President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has said appropriate administrative actions, including dismissals, will be taken against all government employees across every agency and ministry with connection to the forestry sector that are named in the report to have taken some inappropriate or unauthorized action in relation to the granting of the Private Use Permits(PUPs).
President Johnson-Sirleaf made these comments upon initial review of the report submitted by the Special Independent Investigating Body commissioned to review the policies and procedures regarding the issuance of PUPs. Speaking following a consultative meeting with the Ministries of Justice, Lands and Mines, Finance and the Land Commission, the Liberian leader pointed out: "Let it be clear that I remain committed to protecting our people and ensuring that our natural resources are used to benefit the country and communities in which those resources are found.
It is very clear, from this report, that while the introduction of PUPs was meant exclusively for private landowners, the process was abused by investors, government employees and community leaders. This cannot and will not be allowed to stand. Punitive and corrective actions will be taken to ensure that this situation is not repeated."
In an effort to comprehensively address the legal, social, economic and administrative implications revealed by the report, the President has, in addition, directed that the moratorium in effect on PUPs will continue, and any person or business in violation thereof will be prosecuted and penalized in accordance with the law.
She also directed that a Special Prosecution Team will be established at the Ministry of Justice for the exclusive purpose of prosecuting all violations of the law in relation to PUPs by government officials, PUP holders, community leaders, logging companies and others.
"The activities of ALL logging companies that are also engaged in PUP activities are hereby suspended until the moratorium is lifted. With immediate effect, the Board of Directors of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) is dissolved and will be reconstituted," she further directed.
According to her, a full audit of the FDA will be conducted and that a full review of the legal and regulatory framework governing the management of community forest and private user permits will be undertaken so as to ensure that the intended reforms of the forestry sector, as embodied in the National Forestry Reform Law and the Community Rights Law, can be assured.
"A National Inventory Team will begin an inventory of logs across the country. Logs harvested in contravention of the moratorium or under PUPs will be subject to appropriate legal action to include confiscation and public auctions. Proceeds will be used to settle tax obligations to government and to benefit communities affected by PUP abuse. The Land Commission will proceed to conduct a thorough validation of all deeds for PUPs that were granted, to establish their authenticity and provide advice as to associated property and use rights for all categories of these deeds.
A massive public education program will be put in place to create awareness of the actions being taken by the government, the reasons why, and the need for the full support by the communities for government's efforts to conserve our forests and permit only legitimate use consistent with the law," she among other things added.
Meanwhile, several Liberians have strongly criticized President Johnson Sirleaf 's decision to dissolve the Board of Directors of the Forestry Development Authority(FDA) with immediate effect and to be reconstituted.
Considering the level of involvement of the Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth in the issuance of the PUPs as head of the board of director of the FDA, some Liberians want drastic action taken against her.
Sam Toe, a resident of New Kru Town, opined: " The government needs to take tougher action against those senior government officials linked to the PUPs saga." Toe avers that this is very necessary so as to serve as deterrence for others who may want to engage in such uncalled for act.
But the acting Minister of Justice Cllr. Benedict F. Sannoh addressing journalists during the Ministry of Information's regular press briefing recently gave justifications why no further actions can be taken against Chenoweth or any other member of the board of the FDA.
"The body recommended that the members of the board be reprimanded; they also recommended that the chairperson of the board (We have to be very careful with this recommendation; it says the chairperson of the board, it did not say the minister of agriculture), be suspended in her activities as head of the board," he said.
Cllr. Sannoh indicated that the report did not recommend criminal prosecution for members of the board and there is a reason for such. "Boards operate under the corporation law; members of the board are supposed to provide guidance and oversight responsibility for the institutions for which they advise," he says.
Cllr. Sannoh added: "The law operates in different ways; for a member of a board of directors to be held criminally liable for action taken by the board, it must be established that there was a willful violation of the law; or the conduct may have yielded some financial benefit to him and he went ahead and did what he did in reckless disregard. This report does not accuse the board of any of those matters; this report did not say that any of the board members received financial or peculiar benefits as it relates to their conduct."