Liberia’s forestry department has given a quarter of the nation’s land to logging firms over the past two years in a series of shady deals now under investigation by the government. That’s according to a new report from an advocacy group, called Global Witness.
Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been on the offensive. She’s been fighting off accusations of bribery and discrimination within her government. Sirleaf has also suspended the head of the country’s Forestry Development Authority and has launched a probe into the recent timber deals.
Global Witness says the shady land deals mark a serious threat to country’s vast rainforests, as well as to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on them.
“A quarter of Liberia’s total landmass has been granted to logging companies in just two years, following an explosion in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits,” the group said in a statement.
“Unless this crisis is tackled immediately, the country’s forests could suffer widespread devastation, leaving the people who depend upon them stranded and undoing the country’s fragile progress since the resource-fueled conflicts of 1989 to 2003.”
Global Witness conducted the investigation with two other advocacy groups: Save My Future Foundation and Sustainable Development Institute.
Corruption is seen as a huge obstacle to Liberia’s well-being and development. The nation has already been ravaged by 14 years of civil war and subsequent poverty. Nearly 10 years after the war, Liberia still remains one of the world’s least developed countries.
The government has reportedly been struggling to clarify land ownership issues across its vast forested zones. These areas have been traditionally divided along ethnic lines.
Global Witness says about 26,000 square kilometers of land have been granted to timber companies through at least 66 so-called “Private Use Permits”. These are lightly-regulated deals between timber companies and private land owners. But many observers have cried foul over the process.
The report states that many of the deals made with individuals (who say they own the land) were backed by land deeds held in the collective name of a district or clan. But these groups tend to have little legal knowledge of the accords and would reap little benefit from any timber exported.
Logging has been a controversial issue in Liberia since the civil war. That’s because rebels used proceeds from timber to purchase weapons, triggering UN sanctions. The sanctions were eventually lifted after Liberia’s foreign partners, particularly the United States and the World Bank, helped the country reform its forestry laws.