Criminal indictments issued by the Liberian Government against eight former officials for their role in an illegal logging scandal which saw almost a quarter of the country given away in secret forestry concessions, represent a huge step forward in the country's fight against natural resource crime, said Global Witness, Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) today.
However, the government must ensure that all those involved, including other senior government officials and representatives of logging companies are held to account.
On 22 February, the Liberian Ministry of Justice indicted eight ex-government officials for facilitating the award of secretive illegal logging concessions, known as Private Use Permits (PUP). These permits covered 40 percent of Liberia's forests. Included is the former head of the Forestry Development Authority Moses Wogbeh, who was arrested by Liberian authorities and is reportedly now in jail awaiting trial. These indictments and arrest follow two years of investigations by NGOs, including Global Witness, SAMFU, and SDI, and by the Liberian government, which in December 2012 found all 63 PUPs to be illegal. (1) The government has cancelled 29 of the illegal logging permits and is in the process of cancelling the remaining concessions.
"The Liberian government should be applauded for holding to account officials who have broken laws designed to protect the forests and the people who live in them," said Andrew Tokpah, a Project Officer with SAMFU. "Like many other resource rich developing countries, Liberia's laws are too frequently ignored, with great cost to its people and environment. These indictments should send a signal that such abuse will no longer be tolerated."
However, some key actors in the PUP scandal are missing from the government's indictment. The December 2012 government investigation linked the illegal granting of PUPs to several senior officials not indicted. It remains unclear why the Ministry of Justice chose not to press charges against them.
Similarly absent are representatives of logging companies that obtained the illegal concessions. The largest single beneficiary of the PUP explosion was Atlantic Resources, which is linked to notorious Malaysian logging giant Samling. Atlantic Resources and its sister companies obtained PUPs that together covered 15 percent of all Liberia. While these contracts are no longer valid, companies linked to Samling, including Atlantic Resources, continue to hold concessions and log elsewhere in Liberia. Samling-affiliated companies have an egregious reputation both in and outside of Liberia, accused of illegal logging in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Papua New Guinea and collusion with officials to defraud the government of Guyana. (2)
In the oil sector, the Liberian government has also recently acted to hold accountable those for whom there is evidence of corruption. On 24 February, the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission announced a probe into former National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) over the alleged misuse misapplication of over US$118,000 paid to members of the Legislature to facilitate the passage of oil contracts and legislation. These "lobbying fees" were documented by Global Witness and the Liberian Oil and Gas Initiative in the September 2011 report, Curse or cure? (3).
"These are good first steps, but we still have work to do," said Silas Siakor, a Campaigner with SDI. "The government's own investigation found that responsibility for the PUP scandal spreads far wider than the eight who now face trial. Liberians expect equal justice as the basis for a brighter future. It is critical that all government officials and logging companies that profit from breaking our laws are held to account," Siakor concluded.
As the Liberian government clean ups its forestry sector it is presented now with a choice. The country can either continue to support industrial logging, a policy that has been disastrous for local people and efforts to strengthen governance, and has resoundingly failed to generate the expect revenues, jobs, and local benefits. Or Liberia can choose a more sustainable solution that puts communities at the heart of decision making about the forests that they depend on.