Monrovia, Liberia - Liberia's forestry department has been secretly doling out illegal logging permits to large corporations that could result in more than 40 per cent of its pristine forest being chopped down, with little benefit to local communities, a new report by environmental groups alleges.
In the past two years, control over a quarter of all of Liberia's land has been handed over to private corporations to log, says the report released on Tuesday after a three-month investigation.
"An explosion in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits" has occurred, it says.
Logging contracts - covering both private and public land - now cover more than 36,000 square kilometres of Liberia's landmass, an area larger than the US state of Maryland.
The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) began issuing new licenses called "private use permits" in 2010 that contain no sustainability requirements. The contracts give companies free rein to clear much of Liberia's forests - some of Africa's richest - including almost half of its primary intact forests, according to Jonathan Gant, policy adviser for Global Witness, which drafted the report.
Some communities involved in the deals with the corporations say they were coerced and swindled, alleging their signatures were forged on land titles.
Minister of Information Lewis Brown described the situation as "mindboggling", adding President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appointed a panel on August 31 to investigate. He confirmed criminal investigations could follow, and if permits are found to be unlawful, those contracts will be terminated.
"We were shocked by this news," Brown said. "Communities are not benefiting, the government is not getting the taxes that are required, and more than that, these guys [logging companies] are spreading out into the countryside and engaging in massive deforestation."
Liberia's forests targeted
The United Nations Security Council placed a ban on Liberia timber exports in 2003, after it found profits were used to finance the government and rebel groups in a conflict that had, at that point, run for 14 years. Those sanctions were lifted in 2006, and logging exports resumed in 2010.
After concerns were raised about the issuance of the private use permits, the Forest Development Authority's board of directors ordered a moratorium in February 2012.
Since then, however, evidence has emerged indicating the directive was ignored and timber deals continued to be done, while logging companies defied orders forbidding new operations.
Interviewed in the capital Monrovia, Gant said while logging contracts for public land incorporate specific regulations for a company's conduct, the private use permits are only awarded for private property and carry few conditions.
"The standards that these logging concessions follow are very, very low, as far as environmental safeguards," Gant said. "The money is also very, very low."
Logging concessions granted for public land resulted in $107m in taxes being owed to the Liberian government between 2008 and 2011, according to Global Witness. Private use permits bring in no tax revenue.
Private landholders who lease their land to corporations also receive little in the way of financial compensation. "Maybe $9 a log for a $600 log," Gant said. "The real winners here are the companies."
The Global Witness report states the FDA has issued at least 66 private use permits in less than two years. After reviewing many of the contracts, the majority of permits issued are based on deeds where the property owner is not an individual, but a community.
To understand why people would enter agreements that so heavily favour private companies - many of which are based outside of Liberia - reporters travelled to a remote area named Korninga Chiefdom and interviewed individuals whose names appear on permits that ceded control of their land.
Tawalata is a small town in the heavily forested county of Gbarpolu. There, Korninga's elders told a story similar to the evidence collected by Global Witness across Liberia.
The community was promised the world. A September 2009 lease agreement later incorporated into the Korninga private use permit guarantees a school, a clinic, scholarships and employment opportunities, $1,000 a month stipend for "senior citizens", and roads and bridges "built up to standard" - priority number-one for every citizen interviewed.
But, according to the elders, meetings were convened under duress, with community leaders told they had one chance to sign for the social services promised. There was no time for documents to be taken to lawyers, or even translated from English to Kpelle, the first-language of Korninga residents.
"We were given 20 minutes to read the document," said Obester Younga, principal of Tawalata Public School. "The FDA men came and said the time was over ... The document was not fully read."
|Kaifa Manjo (left), says his signature was forged on a contract that gave control of his community's land to a logging company [ Travis Lupick/Al Jazeera]
Kaifa Manjo, chief for Korninga, went further with claims of misconduct. He alleged the mark beside his name on the permit was forged. On the contract is a signature in block letters. Manjo's identification card is signed with a fingerprint, indicating he is illiterate.
"They have stolen his name," the chief's translator said. "He says it brings bad feelings to him."
Global Witness' report describes at least six permits with irregularities such as those found in Korninga Chiefdom. Detailed are claims of permits issued without landowners' consent and forged documents. As for the promises of infrastructure development, none have come to fruition.
FDA officials categorically denied the Korninga leaders' allegations, and maintained communities were benefiting from the forestry permits.
Silas Siakor, executive director of the Sustainable Development Institute, disagreed. "Communities have been lied to, they've been misled, they've been coerced into these agreements," he said at his office on the outskirts of Monrovia.
Siakor reviewed two maps of the country believed to be drafted by government agencies. He said the maps indicate public land is being made available as private land.
Siakor accused forestry officials of using the private use permits as "a lucrative means of allocating logging rights".
|Silas Siakor says communities have been lied to and coerced into giving up land [Travis Lupick/Al Jazeera]
At the bottom of more than two dozen permits reviewed are the signatures of two government officials - Moses Wogbeh, managing director of the Forest Development Authority, and Florence Chenoweth, chairman of its board and Liberia's Minister of Agriculture.
In an interview at the FDA's headquarters in Monrovia, Wogbeh argued it was "not a strange thing" for so much of the country to fall under the jurisdiction of private use permits (PUP). He said property owners with deeds were entitled to enter into contracts with logging companies.
Wogbeh said his office had been under pressure to create jobs, and so it may have awarded some contracts without a "definite verification analysis". But he refuted suggestions that any laws had been broken.
"Since the board's [February 2012] moratorium, no PUP has been issued," Wogbeh said. "We categorically deny all of this."
Wogbeh has since been suspended from his position. Officials with the Ministry of Agriculture said Chenoweth was not available for comment.
Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick