Samling Global and Atlantic Resources Limited ignore Presidential decree, continue illegal logging, and fail to pay fees owed to forest communities
Once logged forests can never be returned, and yet logging companies in Liberia are stealing forests with impunity, ignoring presidential decrees, and have not even paid the miniscule compensation they owe to forest communities. The forestry law of 2006 allocated 30 per cent of land-based revenue collected by the government to communities where timber is harvested, but none have received their share since logging started in 2009. International companies continue to ignore the law and log with impunity, even under illegal licenses. Despite Atlantic Resources being caught illegally logging in 2012, and a presidential decree being issued to eject them, their criminal behaviour continues with impunity. Sadly, as Liberians celebrate a decade of peace after Taylor, forest communities have little else to celebrate, as their natural capital is destroyed all around them.
A HISTORY OF BROKEN PROMISES
In July 2013, representatives of logging affected communities presented a petition to the Liberian legislature urging them to compel the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Liberia to disburse their 30 per cent of logging revenue.
‘The Ministry of Finance has refused to transfer our 30 per cent of the land rental fees. Since logging started we have been pursuing the government for our 30 per cent with no success says William Page, a representative of the community where the first timber was harvested after sanctions in 2009.
With more than 1 million hectares of forest now under logging concessions, (a staggering one quarter of all of Liberia’s forest) more communities have been demanding their share of logging revenue.
Promises of jobs, roads and primary schools keep the peace, but the stories they now tell are strikingly similar to the stories about logging during the Taylor days, except that there are no militia roaming around intimidating villagers.
Now in her ninth year as president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Harvard trained economist and career advocate for good governance is failing on many fronts, her critics insist. Her attempt to tackle illegal logging, for example, seems to be failing and loggers are doing as they please.
FAILURE TO IMPLEMENT FORESTRY REFORMS HURTING THE POOR
‘Failures to control forest-use under the rule of law led to destruction of forests’ was the opening line of the 2007 forestry regulation setting standards for prequalifying logging companies to operate in the country. The regulation then requires logging companies to demonstrate that they ‘possess integrity of character and respect for law’ before they can do logging.
The regulation was one of ten developed as part of a donor funded multimillion dollar forest sector reform program. But, Liberian officials ignored the regulation and allowed notorious Malaysian logging company, Samling Global, to enter the logging industry through the back door local subsidiaries; Atlantic Resources Limited and Alpha Logging Company.
By 2009 Atlantic Resources Limited and Alpha Logging, both linked to Samling Global, had acquired 238,584 hectares of logging concessions. A World Bank funded due diligence found that Samling Global had committed to funding Atlantic’s operation for up to US $60 million.
When Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) warned that Samling Global’s involvement in these companies was bad news for Liberia, the government brushed the concerns aside and awarded the contracts.
A year later, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund divested from Samling Global after it concluded that ‘the company’s forest operations in the rainforest of Sarawak and Guyana contribute to illegal logging and severe environmental damage’ - exactly the type of companies the 2007 regulation was intended to disqualify from logging in Liberia.
In 2012, Atlantic Resources was booked for illegally logging vast tracts of forest under illegal logging permits. The company and affiliates had acquired 31 illegal permits covering more than one million hectares or a quarter of Liberia’s forest.
A special presidential committee set up to investigate the situation found that Atlantic Resources had engaged in widespread abuse of the forestry law and regulations. The committee recommended that the company ‘be permanently barred from engaging in commercial forestry activities’ for engaging in fraud and various forms of illegal activities in the sector.
The committee also recommended that Atlantic’s executives John Gbesie, Augustus Abram and Ben Kofie be barred from the Liberian logging industry.
President Sirleaf responding to the ‘massive fraud, misrepresentations, abuses and violations’ of the forestry law, and issued a decree ordering Atlantic Resources and others to cease operation. She also declared that the timber harvested under the illegal permits would be seized, sold and the proceeds returned to the communities from where the timber had been harvested.
