The international watchdog group Global Witness has welcomed President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's strong action to tackle illegal logging, but urged the government to sanction companies and officials responsible.
Global Witness said President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's 4 January Executive Order expanding a moratorium on logging under Private Use Permits is a welcome move towards restoring the rule of law in Liberia's forest sector. The Order also establishes that those found to be responsible for the widespread illegality and abuses associated with these permits will be subject to criminal prosecution.
The President's intervention followed report by a Special Independent Investigating Body, established by her Office to document legal violations and fraud in the issuance of Private Use Permits, which cover a quarter of Liberia's land area.
"To prevent such abuses from reoccurring, Global Witness urges the Government of Liberia to fully implement the Body's recommendations, including cancelling all Private Use Permits and prohibiting companies and individuals involved in illegal activities from participating in commercial forestry activities in Liberia", read a statement issued by the group.
In an official statement accompanying the Executive Order, President Johnson Sirleaf also announced that logs cut under Private Use Permits may be confiscated and sold, with proceeds used to cover taxes owed by logging companies and to compensate affected communities.
The President announced the establishment of a Special Prosecution Team within the Ministry of Justice to prosecute legal violations related to Private Use Permits and a full assessment by the Land Commission of all land title deeds underlying the permits. "The government will need the support of its international partners to ensure that it has the capacity to follow through with these important measures", the statement added.
Global Witness said suspending and ultimately cancelling Private Use Permits is not only an important step towards regaining control of Liberia's forest sector, but also makes economic sense, noting that recent claims that the government will lose revenue as a result of the Executive Order are overstated and fail to acknowledge that Private Use Permits require logging companies to pay little in taxes.
According to the group, some of the companies holding permits, including Atlantic Resources and other companies linked to notorious Malaysian logger Samling, already owe the government millions of dollars in taxes under other logging licenses.
It said any costs of the moratorium could be compensated for by collecting taxes owed by logging companies, confiscating and auctioning illegally harvested timber, and seeking compensation for timber illegally exported by Atlantic Resources in 2012 in contravention of an earlier moratorium.
Meanwhile, Global Witness said in the wake of the Private Use Permit scandal, it is critical that the Liberian government work with rural communities to find alternate uses for their forests.
In a statement also made on 4 January, Deputy Justice Minister Benedict Sannoh emphasized this point when he called upon donors such as the United States and European Union to help the country builds communities' capacity to manage their forest resources and develop alternative livelihoods that are not based on logging.
"If Liberia is to ensure that abuses like those associated with Private Use Permits are not repeated and that the country benefits from its forests, such support will be vital", Global Witness has stressed.