International NGOs have raised concern that Liberia’s forest governance has gone down the rabbit hole as a company that has illegally logged a sought-after timber species has successfully sued in Liberian courts to be allowed to export their valuable, but no-less ill-gotten timber. To make things worse, the forest authorities enforcing forest rules were arrested and fined. Local communities are protesting that their rights have been disregarded, and NGOs are warning international donors and private traders that they should be alarmed.
The story began in 2018-19 when Renaissance Group Incorporated (RGI) harvested 14,000 cubic meters of Ekki timber, worth an estimated US$ 3.9 million (at today’s prices) six kilometres outside a concession, with a ‘permit’ that had expired years previously. The parties seemingly do not dispute the illegal nature of the harvest; Liberia’s Ministry of Justice investigated and confirmed its illegality (but has not made its report available). Some 9,000 m3 of the haul, worth nearly US$ 2.5 million, had been exported by 2019.
The Forest Development Authority (FDA), responsible for verifying and enforcing Liberia’s forest laws, is haunted by its own mistake: on discovering the violations, it should have ordered a genuinely deterrent fine, confiscated the logs and engaged judicial proceedings against those responsible. Instead, the FDA fined RGI only US$ 105,000.
Undeterred, RGI went to court in March 2021, arguing that, since they had paid the fine, they should be allowed to sell the rest of the harvest – and some new timber, cut at around that time or since.
Shockingly, the lower court ruled in the company’s favour and ordered the FDA to sign export permits – a decision later confirmed by Liberia’s Supreme Court.
The FDA refused. On 12 January 2023 the Circuit Court in Grand Bassa County, enforcing the final judgment of the Supreme Court, ordered the arrests of five of the FDA’s top officials, including their lawyer, for contempt of court. On 16 January, the Buchanan Circuit Court gave the FDA 10 days to issue export permits, and fined each of the forest officials.
Far from dissuading illegal logging, the ruling can be expected to have a chilling effect on forest authorities attempting to carry out their duties.
Local community members protested throughout that the company also failed to honour its signed commitments toward them; they called on the authorities to insist that the agreements be met in full prior to allowing export.
Liberia’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU requires Liberia’s timber to be put into its Legality Assurance System (LiberTrace) to verify that only legal timber is exported; the EU’s EU Timber Regulation (soon to be replaced by the EU’s Deforestation-free products regulation) means that only legal timber can be placed on the EU market. It is therefore impossible for this timber to be accepted by the EU. The United States’ Lacey Act makes it similarly impossible to be sold there.
The valuable illegal timber will undoubtedly, however, find buyers elsewhere. The Supreme Court did not make a decision on the substance of the case, and much remains unclear. What is certain, however, is that the case illustrates that a powerful buyer can fold a small administrative fine into the cost of doing business and carry on with impunity.
President George Weah has asked the international community for money to protect Liberia’s forests. International and Liberian NGOs call on donors to demand that President Weah tackle illegal logging seriously. Until good forest governance, and respect for communities’ rights can be secured as required by law, international donors must use extreme caution in deciding what to fund.
Categoría: Forest Watch