Conservation news

Liberia’s community forestry becoming a front for deforestation: Report

The forest of Liberia. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

A community forest in River Cess County, Liberia, 2016. Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

  • A report released by Global Witness late last year alleges that Liberia’s forestry laws are being “hijacked” by logging companies.
  • These logging companies can potentially put vast areas of Liberia’s remaining rainforests at risk of large-scale deforestation.
  • There’s historical precedent for the concerns under the current law: in 2012, Liberia was rocked by a scandal over permits meant to enable private landowners to enter into logging agreements with outside parties.

When Liberia emerged from its civil war in 2003, one of the first major acts of its national legislature was to reform the laws that governed logging and forestry in the small West African country. Illicit logging had played a critical role in prolonging the bloody conflict, providing militia groups with a hard-to-trace commodity that could be easily exchanged for cash and arms on opaque international markets.

Advocates hoped that the new laws, widely considered to be among the most ambitious in Africa, represented a clean break from the country’s history of exploiting the resources of forest communities without giving them much in return.

One of the most progressive components of the reform was a law that allowed those communities to take the lead on managing large tracts of remote forests. It established steps by which a community could apply for and obtain a permit that would allow it to make decisions about one of those forest areas, including entering into direct agreements with logging companies if they chose.

But a report released by the international watchdog Global Witness late last year states that in practice, the law is being “hijacked” by logging companies, potentially placing giant swaths of Liberia’s remaining rainforests at risk of large-scale deforestation.

“A forestry initiative that puts nearly half the country securely in the hands of local communities should be a good news story,” said David Young, the report’s author. “But if it actually leads to these forests being handed over to rapacious logging companies then that’s a disaster for Liberians and a disaster for the climate globally.”

Under the law, communities seeking a “Community Forestry Management Agreement” have to go through nine steps to acquire their permit, including agreeing on the boundaries of their forest with neighboring towns, and establishing formal decision-making bodies. Those bodies are intended to be democratic and widely representative, and the law stipulates that any agreement made with a company prior to the conclusion of the application process is illegal.

But according to the report, a moratorium on large-scale logging concessions — which require timber companies to undertake costly and laborious negotiations with the national government — has prompted those companies to target community forests as a backdoor to lucrative commercial exploitation.

Secrets and scandal

The report states that Liberia currently has 133 pending community forest applications, which would cover a total of 43,000 square kilometers (16,600 square miles), or 45 percent of Liberia’s total land mass. It alleges that many of these applications are being secretly driven by logging companies, subverting the law’s intent to provide communities with options that include conservation and the development of other forest-based enterprises.

This follows a 2016 Mongabay investigation that revealed how one community applying for a permit had entered into an illegal agreement with a logging company owned by the wife of a high-profile Liberian politician who once served as the interim president of the country. Advocates say that much of the blame for the breakdown falls on the Liberian government, which they accuse of looking the other way while the application process is subverted by wealthy investors.

“To a large degree, the central government and [Forestry Development Authority] should be held responsible,” said Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute. “They haven’t played the role they should.”

A village that manages community forest in Liberia. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo.

In 2012, Liberia was rocked by a scandal involving so-called private use permits, which were intended to enable private landowners to enter into logging agreements with outside parties.

The scandal was set off by an investigation by Global Witness and a group of local watchdog organizations. It revealed that many of these permits involved forged deeds and malfeasance by senior government officials, including the then-director of the agency responsible for forestry affairs, who received a five-year prison sentence. Critics of the community forestry rollout say that the problems highlighted in the recent Global Witness report are reminiscent of that earlier scandal.

“The report is saying that we need to act collectively before another disaster happens,” Young said.

Role of advocates

Communities that obtain a permit have the legal authority to sign an agreement with logging companies for commercial harvesting. This was considered to be one of the major benefits of the law, in theory allowing those communities to receive a far higher share of logging revenues than in other models.

But advocates say that, in practice, communities haven’t received anywhere near the financial and technical support they need to navigate the application process and resist the temptations of loggers with deep pockets. Demarcating the boundaries of a community forest can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a nearly unobtainable sum for most Liberian communities, opening the door for middlemen working with those loggers to front the money in exchange for an agreement that once the permit is issued they’ll be immediately given the right to harvest trees from the forest.

A forest in Liberia. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo.

The law also requires communities to elect management bodies that take the lead on drawing up plans for the forest, with the input of the broader group. But there is little preventing those groups from being pressured by powerful local elites or abusing their power. Liberia was recently named the poorest country on Earth, and the pressure to accept improper payments before permits are issued can be significant.

Advocates who were involved in the passage of the original law say the lack of training and support for community members elected to serve in these bodies is leading to a predictable breakdown of the system.

“We were advocating for a phased approach to focus on building capacity in community governance and then further down the road to commercialization, and the [Forestry Development Authority] wanted it the other way around,” said Silas Siakor, a noted Liberian community rights advocate. “They said we need to work with the community to move toward commercialization because that’s what our ultimate goal is.”

The wrong order?

Critics of how community forestry is being implemented in Liberia say the problem is essentially one of sequencing.

Providing financial support, better training and more oversight of communities during the application process would enable them to weigh the benefits of logging against more sustainable alternatives that could also bring a financial reward, including conservation and ecotourism.

The stakes are high: Liberia is home to 40 percent of West Africa’s remaining rainforest, and in 2014 the Norwegian government agreed to provide the country with as much as $150 million to promote climate-friendly alternatives to logging. Community forestry figured heavily into that agreement, but the Global Witness report indicates that in practice it may lead to accelerated deforestation instead.

“It’s almost a sort of philosophical point,” Young said. “Do you think community forestry is about empowering communities, in which case you move at the pace they can move at, emphasizing rights and responsibilities from the outset?

“Or do you think it’s the current most attractive administrative procedure for allocating timber to logging companies?” he added.

That alternative, according to Young, is a system that exists mainly to make life easier for investors: “In which case the permit system becomes a tick box exercise.”