14 January 2013

Liberia: Report - Gov't Stay Order Contravenes Senate Resolution, Constitution

As the national debate intensifies over the latest suspension on logging activities of Private Use Permit (PUP) holders, report emanating from corridors of the Liberian Senate seem to vindicate allegations of the Liberia Timber Association (LTA) that Government initial halt action in 2012 was based mainly on moral sentiments fueled by a letter from Global Witness and a coalition of NGOs to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf alleging violations and fraud.

Documents in possession of this paper point to serious flaws observed by members of the Senate Joint Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Judiciary, Claims, Petitions and Human Rights, in an August 2012 report to the plenary of the Liberian Senate which outlined several key contradictions in Government's action.

The Committees' report was an outcome of investigations of complaints filed by the LTA against the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) for what the LTA termed, "arbitrary suspension of Private Use Permits and the immediate halt of all PUP activities and operations in Liberia".

The LTA complaint said the action of the FDA was not only illegal as per the terms, conditions and provision of the PUPs and the contracts they signed and executed, which contracts have not expired, but that the action was also creating a heavy financial burden for the membership, and has the propensity to "increase the already high unemployment rate in the country".

During the Joint Committees hearing, which included FDA management, LTA President and members, Global Witness Director as well as representatives of NGO Coalition, chiefs and leaders of Gbarpolu and Grand Bassa Counties, and Human Rights Activist Cllr. Dempster Brown, the FDA management is reported to have admitted that, although the PUP holders did not violate any law, their activities were ordered suspended by the Board.

The Committees' Report noted that the Board's suspension was totally unfounded because it was the same Board which earlier stated in one of its reports, "that all of the PUPs were entered into between the FDA and the said owners of the lands, whether private land owner or community, and not the operators", and "that with the exception of land rental, the Government of Liberia gets all the other types of revenues that it usually gets from the issuance of FMC and TSC."

The report even noted with interest that the FDA Board in paragraph eight (8) of one its minutes claimed, "that while the Board agreed that the NGO Coalition may have raised some strong points that might deserve consideration, their fears and concerns seem mainly to base on feelings and not facts".

During its investigations, the Committee discovered that all of the PUP permits were issued by FDA, and that FDA signed the individual contracts by and between the holders and the locals. "There is no provision in the National Forestry Reform Law authorizing FDA to cancel or suspend at will these contracts or any of them without allowing the legal process to take its course", the report said, adding, "under our law, the contractual obligations must be guaranteed by the Government and no laws should be passed to impair such right".

Quoting Article 20 of the 1986 Liberian Constitution, the Report said, "the Constitution provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, security of the person, property, privilege or any other right except as the outcome of a hearing judgment consistent with the provisions laid down in this Constitution and in accordance with Due Process of Law..."

In its recommendations to the Senate Plenary, the highest decision making body of the Upper House, the Committees called for reinstitution of the permit and the conduct of an independent investigation into the allegations of Global Witness and other NGOs.

Based on the Committees' Report and recommendations, the Senate passed a resolution ordering reinstatement of the PUPs operations with immediate effect, and informed President Sirleaf as well as the House of Representatives.

In the wake of Government latest halt action contained in Executive Order Number 44, critics have termed the action unhealthy for the country's young democracy, as it would deprive ordinary Liberians of much needed resources.

"It is no secret that we are one of the world's poorest countries, and so the revenues expected from fees and taxes around timber harvesting from PUPs would immensely jumpstart key investment projects the Liberian government has designed as part of the current budget cycle and by extension part of the President's Five Year development agenda and the long term development roadmap, Vision 2030," says Citizens United to Promote Peace and Democracy in Liberia (CUPPDL), local rights group in a recent statement.

As furor over the suspension of PUP activities continues unabated, legal pundits are of the view that a final ruling into the matter would be tilted somehow in favor of legality instead of morality.

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