Investigation faults Liberian agency protecting rainforest

Jan 24, 2023, 6:06 AM | Updated: 8:11 pm
(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)...

(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

An independent investigation into logging in the Liberian rainforest found illegal operations “on a significant scale,” with multiple missteps or breaches of law by the government agency charged with protecting those forests, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Associated Press.

The report was completed in 2020 but has never been made public despite activists’ calls to publish its findings, which included a recommendation that President George Weah order a special inquiry into what went wrong.

Four sources familiar with the report said Weah, who appointed the forestry agency’s head, has ignored repeated calls from European Union, United States and United Kingdom ambassadors to act in response to the report. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations without fear of retaliation.

In a phone interview with AP on Tuesday, Weah denied that he had been repeatedly made aware of problems in oversight of the Liberian rainforest. But later in the interview, he appeared to acknowledge getting a letter of concern from EU and U.K. ambassadors and said he had organized a meeting on the issue.

“Whatever letter that came, I organized a meeting,” he said.

Liberia is West Africa’s most forested country, with rainforests covering some two-thirds of the small nation. It’s home to endangered forest elephants, pygmy hippos and western chimpanzees. Since 2000, some 22% of the nation’s tree cover has been lost to deforestation, largely due to pressure from logging and small farms.

After the illegal logging of $3 million in tropical hardwoods in Grand Bassa County by a company called the Renaissance Group Inc. was discovered in 2018, Liberia’s Ministry of Justice commissioned a forensic investigation by international experts. The probe included the role played by Liberia’s forests agency, the Forestry Development Authority.

Investigators highlighted five illegalities by FDA, which is partially funded by the United States, European Union and United Kingdom. A “major failure” was its management’s “persistent tendency” to make “unlawful decisions in assessing the severity of offenses,” according to the report.

The FDA’s managing director, Mike Doryen, was appointed by Weah, who was a former top professional soccer player before he turned to politics. Under Doryen, the agency authorized the export of illegal timber, “apparently bypassing regulations,” investigators found. Extensions to the concession — the right to use the land — were “arbitrary” and “illegal.” In one “highly irregular” transaction, payment was made to an unusual FDA bank account, according to the report.

When alarm over the environmental destruction came to light, FDA fined Renaissance just $5,000, “a small fraction” of what the company gained through the unlawful activity. Although that was increased to $105,000 after criticism from a Swiss monitor, the correct penalty under a 2006 law aimed at sustaining Liberia’s forests would have been a $1.85 million fine and possible prison sentences, investigators said. Even after Renaissance admitted illegal logging, Doryen approved more export permits, a “gross breach of duty.”

Doryen did not respond to AP requests for comment. But a written response from the FDA to the EU last November blamed problems on “challenges of the past,” insisting no illegal logging rights had been granted. The FDA has taken corrective actions on several incidents of illicit logging, it said, and two FDA technical managers were fired for complacency.

The report urged the launch of a special presidential committee so FDA management could “explain their actions.” There is no evidence such a committee has been launched, and it was not in a list of presidential committees active in the last five years as of July 2022. Both Weah and his press secretary, Smith Toby, declined to say whether one had been created since then.

Four official sources close to the case told The AP that Liberia has brushed off diplomatic pressure over more than 18 months to address problems in rainforest oversight. In July 2021, EU and U.K. ambassadors wrote a letter to Liberia’s Minister for Presidential Affairs with demands including prosecution of offenders working for the company or the government and a ban on Renaissance. There was no reply until March 2022 and those actions were not taken. The EU’s letter also called for the restoration of the rule of law in Liberia’s forestry sector.

The official sources said concerns were raised in person with Weah by an EU commissioner last February during an African Union summit, and again in September at a Monrovia meeting attended by several diplomats. In each case, Weah said he knew nothing about the investigation, the official sources said.

Weah told The AP that claims he’d repeatedly been made aware of donor countries’ concerns were “nonsense.”

Asked why Doryen was still heading the FDA despite the report’s findings, he said, “If someone has offended, the law has to take its course.”

In an interview, Laurent Delahousse, the EU’s ambassador to Liberia, declined to criticize Weah directly. But he said the EU wants assurances that illegal logging will end, and that government bodies will operate to the highest ethical and legal standards.

“It’s a condition for us to be able to invest European taxpayer money into this sector,” Delahousse said.

Gemma Tillack, of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network, said by email such illegal logging, and lax oversight, was “all too common” and “sadly tolerated” by governments.

More investment is needed to tackle such malfeasance, which is driving destruction of precious rainforests, she said.

___

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Investigation faults Liberian agency protecting rainforest