Liberia is a struggling country rich in forestland, boasting more tree-covered areas than any other African nation. Nearly a third of Liberia's exports come from timber, by far its largest product.
Equally important, more than half of Liberia's population resides in rural, wooded areas, generally living in sustenance-based economies. For these people, the forests serve as watersheds and provide building supplies, medicine and shelter for game animals.
So it has come as some surprise and concern that large parts of Liberia's vast stretches of African mahogany, red ironwood and teak, among other species, are apparently being parceled out by the government for harvesting to big timber companies with global connections. These companies are given relatively free rein to cut the trees and ship them around the world while beholden to virtually no requirements to sustain the forests for the day-to-day needs of Liberia's inhabitants or employ Liberians.
As much as a quarter of Liberia's land mass -- or nearly 50 percent of its wooded areas -- has been set aside for these deforestation ventures, according to a report by Global Witness, an environmental and human rights watchdog group. Global Witness' list of affected areas includes parts of the Upper Guinean Forest Ecosystem, Liberia's primary rain forest and a biodiversity hot spot that is home to many rare and endangered plants and animals.
"In the span of only two years, companies have used a legal loophole to secretively parcel out dozens of logging contracts covering roughly 26,000 [square kilometers] ... threatening Liberia's forests and the people who depend upon them," the report noted.
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This "legal loophole" is a special license called a Private Use Permit, or PUP, the result of a government reform initiative that was meant to allow individual landowners to sell small-scale logging rights on private land. The goal was to generate revenue, an estimated $100 million per year, to lift sustenance-based communities out of poverty. In addition, the Liberian administration forecast that the PUPs program would employ about 6,000 people.
But all the high hopes for this program were almost immediately dashed by difficulties that arose during its implementation. PUPs were intended to be linked to land deeds, but property ownership is a tricky concept in Liberia. Many landholders don't possess actual deeds, and often, land is owned communally rather than individually, leaving the question of who can decide what to do with the property up in the air.
"Liberia did not have a good track record of recognizing rural land ownership or meting it out," said John Gant, a policy advisor for Global Witness.
The group contends that large timber corporations saw this vacuum and took advantage of it, moving into communities and convincing local landowners, with or without deeds, to sell their logging rights. Promises of local improvements were made; in only a very few cases did money change hands.
Gant says that there is ample evidence to suggest that Liberian landowners were cajoled into signing PUPs under false pretenses.
"Of the six communities we visited [whose leaders had signed PUPs], the legitimacy of the agreements were questionable," he said. "'When you talk to them they say, 'We didn't really sign up for this,' or 'It was a one-day affair,' or 'We were told to do it,' in some cases. And at least in one case we know the letter was forged."
In the town of Tawalata, which is north of the capital city of Monrovia, Al Jazeera talked to residents of a remote region called the Korninga Chiefdom about a PUP signed by local elders.
"We were given 20 minutes to read the document," said Ovbester Younga, a public school principal. "The [Forest Development Authority] men came over and said the time was over ... the document was not fully read."
The villagers were promised infrastructural improvements and educational opportunities in exchange for the logging permit, but these never came to fruition.
The chief of Korninga also told reporters that the signature on his contract had been forged.
Moreover, hardly any jobs have been generated by these agreements so far. "In the areas we went to where logging operations were underway, maybe a few people from the community would be involved in the operations," Gant said. "When we spoke to the people living in these areas, they weren't being employed in large numbers."
In addition, since PUPs were originally intended for small-scale use, they do not require loggers to pay any taxes at all.
There have been 66 Private Use Permits awarded so far, to various different companies. The entity with the most PUPs is an enterprise called Atlantic Resources.
Though officially based in Liberia, Atlantic Resources is linked to a larger corporation called Samling Global Limited, according to Global Witness. With offices in Hong Kong and Malaysia, Samling describes itself on its Website as "an integrated forest resource and wood products company with forest resources and processing facilities situated in different regions around the world."
Global Witness charges that Atlantic and Samling -- along with another PUP participant, Alpha Logging -- are connected through interlocking company shares and common email domains. The NGO contends that through its Liberian relationships, Samling is making off with the country's timber at virtually no cost and without any regard for the nation's rural communities. "Samling is a highly predatory group of companies which has made huge profits at the expense of poor people in Cambodia, Guyana, Malaysia and Papua, New Guinea," said Global Witness in a 2009 study.
Samling did not respond to requests for comments regarding its affiliations.
Both Atlantic and Alpha had logging rights under the old, pre-PUP Forest Management Contracts, which are considered legitimate means of harvesting Liberia's forests since they require companies to pay taxes and live up to certain environmental sustainability standards.
But even those contracts didn't generate the revenues the government had expected. Global Witness investigators found that Atlantic and Alpha neglected to pay the Liberian government $2.7 million and $32.9 million in taxes, respectively.
After discovering the PUP loophole, logging companies have more often than not eschewed the Forest Management Contracts in favor of the new program.
But Liberia is especially sensitive on the subject of logging abuses, and not only because so much of its land is forested. Less than a decade ago, the country emerged from years of civil war that killed over 200,000 people. At that time, former President Charles Taylor was forced into exile for war crimes in Liberia as well as in neighboring Sierra Leone, where troops under his command committed atrocities against civilians.
It is well known that Taylor used diamond sales to fund his marauding troops, but less familiar is his reliance on timber sales to help carry out brutal attacks. When details of that program emerged in 2003, the United Nations banned member states from importing Liberian wood products. The war ended shortly thereafter.
In May, Taylor became the first African head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international court; he's serving a 50-year sentence.
Given the role that logging played in one of the most violent periods of Liberia's history, Taylor's successor, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson -- the first female head of state in modern African history -- has been stung by the criticism and the failures of the PUPs program she initiated.
The country has made some strides toward normalcy during her six years in office -- there has been relative peace for nine years, and Johnson was able to convince international partners to deliver much-needed aid and forgive billions of dollars in debt -- but it still has a long way to go. Unemployment is staggering -- it was at 85 percent last year -- and poverty is endemic.
The PUPs program was supposed to address both of these problems, and in February, when Johnson learned about how little the country was gaining from the effort -- and how it was being abused -- she instituted a moratorium on the licenses.
That moratorium was essentially ignored, and Sirleaf announced another one in August. This time, it seems, she's serious -- an investigation into the program is now underway, and the managing director of the Forest Development Authority, Moses Wogbeh, has been suspended indefinitely.
"We are quite enthusiastic," Gant said. "We are encouraged by the moratorium and the investigation. Sirleaf has shown that she is willing to take the issue on head-on."
Her intentions may be good, but a large question hangs over her efforts: Although recently elected to a second six year term that began in January, does she have enough time -- and more to the point, political will -- to unravel the vast net of secretive and opaque interlocking relationships that bind big logging outfits in Liberia to each other, and some would say, to the government?