The international environmental watch group, Global Witness, has disclosed that powerful Liberian politicians, who own logging companies here, are hiding their identities and profiting from contracts that cover huge swathes of forest.
A Global Witness document dated 14 February describes how all of Liberia’s large logging contracts are fundamentally illegal, having violated multiple laws, including a ban on politicians owning companies with logging contracts.
The report disclosed that some of those violations date back to nearly a decade when the contracts were issued. It urged Liberians to hold politicians and loggers, who are exploiting the country’s forest accountable for their action.
The document quotes GW boss Jonathan Gant as saying, logging companies operated by Liberian politicians, had not only lied and cheated, but also stolen from the people of Liberia and as such, must be made to account for their deeds.
GW revealed that during the Ebola epidemic here, so-called and unscrupulous politicians generated huge financial benefits from their operations, but reportedly failed to pay taxes.
The document added that in an effort to root out their corrupt deals, the Government of Liberia requires logging companies to declare their real or “beneficial” owners.
However, it noted that in 2015 when the government demanded this information, those companies allegedly involved, which are behind half of Liberia’s logging contracts, ignored the demand.
Global Witness maintained that five of the logging companies failed to provide the government with any information, while one filed incorrect data, hiding its actual owner, who is a powerful Liberian politician.
The report indicated that the logging companies have also failed to pay taxes and currently owe an immense US$25 million to the cash-strapped Liberian government, stressing that if said amount were paid, it would amount to nearly five percent of Liberia’s entire budget.
GW added that logging companies have manipulated their data on a massive scale, concealing data on how many trees are actually being fell, revealing that evidence shows that five large community forest licenses have been awarded illegally to logging companies even though the Government of Liberia permits are designed to help rural people manage their forests with companies encouraging people, who do not represent communities, to obtain licenses for large forests without first doing necessary mapping and socio-economic surveys.
Liberia is home to 40 percent of West Africa’s best remaining forest, the Upper Guinean Rainforest. During the civil war here, which ended in 2003, logging companies propped up the regime of ex-president Charles Taylor as well as trafficking arms.
Following the war, the country and its partners, including the European Union (EU), Norway, the United States, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative worked to reform the sector, which has resulted to better laws and increased government capacity in new logging licenses covering ten percent of the country.
“Liberia’s forest reform programs have been good for the country and should be supported,” said Gant. “But the Liberian government and international donors must also face up to the fact that big logging companies are corrupting Liberia in a way which threatens to unravel progress on the country’s hard-fought gains.”
Meanwhile, GW has recommended that for the country’s partners to confront illegal logging companies, the government must ensure that the European Union, which signed a treaty with Liberia, promoting trade in legal timber called a Voluntary Partnership Agreement should make it clear that it will not allow timber from Liberia’s current large contracts into Europe.
The report observes that Norway, which also signed a US$ 150 million deal with Liberia, promoting community forestry and conservation, should ensure the country investigates and cancels illegal contracts as promised in the deal.
The Liberian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which requires natural resource companies to declare their real, or “beneficial,” owners, should penalize companies that have failed to report or reported incorrect ownership information, the document urges.
GW says the Government of Liberia has denied that companies have manipulated data, though investigations conducted by the company tracking Liberian timber–SGS concluded that loggers were doing so. Editing by Jonathan Browne