19 April 2006

Liberia: Fighting Forest Corruption


Corruption of the forest and its rampant misuse has created enormous concern among human rights and advocacy groups for some time now. The Green Advocates presents a briefing paper below and puts into perspective the problems with the forest sector.

Forest corruption in Liberia can be traced far back to the 1960s and 1970s at which time hundreds of millions of dollars accrued in revenue from the sector. The management of Liberia's forest for the last five decades remains under the direct control and authority of "privileged elitist insiders" in conspiracy with "powerful outsiders" and conniving government agencies which have proven to be too corrupt and incompetent to execute their statutory functions and mandates.

One writer says "when theft and thuggery become a way of life, the rule of law gets expelled and the state's functionaries' collusion with the criminal underworld to rob reign supreme". The timber industry in Liberia represents just that and that has made this industry in Liberia to be the single most corrupt and a threat to peace and stability in Liberia and the sub region.

The timber industry rose from being the third foreign exchange earner to becoming the number one foreign exchange earner in post war Liberia.

Nevertheless, the timber industry that had the potential to influence significant development initiatives throughout the country became a source of criminality. This criminality was manifested in the conversion of tax revenues solely for corporate profits; the funding of instability in Liberia and the sub region; and the committing of environmental crimes and their associate human rights abuses.

Additionally, instead of paying taxes, timber companies were concerned about making payments through financial institutions for political favor and military adventures in Liberia and the sub region.

The timber industry also thrives on the patronage system, born in the days of the True Whig Party (TWP) era. The patronage system took different dimensions in the last two decades, including but not limited to the militarization of the industry. While President Doe used the timber industry to mobilize needed funds to sustain what appeared to be an emerging indigenous hegemony, President Charles Taylor institutionalized this factor to the point where the industry became the nerve center of his police state; thus, requiring every leading timber company to have a private militia force.

According to the Forest Concession Review Committee (FCRC) report, timber companies owed tax arrears to the government and people of Liberia of more than US$70 million. The human suffering caused by this marriage of convenience is great and the cost of the environmental degradation runs in million of US dollars. The suffering is further increased by decimating the only primary forest very crucial in regional climatic stability and sanctuary for our wide fauna and flora, many endemic to the region.

Historically, granting concessions in Liberia has never been based on the rule of law but a process to reward political allies and collective ventures between the ruling class and brief case investors to loot the natural endowments for personal fortunes. The resulting paraphernalia of this partnership has been committing environmental crimes and their associated human rights abuses; and misapplication of needed financial resources to satisfy the unlimited wants of the ruling class and the profit motive of corporate entities dominated by the criminal underworld.

There are numerous examples in Liberian history pointing to how members of the ruling class collaborated with foreign investors to rob the majority of state resources. Liberia's 18th President William V. S. Tubman, Sr. became one of the major shareholders with Col. Lansdel Christian, an American veteran of World War II of the Liberia Mining Company (LMC) in Tubmanburg, Bomi County. Mr. Richard Henries, the Speaker of the National Legislature was legal counsel for the Liberian-American-Swedish Mining Company (LAMCO), the largest iron ore concession in the country.

The rubber concessions also enjoyed the services of high ranking Liberian government officials. One such was Firestone which retained Tubman then a sitting associate justice of the Supreme Court as her legal counsel. Thus this conflict of interest continues today and has taken the form of a criminal syndicate.

Even the 'progressive and respected liberal' President William R. Tolbert, Jr. who is credited for attempting to change that political culture and fell victim as a consequence, was not immune. Under his rule, the ruling TWP had 75% share in the Liberia Timber and Plywood Company (LTPC). President Tolbert was also overseeing the interest of August Dennis, Vice President of Cote d'Ivoire who had a substantial ownership of LLWPC. Because of this high political connection, these companies always defaulted on paying their taxes. Awarding of timber concessions under Presidents Tubman, Doe and Taylor was rather influenced by this philosophy.

According to Atty. Alfred L. Brownell, president of Green Advocates, "a new element was introduced by the regimes of Doe and Taylor - the militarization of the industry. President Samuel Doe used timber concessions as bargaining chip for the construction of the newly built but unfinished defense ministry building in Congo Town; and the training of the much feared Special Anti Terrorist Unit (SATU) in Israel in the 1980s. The defense ministry building construction and the SATU training were done through Yona International, an Israeli company believed to have direct link with Mozart, the Israeli equivalent of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Money for the defense ministry building and SATU training was reportedly paid by the Liberia Timber and Plywood Operating Company that was believed to have Israeli connections." President Taylor institutionalized the militarization of the industry by making the industry the nerve center of his police state and a conduit for training his feared Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU). He did this by ensuring that leading figures in the criminal underworld like Victor Bout, Sanjiv Ruprah, Gus Kouwenhoven, Leonid Minin (the head of the Ukrainian mafia) and others got the largest concessions and in return these logging companies supplied arms and munitions to his government and his proxies who waged wars in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. These logging companies also had well armed private militia forces that terrorized the population and caused mayhem in their operating locations. The training of the Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU), Taylor's equivalent of Doe's SATU, was carried out from timber revenues and its personnel were trained by underworld criminal characters.

The introduction of this military phenomenon not only hardened the grip of the timber barons on this industry but also led to the siphoning of millions of dollars that could influence social development. One example shows that in 1989, the government of Liberia told Liberians that she got US$80 million out of the export of tropical timber to the European Community, of which Liberia was the 5th largest exporter from Africa at the time. But statistics independently gathered from the various ports of entry in Europe indicated US$200 million (IIED 1991, Mayer et al 1991, ITTO 1994).

From 1990 to 1997 the natural resources of Liberia were managed by rebel factions or warlords whose intents were for personal gains and support to their armed incursions on the poor and suffering Liberian masses. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1343 of May 2001 which imposed sanctions on Liberian diamonds reduced the income available to warring factions. This resulted to a focus on other sources of revenue. Reportedly, timber extraction turned out to be almost as lucrative as the smuggled diamonds. In 2002 alone, it was estimated that income generated by timber exports was at least US$150 million.

Law enforcement and governance in the entire natural resource sector, particularly timber, witnessed a total collapse in the early 1990s and during the regime of former President Taylor. The former President, who was then rebel leader of the defunct NPFL, took captive most of the resource producing areas, continued to manage these areas until after the 1997 Presidential elections in which he was elected President.

During his reign, the resource sector suffered a severe attack with the plunder and mismanagement of all industries. Various pieces of legislation were modified, repealed and amended to allow the elites within the government to continue the plunder of the resources "legally". These legislations are still in tact and need to be revised.

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