Liberia's failed logging promises

Image source, Global Witness
Image caption,
Some Liberian communities say logging companies are taking resources, but not putting anything back in

More than 60% of Liberia's virgin rainforest has been granted to logging companies since Nobel Prize winning President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, came to power in 2006, according to a Global Witness report. It says the majority of these have been unregulated private contracts. Tamasin Ford reports from Liberia.

A mud road, churned into thick, gloopy soup from the heavy rains, sweeps through Henry Town in Gbarpolu county in the east of Liberia.

It is less than 150km (90 miles) from the capital, Monrovia, but without a single tar road in the county it can take up to 10 hours to reach here in the rainy season.

Old cars and rickety trucks quickly get swallowed up by the metre-high sludge, requiring hours of lifting and digging before other vehicles can pass.

Morris Kamara and his wife, Old Lady, sit on the porch of their small shop in the centre of town. An array of brightly coloured plastic containers hangs from the tin roof.

"This is my shop. As you can see I sell provisions, rubber dishes, mattresses and other things," he said proudly.

Mr Kamara went on to explain how the price of goods is expensive because of the bad roads, adding that this was one of the reasons they had wanted a logging company to operate in the region.

"Logging will bring about some development. They will help to improve the road conditions... I think it's very important for logging to be going on here," he said.

Broken promises?

The chiefdom of Korninga, where Henry Town is located, signed a social agreement with a logging company in 2009 which promised a road, a clinic, a school, land rent and even monthly salaries for the elderly.

The agreements are part of the requirements for firms to be granted a Private Use Permit (PUP).

Image source, TRAVIS LUPIK
Image caption,
The residents of Korninga hoped logging firms would bring economic and social benefits

PUPs, which now cover 40% of Liberia's best forests according to a report by the Global Witness campaign group, were designed to allow private landowners to cut trees on their property.

Activists say that instead they are being used by companies to avoid the new, stricter forest regulation brought in when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power in 2006.

The Korninga community had signed a social agreement with BODECO, one of 66 logging companies now operating in Liberia.

Two years later, the company was given a PUP logging contract by the government for more than 90,000 hectares of land. To date, the community says they have not received anything.

"I haven't seen anything like benefit from the logging company since they come here. Nothing," said Mr Kamara.

The logging company denied allegations it had not honoured the social agreement, claiming it will start grading the road once the dry season starts. As for the other promises, it said there was confusion over setting up a bank account, preventing them from processing the money.

Twenty minutes from the Kamaras' business, chiefs and elders from the Korninga chiefdom gathered in the back of a shop in Tawalata Town.

Squeezed onto wooden benches and shouting over the sound of the rain, they were angry. Some said their signatures were forged, others said they never saw the contract.

Kaifa Manjo, the main chief, wanted the government to step in. "They must not just take it [the logs] away along with our rights. Our children tomorrow, our great-grandchildren, we do not want them to suffer like we doing now," he said.

'Breakdown of law'

Timber was used to finance arms sales during Liberia's long and bloody civil war, which ended in 2003. But the West African nation still has some of the largest areas of rainforest in the region; one of the remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world packed with rare species like the pygmy hippo.

President Sirleaf was praised for revoking the corrupt and badly managed logging contracts when she arrived in office in 2006 and drafted new forestry laws.

But the PUP, the same licence that was issued for the Korninga chiefdom, was also introduced.

In the last two years, PUPs have come to make up the majority of logging agreements in Liberia, amounting to nearly a quarter of the country's total land mass.

Unlike other logging permits, there is very little regulation of PUPs.

"It does mark an extraordinary breakdown of law in Liberia's logging sector, a sector which has received an awful lot of support since the war both from President Johnson Sirleaf and from the US, the EU and other international partners," said Jonathan Gant, a policy adviser at Global Witness.

"With that breakdown in the rule of law over the last couple of years all of that goes to waste."

In February, an order was issued suspending operations on all but four PUPs. Six months later, the number of PUPs had increased to 66.

Women go on strike

Image source, Global Witness
Image caption,
The Liberian government fears the country's rainforests - the biggest in the region - are being damaged

Each contract contains the signature of the Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority, Moses Wogbeh, who insisted he had nothing to hide.

"It's not a breakdown in the law," Mr Wogbeh said.

"Everything that has been done has been done in keeping with the law. We have all the supporting documents. We go by the law."

He also denied new PUPs were issued after the moratorium in February.

Mr Wogbeh was suspended on Friday by order of the president herself and a full investigation into the entire PUP affair has been launched.

Information Minister Lewis Brown spoke to the BBC on behalf of Ms Sirleaf and said the president's office had been shocked by the allegations.

"We don't want to even imagine that government officials and authorities assigned specific duties would undertake to do something else. It is frankly mindboggling," he said.

He explained that PUPs were designed for non-commercial purposes; farmers with small areas of land, not 90,000 hectares like the Korninga contract.

"What we're finding out sadly is that the community is not benefiting, the government is not getting the taxes it requires.

"But more that that the guys are spreading out into the countryside and engage in massive deforestation and this was never the intention. It is a good intention gone bad," Mr Brown said.

Back in Gbarpolu county, Morris Kamara's wife, Old Lady Kamara, sitting behind huge bowls of rice and pepper, said the women of Henry Town had already decided what to do once the logging company resumes in the dry season.

"When the logging company come this time around we will strike. The women will strike. They will not pass here," she said angrily.

"Yes we will block the road - they will not pass. We have already planned this because the women are suffering here."

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