By Varney Dukuly
MONROVIA: The 9th meeting of the Joint Implementation Committee of Liberia–European Union Forest Voluntary Partnership Agreement, ended in Monrovia on Thursday, March 24, 2022, with a strong call for an independent and comprehensive investigation into alleged irregularities in Timber Sales Contract in several counties including Rivercess.
The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) which aims to improve forest governance brought together representatives of government’s line ministries and agencies and the Donor Community which included the United States government, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Kingdom (UK), among others.
Reading a Formal Resolution from the meeting, EU Ambassador to Liberia, Laurent Delahouse, called for a dedicated multi-stakeholders committee to deliver a technical proposal on how to integrate laws concerning community forestry into legality assurance system.
He said: “This proposal will now be reviewed by Liberia and the European Union (EU), with a view to further contributing to the legality and sustainability of community forestry.”
The EU-Ambassador recalled that last November, Liberia’s President, George Manneh Weah, and the President of the European Commission, Madame Von der Leyen, joined the leaders’ declaration on Forests and Land Use in Glasgow, Scotland, at the 26th meeting, under the UN Agreement on Combatting Climate Change.
According to him, the pair (President Weah and Madam Leyen) pledged to conserve forests and implement policies that would ensure their protection, restoration and sustainable use.
He stressed that in light of the two Independent reports, the long-term sustainability of the Liberian Forest sector was presented and discussed, concluding the need to identify a suitable forum to develop a clear pathway to a more integrated approach to the management of the forest sector.
“Under the VPA, Liberia has committed to developing a Timber Legality Assurance System so that, once ready, it can issue verified legal timber products with Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT),” he added.
This move, he mentioned, facilitates access to the EU market where they reach higher prices. A Liberia-EU joint implementation Committee (JIC) oversees the implementation of the VPA, and its outcomes are made public.
Prior to the latest 9th meeting of the Joint Implementation Committee of Liberia–EU Forest Voluntary Partnership Agreement, media and other reports were awash with multiple allegations of unlawful and/ or illicit harvesting of timber products in Liberia.
For instance, in July 2020, investigators from the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM), a group of seven Liberian civil society organizations, found stocks of logs marked “TTC/RGI” and “FGL,” 6 kilometers (4 miles) south of a concession area known as TSC-A2.
According to investigators, TTC refers to the Tarpeh Timber Company; RGI and FGL to logging companies subcontracted to harvest timber from TSC-A2, TTC’s concession in Grand Bassa.
The investigators indicated that the logs were also tagged with Forest Development Authority barcodes, indicating they had been entered into the chain of custody meant to ensure only legally harvested timber can be exported.
One report highlighted a case of illegal harvest of timber in Liberia which had gone unpunished for more than two years while a 2019 audit had found that 14,000 m3 (494,000 ft3) of timber ostensibly from the TSC-A2 concession in Grand Bassa county was effectively untraceable, yet permits for the sale and export of much of the timber were still approved.
At the time, the civil society groups called for tougher penalties against the companies involved, which they say appear to be happy risking modest fines against greater profits from illegal logging. They also said the case in Grand Bassa was emblematic of a widespread problem: “If you launch investigations into different community forests, the findings would be more illegalities.”
The civil society groups maintain that logging companies are exploiting weak monitoring and enforcement of Liberia’s forestry laws.
A new briefing highlighted the illegal harvest of as much as 14,000 cubic meters (494,000 cubic feet) of timber in Grand Bassa County.
According to the new briefing, despite knowing about the case for more than two years, the authorities have taken no action.
“The evidence points to weak forest governance and little appetite to prosecute violators and assure our international partners that Liberia is ready to improve its forest sector governance,” Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), one of the co-authors of the briefing, told Mongabay, an independent media outfit.
Mongabay further reported that the Tarpeh Timber Company has a long and troubled history of violations and a matching catalog of collusion by the FDA.
In 2006, TTC was the first company to have its products entered into the chain of custody following the lifting of United Nations sanctions on Liberia’s timber after 14 years of civil war.
A 2009 United Nations Panel of Experts report found the company had harvested timbers, valued at US$100,000 from outside its concession area; it was fined just US$2,000.
In 2018, the FDA fined TTC subcontractor RGI US$5,000 for logging outside the concession—an amount later raised to US$100,000, but still only a fraction of the total value of the timber illegally felled.
The next year, Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) halted logging operations in the concession as TTC did not have a valid environmental permit.
More than that, the Ministry of Justice placed a separate stay order on the concession in 2019, as RGI and FGL wrangled over ownership of assets, according to the IFMCM.
TSC-A2’s permit expired in 2012, but, like six other similar concessions, the FDA has allowed operators to continue logging there.
Mongabay, in its report indicated that it was unable to reach TTC, RGI or FGL for comments. Phone numbers went unanswered and no one was at their offices on the two occasions we visited.
Mongabay, a news agency, was founded as a nonprofit to ensure greater access to trustworthy information on our planet, Ear’s most pressing issues.
Liberia’s recent history in unlawful logging is still fresh because, during the regime of jailed former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, many ex-officials benefited from such violation of the law. Multiple international reports including the famous UK-based Global Witness indicated that former President Taylor sold Liberia’s forests to logging companies – shifting his sources of financing from blood diamonds to conflict timbers.
Among those who reportedly received logging concessions during this period was international arms dealer, Leonid Minin, who, at the time of his arrest in 2001, was planning large arms deal for Liberia.
The reports also disclosed that holding major Liberian timber concessions was a Dutch national, Gus Kouwenhoven, who ran the then notorious Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC), which was involved in importing arms into Liberia and developed infrastructure that was used to transport weapons to Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war during which an estimated 200,000 persons were killed, many maimed, while several thousand others were internally and externally displaced.
By 2003, the United Kingdom based Global Witness reported that nearly half of Liberia’s land was allocated as logging concessions and it was estimated that the industry accounted for over 20 percent of the country’s budget during the erstwhile regime of former President Charles Taylor.
Interestingly, Global Witness investigations estimated that in 2000 alone Liberia’s logging industry produced some US$108 million in revenues that did not enter the country’s formal budget.