Investigation flaws Liberian agency that protects the rainforest

Investigation flaws Liberian agency that protects the rainforest

An independent investigation into logging in the Liberian rainforest has found illegal operations “on a significant scale” to be multiple missteps or violations of the law by the government agency responsible for protecting those forests, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Associated Press.

The report was completed in 2020 but has never been published despite calls from activists to publish its findings, including a suggestion that President George Weah order a special inquiry into what happened.

Four sources familiar with the report said Weah, who was appointed head of the forestry agency, ignored repeated calls from the ambassadors of the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom to act in response to the report. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations without fear of prejudice.

In a telephone interview with the AP on Tuesday, Weah denied that he had been repeatedly informed of problems in overseeing the Liberian rainforest. But later in the interview, he appeared to acknowledge receiving a letter of concern from the EU and UK ambassadors and said he had organized a meeting on the issue.

“Whatever letter came, I organized a meeting,” he said.

Liberia is the most forested country in West Africa, with rainforests covering two-thirds of the small nation. It is home to endangered forest elephants, hippopotamus and western chimpanzees. Since 2000, about 22% of the nation’s tree cover has been lost to deforestation, mainly due to pressure from logging and small farms.

After a company called the Renaissance Group Inc. illegal logging of $3 million in tropical hardwood in Grand Bassa County in 2018, the Ministry of Justice of Liberia commissioned a forensic investigation by international experts. The audit included the role of Liberia’s forest agency, the Forestry Development Authority.

Investigators highlighted five illegalities by FDA, which is partially funded by the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. The “persistent tendency” of its management to “make illegal decisions when assessing the seriousness of the offences” was a “major failure”, according to the report.

Weah, a former professional soccer player, was appointed by FDA managing director Mike Doryen before he turned to politics. Under Doryen, the agency authorized the export of illegal timber, “apparently avoiding regulations,” the investigators found. Extensions of the concession — the right to use the land — were “arbitrary” and “illegal.” In one “highly irregular” transaction, a payment was made to an unusual FDA bank account, according to the report.

When fears arose of the environmental destruction, FDA fined Renaissance just $5,000, a “small fraction” of what the company earned through the illegal activity. Although that was increased to $105,000 after criticism from the Swiss monitor, the correct penalty under the 2006 law aimed at sustaining Liberia’s forests is a $1.85 million fine and possible prison sentences, investigators said. Even when the Renaissance acknowledged the illegal logging, Doryen approved more export permits, a “gross breach of duty”.

Doryen did not respond to AP requests for comment. But a written response from the FDA to the EU last November blamed problems on “past challenges,” claiming no illegal logging rights had been granted. The FDA has taken corrective action on several incidents of illegal logging, he said, and two FDA technical managers have been fired for complacency.

The report prompted the launch of a special presidential committee so FDA management could “explain their actions.” There is no evidence that such a committee was launched, and it was not on a list of presidential committees active in the past five years as of July. 2022. Weah and his press secretary, Smith Toby, refused to say whether one had been created since then.

Four official sources close to the situation told the AP that Liberia has brushed off diplomatic pressure for more than 18 months to address rainforest stewardship problems. In July 2021, the ambassadors of the EU and the United Kingdom wrote a letter to the Minister of Presidential Affairs of Liberia with demands including the prosecution of offenders working for the company or the government and a ban on Renaissance. A response was not received until March 2022 and these measures were not taken. The EU letter also called for the restoration of the rule of law in Liberia’s forestry sector.

The official sources said that the EU commissioner raised concerns personally with Weah last February at an African Union summit, and again in September at a meeting in Monrovia attended by several diplomats. In each case, Weah said he knew nothing about the investigation, the official sources said.

Weah told the AP that the claims made to him repeatedly about the concerns of donor countries were “nonsense”.

When asked why Doryen was still in charge of the FDA despite the report’s findings, he said, “If someone is guilty, the law has to take its course.”

In an interview, Laurent Delahousse, the EU ambassador to Liberia, refused to criticize Weah directly. But he said the EU wants assurances that illegal logging will stop, and that government bodies will operate according to the highest ethical and legal standards.

“It is a condition for us to be able to invest European taxpayers’ money in this sector,” said Delahousse.

Gemma Tillack, of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network, said by email that such illegal logging, and lax oversight, was “all too common” and “sadly” by governments.

More investment is needed to tackle such malpractice, which is driving the destruction of precious rainforests, she said.

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about the AP climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all matters.

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