Atlantic Resources continued logging and none of the timber that they had harvested under the illegal permits had been seized.
PREYING ON THE WEAK
Dugbeh district, in Sinoe county shares boundaries with Bolloh district in Grand Kru county. There is one elementary school under construction in Karquekpo, the Dugbeh district headquarter but none in Bolloh. The people in both districts speak the same dialect and the forests there had not been logged before, that is, until Atlantic Resources accompanied by forestry officials arrived in 2011. Months later the forestry authority issued two Private Use Permits or PUPs to the two communities covering 77,658 hectares of forest.
According to community leaders in the region, the company promised to build roads connecting three towns to the main highway, construct schools and clinics, and pay US $3 per cubic meter of timber harvested from the forest.
According to a memorandum of understanding with the University of Liberia to extract logs along a 30 km road it was constructing through the university’s forest, Atlantic Resources had agreed to pay 12 per cent of the value of the logs extracted to the University. The company agreed to make an advance payment of U$500,000.
I made the 744 km journey to the region to investigate whether the company had fulfilled its promises to the communities and whether it had complied with the presidential order. Locals reported that the company had not paid the agreed fees, and had not constructed the roads, schools and clinics they promised. The company made just under US$10 million from the deal.
Forestry authority records show that between June and November 2012 Atlantic harvested 34,461 and 14,263 cubic meters of logs from Dugbeh and Bolloh districts respectively. But records from Societe Generale du Surveillance, the company managing logging data in Liberia, suggests the figure was even higher. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the company received its permit to begin logging in March 2012.
At the official price used to assess taxes, the 48,724 cubic meters of logs harvested from the two communities may have been sold for an estimated US $9.5 million. On the international market the company may have earned twice as much. Of this amount the two communities were entitled to only US $145,719, or less thanone1 per cent of the probably international price realized, but even that has not been paid in full. The Bolloh community bank book shows a single entry of US $2,000 on September 21, 2013 and the chairperson for Dugbeh claimed they had only received just over US$ 20,000, about 0.1 per cent of the probable international price.
‘These people are very stubborn. Since they took our logs, they have only paid US $2,000 of our cubic meter fees’ a spokesperson for Bolloh community forestry committee told me in Monrovia. ‘Since I have been here, for more than two weeks I have been going to their office but they keep saying go and come back tomorrow’.
In total, companies exported 123,229 cubic meters of timber logged under these illegal permits in 2012 alone. At the average value of US$190 per cubic meter for Liberian timber at the port of exit, this generated more than US$23 million for logging companies. Considering the miniscule amounts paid to communities that owned the forest, the concessions may as well be called a license to steal.
None of the schools, clinics or roads the company promised have been constructed. When presented the figures for how much the company had really made on the deal, the chairperson for Dugbeh stared blankly and defensively explained ‘the main reason why we give the forest is for our road. People used to walk up to 15 hours to reach the nearest motor road. Once the company said it will build our roads, everybody was eager to let them log’. The people of Bolloh and Dugbeh have lost their most valuable assets, destroyed because the companies were able to trick the community by promises of a non-existent road.
LIBERIAN OFFICIALS RELUCTANT TO CARRY OUT NEEDED REFORMS
Liberia and the EU signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement in 2011. Under the agreement Liberia agreed to tighten forest law enforcement through targeted reforms, and the EU agreed to exclude timber illegally logged in Liberia from its markets. Liberia would also receive millions in European aid money to support much needed reforms. The agreement finally came into force in December 2013.
‘The only hope for curtailing illegal logging in Liberia is the voluntary partnership agreement with the EU. If implemented effectively, it could significantly reduce illegal logging in the country’ says Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberian NGO fighting illegal logging.
The European Union is investing more than 17 million Euros to support law enforcement and reforms in the forestry sector, according to the European Commission. Although half of these illegal permits have been cancelled by the government, Atlantic Resources continues to log and none of their executives have been indicted.
* This story was supported by WITS China-Africa and Forum for African Investigative Reporters.
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