The Analyst (Monrovia)

18 December 2006

Liberia: FDA Lays Basis For Legal Logging

Monrovia — Liberia's Forestry Development Authority (FDA) is preparing a new bidding process for logging concessions following the lifting in October of the United Nations Security Council's three-year ban on Liberian timber exports.

"We expect this will create about 10,000 jobs," Richie Grear, the government's forest bureau spokesman, told IRIN. "All the mechanisms are being put into place to ensure that logging activities restart."

Revenues from timber constituted 50 percent of the country's export earnings before the UN Security Council imposed sanctions in July 2003.

At the time, the council described Liberia's logging industry as a threat to peace and security with revenue from timber allegedly being used by former president Charles Taylor to fuel armed conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The council has not yet lifted sanctions on diamond exports imposed on Liberia five years ago, saying the country is yet to meet international standards of verification designed to prevent the illegal trade of so called "blood diamonds".

With timber, the current elected government of Pres.Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has implemented new legislation on logging to ensure revenue would benefit the whole country.

"It is] principally geared towards sustainable forest management and more developmental benefits to the communities where logging activities would be carried out," Grear said.

Under the new law, Liberia's forests, which cover 40 percent of the country, are to be divided into three categories: protected forests, forests for community timber activities and commercial logging concessions.

The law compels logging companies to provide regular public disclosure of their revenue. Also, 30 percent of the money earned from leased timber concessions is to be used for schools, health centres and other basic social services in local communities.

In the past, local residents did not receive any of the money paid by logging companies, said Snorh Teah, the district commissioner in southeastern Sinoe County where logging activities took place before the UN ban.

"I hope this time around the government will prevail on companies to develop the villages and towns around them," Teah said.

Implementing the law will pose a huge challenge to the government, local environmental activist Alfred Brownell told IRIN.

"If you look at the laws you will see there is no clear mechanism on how the 30 percent should be shared among various communities and how they are going to receive the benefits," he said.

The new bidding process will start early next year, said forestry spokesman Grear. "[Companies] will have to meet with the highest international environmental standards to ensure our forests are properly managed and bio-diversity protected."

Previously, Taylor had tight control over who could export timber, with "logging companies themselves serving as arms importers and weapons transporters", according to a 2002 report from the London-based NGO Global Witness.

One of the first things President Johnson-Sirleaf did after she took office in January was to nullify some 70 agreements for forest concessions. However, Brownell said he saw signs that the new bidding process may not be fair either.

"Already, we have seen high profile government officials traveling out of the country scouting for investors for the forest industry," he said. "I am afraid there could be some political influence if government officials are allowed to bring in forest investors."

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