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Liberia loggers felling trees outside concession as government stands by

  • A new report shows a case of illegal harvest of timber in Liberia has gone unpunished for more than two years.
  • 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.
  • Civil society groups are calling 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 say the case in Grand Bassa is emblematic of a widespread problem: “If you launch investigations into different community forests, the findings would be more illegalities.”

MONROVIA, Liberia — Civil society groups say logging companies are exploiting weak monitoring and enforcement of Liberia’s forestry laws. A new briefing highlights the illegal harvest of as much as 14,000 cubic meters (494,000 cubic feet) of timber in Grand Bassa county; 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.

In July 2020, investigators from the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM), a group of seven Liberian civil society organizations to which SDI belongs, found stocks of logs marked “TTC/RGI” and “FGL,” 6 kilometers (4 miles) south of a concession area known as TSC-A2. 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 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.

FDA barcode on logs found outside the TSC-A2 concession: in 2019, an independent auditor warned that timber felling here was largely uncontrolled. Image courtesy of Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM).

IFMCM’s investigation confirmed an earlier finding French sustainable development consultancy SOFRECO, which alerted the Liberian government to potential illegal logging in Grand Bassa in November 2019. SOFRECO was part of a consortium hired to improve management and verification of legal timber sales as part of the Liberia-EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement.

At the time, SOFRECO reported that timber felling associated with TSC-A2 was “largely uncontrolled.” The auditor warned the FDA and the Ministry of Justice that 14,000 m3 of timber ostensibly from the concession was effectively untraceable: stumps and logs in and around TSC-A2 were labeled improperly or not at all, and there was no evidence of FDA inspections on the ground. Despite clear signs that timber records for the concession in the LiberTrace database were inaccurate, permits allowing the sale and export of 9,000 m3 (318,000 ft3) had been approved.

SOFRECO recommended seizure of all logs from TSC-A2 along with records and computers belonging to the companies operating there and a formal investigation.

Two years later, the IFMCM investigators’ briefing says no action has been taken. In June 2020, the FDA did ask the Ministry of Justice to investigate, and in October that year the IMFCM submitted a detailed report of its July fact-finding mission to Grand Bassa to the ministry.

Nothing further has been heard about that investigation. The Ministry of Justice did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment. The FDA said it would respond, but had not replied as of the time of publication.

Courtesy Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM)

Repeat offenders

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 Liberian timber after 14 years of civil war. A 2009 United Nations Panel of Experts report found the company had harvested timber valued at $100,000 from outside its concession area; it was fined just $2,000.

In 2018, the FDA fined TTC subcontractor RGI $5,000 for logging outside the concession — an amount later raised to $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.

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 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.

Some of the logs harvested outside the TSC-A2 concession. Image courtesy of Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM).

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Institute uncovered large quantities of logs harvested along roads in AREA, but labeled as though they had come from a nearby concession in the Blouquia Community Forest. SDI reported this to the FDA, which admitted both that there was no legal basis for this commercial-scale logging, and that it had granted permission for this logging under a provision for “road alignment” — felling timber to open logging roads. Logging companies appear to be exploiting this provision to harvest wood in excess of forest management plans, including outside concessions. The agency said it would allow the practice to continue while it addressed the gap in the regulations.

Six years later, the FDA has failed to close the gap. In 2017, another IFMCM member organization, Volunteers for Sustainable Development in Africa (VOSIEDA), documented similar irregularities outside the Numopoh Community Forest. And now SOFRECO and the IFMCM have again uncovered further illegal logging in Grand Bassa.

 

IFMCM is calling for tougher penalties against culprits, pointing out that it appears companies are happy to risk modest fines against greater profits from illegal logging. They called for TTC, RGI and FGL’s permits to be revoked.

The group also called for officials found to be colluding with irregularities around TSC-A2 to face prosecution.

The IFMCM says fines have not deterred companies from illegal logging. “The fines do not appear to have hindered the operations at all, evidenced by the companies’ continuing to extract logs in the area,” the report said. “The FDA must … prosecute any employee of the FDA named in the official investigation who has facilitated or abetted irregular extraction of logs in the name of TSC A2. The FDA must, if the official investigation advises, revoke the permit licenses of the three companies mentioned in this brief and others carrying out illegal logging in Liberia.”

“It is disappointing to see logging companies that continue to exploit Liberia’s forests and the forest communities go unpunished,” said Abraham Bility, who has also documented illegal logging with IFMCM member Volunteers for Sustainable Development in Africa (VOSIEDA). “If you launch investigations into different community forests, the findings would be more illegalities.”


Banner image: Forest governance campaigner Roland Harris records data on a mobile device. Image courtesy of the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM).

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