ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST - A new report from the environmental watchdog Global Witness says networks of political elites, forestry officials and logging companies are using small-scale permits to circumvent regulations in West and Central Africa. The group says the so-called “shadow permits” put the European Union and the United States at risk of importing illegal timber.
“Shadow permits” were originally intended for small enterprises and community forests, but according to the report they have been co-opted for commercial purposes through corrupt means.
The most dramatic example was documented last year in Liberia, where “private use permits” were issued on a massive scale, allowing logging companies to claim more than 40 percent of the country’s forests during a two-year period. In addition to Liberia, the new Global Witness report examines the use of shadow permits in Ghana, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo.
David Young is team leader for forest sector transparency at Global Witness. He says that, although the proportional scale of the problem was biggest in Liberia, the permits also pose a grave threat to the other three countries.
“The area involved proportionately in Liberia is much greater than in the other countries, so it was a much greater threat to Liberia’s forests. But the systemic nature of them in the other countries, if not controlled, could lead to similar destruction," he said.
Investigations into the problem led Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to reaffirm a moratorium on the permits and she also vowed to investigate officials who had been involved in issuing the questionable authorizations. But Young says it is important that she follows through.
"The good news in Liberia is that the president issued an executive decree in early 2013 to completely close down the private use permits, and she has promised criminal investigations and prosecutions where necessary. But that was back in January. We’re now in May and we haven’t seen much progress in that investigation and those prosecutions," he said.
The response in other countries has been similarly lackluster. Although individual contracts have been cancelled, Young says the process of awarding shadow permits is still shrouded in secrecy, meaning that abuses can recur. The secrecy also means that by the time abuses are detected by non-governmental organizations or journalists, much of the damage has already been done.
“While governments do respond when you put them on the spot and close down individual contracts in the immediate response, the longer term problem about lack of transparency around contract allocation continues. And, we see that in pretty much every single country," he said.
The European Union Timber Regulation went into effect last month, barring the trading of illegal timber on European markets.
In addition to calling for a transparent allocation process, the report urges the EU and the United States to consider any timber logged under shadow permits to be high risk and potentially illegal.