10 January 2013

Liberia: Shipment of UL Logs Uncovered

Photo: Charles Akena/IRIN
Unscrupulous loggers cutting down trees.

The Special Independent Body set up by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to investigate the issuance of Private Use Permits (PUPs) in the forest sector has uncovered how Atlantic Resources 'looted' the forest land belonging to the University of Liberia in Sinoe County.

The report of the Special Independent Committee revealed that the Atlantic Resources shipment from UL Forest on June 5, 2012 is alarming since the land was granted to the University of Liberia for research purposes, and not for operation as commercial forest.

The committee's report also revealed shocking accounts, including violation of the Forestry Reform Law of Liberia as well as violation of a moratorium earlier placed on PUPs by the Board of the Forestry Development Authority and that of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The Societe Generale de Surveillance (SGS), the contractor implementing Liberia's timber chain-of-custody system confirmed that twenty-eight (28) PUPs were registered under the SGS/Liberfor program: eleven (11) active PUPs, twelve (12) PUPs beginning operations, and five (5) inactive PUPs.

According to SGS records, (in addition to the active PUPs), timber has been exported by Forest Venture (PUP 8), Atlantic Resources (PUP 18, 20, and UL Forest) and Global Logging (PUP 9).

"The Atlantic Resources shipment from UL Forest is alarming since the land was granted to the University of Liberia for research purposes, not for operation as commercial forest," the committee emphasized.

The forest land in question was donated to the University of Liberia in the 1980s by President Samuel K. Doe for research purposes.

The committee, accentuating the alarming rate in which logs were cut and shipped, implied that Atlantic Resources may have been involved in arbitrarily looting the UL forest in Sinoe County.

Prior to the committee's report, an investigation conducted by this paper revealed pillaging of the UL forest in Sinoe County. During a recent visit to Sinoe by our reporter, residents in towns and villages around the vicinity of the UL forest alleged that Atlantic Resources was allegedly looting the University forest.

The residents said although Atlantic Resources has a PUP license to operate in southern Liberia, however, the company was involved in cutting and shipping logs from the university forest.

Some Sinoe County citizens in recent interviews with the NEWS in Dugbeh River District, Sinoe County accused Atlantic Resources of allegedly looting the UL forest without any benefit to communities situated near the forest.

Although they didn't provide the exact hectares, but disclosed that the forest covers three districts including Kpanyan, Jaegde, and Jlapoda.

The Sinoe County citizens in separate interview alleged that Atlantic Resources randomly harvested timbers from the forest and shipped a huge consignment through Sinoe Port.

In Wisseh Town, a citizen told The NEWS that Atlantic Resources fell considerable amounts of logs from the forest including cut undersized logs.

However, an investigation conducted by The NEWS established that UL is losing over US$2.5 Million as proceeds from its forest as the result of the alleged seizure of the forest by Atlantic Resources.

The investigations also established that in April 2011, the University of Liberia signed an agreement with the Atlantic Resources Inc. in which Atlantic Resources was given permission to build a 48 km access road through the UL forest that would allow it export logs via the port of Greenville from its forest concession located behind the UL forest.

According to the agreement signed in April of 2011, Atlantic Resource was to pay US$500,000 advance fees to the University, 50 percent at the signing of the contract and the balance 50 percent within 30 days following the signing of the contract.

The contract also allocates 12 percent of the value of all logs fell and sold from the path the road to the University of Liberia.

"Unfortunately, Atlantic Resources refused to pay the remaining 50 percent of the advance fee, citing that the Land Commission gave them authorization to harvest the forest because it did not belong to the University of Liberia," our sources said.

Recently, the international watchdog, Global Witness, accused Atlantic Resources of allegedly shipping millions of dollars worth of illegal timber from Liberia in breach of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's August order to halt timber export.

The group said those were the most significant illegal log exports since the timber-fuelled civil wars of the Charles Taylor era, and threatened to undermine the progress President Sirleaf has made in bringing order to the forest sector.

In its report, Global Witness said two ships recently left Liberia with cargoes that include logs cut under secretive contracts called Private Use Permits, the use of which has exploded in recent years to cover a quarter of the country's total landmass.

The recent investigation is based on an investigation conducted by Global Witness, Save My Future Foundation and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in which they stated that many Private Use Permits are illegal and at least some appear to be based on forged documents.

In August 2012, President Johnson Sirleaf ordered a halt to logging and exports under nearly all Private Use Permits pending an investigation.

The Supreme Court initially stayed the President's order until it could review a complaint filed by the logging industry, but in October 2012, the Court upheld the ban on logging and exports.

Global Witness said it found that over the past several weeks, timbers left Liberia in violation of the moratorium. The timber was cut by Atlantic Resources, a company that is linked to a notorious Malaysian logging giant and is reported to be indebted to the Liberian government millions in unpaid taxes.

In the report released by the Special Presidential Committee last week, the body said in February 2012, the FDA Board placed a moratorium on the issuance of new PUPs and halted activities under all existing PUPs with the exception of the four already operating at that time: Lofa Development Corporation/Mary Kpoto (PUP 2), People of Zaye Town/Sarah Miller (PUP 3), People of Teemor Section (PUP 10), and Tartweh-Drapoh DMC PUP 26).

However, since the issuance of the Moratorium, PUP operations and shipment of timber has continued unabated. According to the committee, on August 5, 2012, President Sirleaf reaffirmed the FDA's Board of Directors Moratorium. On August 12, 2012, several PUP operators petitioned the Supreme Court for the issuance of a Writ of Prohibition, arguing that the moratorium was arbitrary and a violation of the due process clause of the Constitution.

On September 4, 2012, the Justice in Chambers of the Supreme Court of Liberia issued an Alternative Writ of Prohibition returning the operators to status quo ante pending the outcome of a full hearing. Following the full hearing by the Justice in Chambers at the Supreme Court, Justice Philip Banks issued a ruling on October 22, 2012 dismissing the petition as procedurally defective.

In his ruling, Justice Banks quashed the Writ, dismissed the petition, and reinstated the Moratorium. Due to the Supreme Court case, the Moratorium was briefly lifted from September 4, 2012 to October 22, 2012, although it is clear that operators never ceased logging activities.

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