An official of Global Witness said it is important for the Liberian government to be sincere in demonstrating which government official, or officials, has ownership in logging companies that are illegally shipping timber, despite President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s order to halt timber export.
A U.N. panel of experts found in a report earlier this month that key figures in the government own shares in companies that continue to engage in illegal logging.
Global Witness, which investigates corruption related to natural resource use, Thursday said the logging company Atlantic Resources was shipping millions of dollars worth of illegal timber from Liberia under secretive contracts called Private Use Permits.
Jonathan Gant, a policy advisor with Global Witness, said the companies are not operating by themselves and the Liberian government itself may be ignoring Sirleaf’s order.
“Certainly, in order to export, the companies need to sign certain papers. They need to have an export permit, which is issued by the Liberian government’s Forestry Development Authority, and the Forestry Development has signed export permits, despite the president’s moratorium stating that there should be no exports. And, it is reported that the Ministry of Justice has also stated that exports are allowed despite the president’s order,” he said.
A UN Panel of Experts report to the Security Council on December 4th found that key members of the government own shares in some of the companies that were violating Sirleaf’s moratorium.
A local media report said the UN Panel of Experts found that Medina Wesseh, formerly director of Sirleaf’s cabinet and also chair of the president’s re-election campaign in 2011, owned shares in Forest Ventures, one of the companies allegedly involved in illegal logging.
Gant said, while Global Witness was not pointing the finger at any one official, the UN Panel of Experts report raises a fundamental question: who really owns these companies and why does the government seem bent on exporting timber in violation of Sirleaf’s order.
“The evidence that was uncovered by the United Nations, the evidence of who is it is that owns these companies, that’s actually evidence that many people in Liberia have [been] seeking for a very long time. It’s not evidence that we were able to dig up ourselves, and it shows that for all the transparency that the Liberian government is trying to demonstrate to the world, there are some major flaws in who it is that owns the companies operating in Liberia,” Gant said.
While refusing to point a finger at any one government official, Gant said he believes the illegal shipment of timber may have a “hand and a glove relationship.”
“It is important for the Liberia government to be sincere in demonstrating who it is that owns what company. At the same time, however, one shouldn’t let the companies off the hook, even when they are not linked to the Liberian government,” Gant said.
Private Use Permits, according to Global Witness, were designed to allow private landowners to cut trees on their property and do not contain the more stringent social and environmental protections required for certain other large logging permits in Liberia.
As a result, these permits can be used to avoid requirements for sustainability and fair compensation to the government and local communities.
Global Witness said Private Use Permits currently cover 40 percent of Liberia’s rainforests, and that the largest holder of these permits is Atlantic Resources.