Liberia: Gov’t Clears Export of US$4M ‘Illegal Logs’
A Supreme Court mandate constraints the FDA to give an illegal logger a permit, though such a move contravenes forestry laws, VPA
The government of Liberia will finally give Renaissance Group Incorporated (RGI), a controversial logging company, the green light on January 28, to go ahead with the export of illegally harvested round logs valued at over US$4 million.
RGI did not obtain a resource license from the FDA before felling the logs; the community where the company did the harvesting in District #1 Grand Bassa County is not a legitimate area for logging activities, the FDA said. It also disclosed that the company did not even get the consent of the locals before entering their forest.
Despite all these, the FDA has agreed to grant RGI an export permit in ten days after nearly a year long legal battle in the forestry sector between the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and RGI—a battle the latter has eventually won thanks to the 2nd Judicial Circuit of Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, that ruled in favor of the company in January 2022. An appeal taken to the Supreme Court could not help as the high court upheld the lower court ruling.
The Supreme Court in October 2022 mandated the FDA to grant the RGI an export permit despite the numerous legality issues about how the logs were harvested.
The high court’s decision triggered a barrage of criticism, considering that at least 14,000 cubic meters (m3) of the valuable Ekki timber, worth an estimated US$4 million, was illegally logged by RGI six kilometers outside concession TSCA2 in the county.
This is according to an investigation by the Ministry of Justice, the FDA, and its partners. The illegal logging case of RGI was identified in November 2019 by the Independent Auditor of the Liberia Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU.
The Ministry of Justice, together with the FDA Board, then commissioned an independent forensic investigation.
This investigation resulted in clear evidence of illegal activities, including unlawful granting of logging rights, failure to monitor and enforce harvesting requirements, and deliberately bypassing ‘Libertrace’, depriving the government of forest revenues.
This evidence of grave transgressions would have required the confiscation of the illegal logs, banning the company from further operations as well as prosecution of the offenders from both the companies and government staff involved. FDA fined the company US$105,000.00 which was paid.
But the rulings of the courts, which were reemphasized by the 2nd Judicial Circuit Judge, Kennedy Peabody, at a contempt proceeding on Monday, came as shockers to many, especially advocates who have been fighting against illegal activities in the forestry sector. They fear that the government is not serious about addressing the issue of illegal logging, protecting the country’s vast forest and ensuring that communities benefit from legal logging.
But the court it stance is based on the fact that the company has paid a fine of US$100,000.00 it should be allowed to export the round logs but in collaboration with the FDA whil the court should play a supervisory role in the process.
The court said the decision to grant the company the right to the round logs is in accordance with Article 21(h) of the 1986 constitution of Liberia which states, “No person shall be subject of double jeopardy.”
“RGI has paid a fine levied by the FDA; it cannot be denied from having access to the logs,” the court said in its ruling last year.
However, RGI's actions also violate the country’s forestry law of 2006 and the Voluntary Partnership Agreement that the government signed with the European Union. These legal instruments are meant to fight against illegal activities in the forestry sector.
Under the trade agreement with the EU Liberia is only allowed to export legally sourced timber. That is timber registered in and verified through Liberia’s timber export scheme (Libertrace).
However, the company, having been found guilty by the government investigation, took the government to the circuit court Buchanan with the ruling in their favor. The FDA took an appeal to the Supreme Court but the case was dismissed based on administrative grounds, after which the company proceeded with demanding export permits for these logs.
Following rejection from the FDA to allow these illegal logs to be exported, on January 12, the Supreme Court ordered the arrests of the FDA Managing Director Mike Doryen, FDA Board Chair of the Board Harrison Karnwea; Technical Manager of FDA’s Legality Verification Department Gertrude Korvahyan Nyaley and others for contempt of court.
During the contempt proceedings on January 16, at the Circuit Court in Buchanan, the FDA, represented by Cllr. Abrahim Sillah, upon asking the court to drop the contempt charges against his clients, requested a ten-day grace period in which he noted that the permit will be presented to RGI.
In a submission to the court, Cllr. Sillah asked to purge the contempt against his clients because they have taken substantial steps to implement the mandate of the Supreme Court and instruction from the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court.
“We prayed the court to purge the contempt on the ground that they are working to fully implement the order of the court because they have already started the process of its implementation. We request your honor to temper mercy with justice and purge the contempt against my clients,” Cllr. Sillah, who comes from the Heritage Partners and Associates Law Firm, said.
The delay in executing the order of this court, he added, was due to technical formalities within the FDA's internal control and therefore requires several days to complete the preparation and issuance of the required export permit.
“We therefore request your honor to purge the contempt and grant the respondents ten working days effective as of tomorrow, January 17, 2023, to fully comply with the mandate and instructions of the Courts.”
Though the FDA has agreed to grant RGI the export permit, the Societe Générale De Surveillance (SGS), which provides inspection, verification, testing, and certification services for logs leaving the country, has recused itself from the such process because the logs cannot be tracked as they do not have a legal source. Round logs in such a category cannot enter the European market.
In a communication dated January 13, FDA Managing Director Doryen, SGS told the FDA it can comply with the court’s mandate by authorizing the shipment of the logs, but it is not willing to be a part of such an approval process.
Though he granted the ten-day grace period, Judge Peabody, however, adjudged the FDA officials guilty of contempt of court for their roles in interfering with and refusing to implement the mandate and of the court.
They were fined US$300.00 each to be paid in 24 hours. Doyen and co were sentenced to thirty days in common jail that to say if they fail to implement the Court mandate.
“They shall be arrested and incarcerated in the central prison of Grand Bassa County until the judgment and the mandate of the Supreme Court are implemented,” the Judge said.
Meanwhile, the court’s decision to prevail on FDA for a permit to export illegally logged logs also contrasts an earlier commitment President Weah made to the international committee.
When he and the President of the European Commission, Madame Von der Leyen, joined the leaders’ declaration on Forests and Land Use at the UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, Scotland a little over a year ago, President Weah pledged to conserve forests and implement policies that would ensure their protection, restoration, and sustainable use.
But the stance of the court, it said, is on the ground that no one should be punished twice for the same crime.
So while the officials of Renaissance, with the court ruling and its enforcement, have escaped tougher penalties, the hope and aspirations of the affected communities seem doomed.