts the last two significant blocks of the remaining closed canopy tropical rainforest within the Upper Guinea Forests of West Africa; this is largely due to the fact that Liberia’s forest and natural resource especially timber was sustainably managed before the Liberian civil crisis. The Upper guinea Forests has now shrunk to an estimated 12.7% of its original size –estimated to be 727,900 square-kilometers. Almost 42% of this remaining forest is in Liberia.

Although other factors contribute to the problem of deforestation in Liberia, logging companies have remained the single most destructive force and were responsible for the larger percentage of deforestation. For example, from 1997 to 2001, log production increased by more than a staggering 1,300%.

Unsurprisingly, this had an enormous impact on indigenous rural communities and local people who depend on the land and the forest for their livelihood. Their cultural and spiritual practices are so dependent on the forest that, with the rapid loss of forest, the survival and growth of these communities was severely endangered.

The livelihood of rural people, the overwhelming percentage of Liberians, is inextricably linked to the forest. They depend on the land and the forest for food, clean water, medicine and other forest products for survival. Their relationship with the forest is the cornerstone for their cultural and spiritual practices. For instance, in the Poro and Sande societies, traditional bush schools can only be conducted in very isolated highly-forested areas, where hunting and survival skills are taught. Traditional legal institutions, especially those involving elders and Zoes (elders who make up the supreme decision making body in rural communities) usually sit in the deep forest to hear cases of grave significance to the people. Because the forest is so central to their lives, the destruction of the forest will ultimately have severe consequences for future generations.

The Oriental Timber Company was symbolic of what has been wrong with the Liberian logging industry. From Grand Bassa through Rivercess to Sinoe County, the company spearheaded the destruction of the forest.

This fragmentation of the forest significantly contributed to the massive displacement of wildlife while rendering them vulnerable to hunting. Contrary to what the logging companies explain is development, roads constructed by them were primarily to facilitate harvesting and delivery of logs. Several dozen logging roads, of absolutely no value to local people when the company moved out, severely fragmented the forest.

The most noticeable social impact on local communities where logging companies set up bush-camps was the introduction of prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gangsterism. Most teenage girls involved in prostitution only returned to their homes when they realized that they were pregnant.” (text excerpted from “Plunder, the silent destruction of Liberian rainforest” SAMFU, http://www.samfu.org/do%20files/samfu_plunder_report_sept_2002.pdf)

When the mining sector was shut down the logging industry was one of the highest foreign exchange earners for the Government of Liberia. However, rural people who are the traditional custodians of the forest did not benefit from revenue generated by the industry.

At the end of the Liberian crisis, local and international stakeholders recommended a reform of the forestry sector. The Government of Liberia accepted and initiated a reform process. A Forestry Concession Review Committee (FCRC) was established in 2004.

The FCRC conducted a comprehensive review of the sector and in its report of May 2005 confirmed the collapse of the rule of law in the sector during the years of the crisis; a situation widely reported by national and international NGOs during the war but ignored until 2003. The report further revealed that approximately U$64 million dollars in tax arrears remain uncollected and detailed how Charles Taylor and his cronies joined forces to loot Liberia. The committee recommended the cancellation of all forest concessions and the debarment of 17 companies including the Oriental Timber Company and their significant individuals (4) who were proven to have aided and abetted the civil crisis in Liberia.

In 2006, the Government of Liberia accepted the recommendation and cancelled all concessions in the forestry sector. But two years on, the Government continue to resist calls for the establishment of the list of debarred individuals and companies; once again putting political expediency over the rule of law.

By Robert L. Nyahn, Forest & Human Rights Program Office of SAMFU Foundation, e-mail: samfu1@yahoo.com, r.nyahn@samfu.org

[1] The NGOs Coalition for Liberia is an informal network of organizations working to promote sustainable management of natural resources in Liberia. The Coalition comprises of fifteen (15) organizations working on a range of issues relating to natural resource management and conservation.

[2] See Reform in Jeopardy: reflection on the forest sector process in Liberia on http://www.loggingoff.info

[3] The communities present their land deed to the FDA upon request of the FDA prior to the granting of the concessions

[4] Significant individuals refer to Board members, shareholders and senior officials of the company.