“Liberia’s Rainforests in Danger”

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The embarrassment that Liberia faced as a result of the infamous Private Use Permit (PUP) saga, which saw a substantial amount of the country’s precious forests given out illegally to logging companies by top government officials and community leaders, is on the verge of resurfacing if government goes ahead with its plan to award logging rights to certain concessions, an environmental group has warned.

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a global environmental watchdog, says the PUP scandal might just be a tip of the iceberg in relation to the damage caused to the country’s forests if government does not reconsider its decision to award logging rights to foreign concessionaires.

The PUP saga brought the insincerity of Liberian government officials to light.

SDI says the country’s forests are under renewed threats from what it termed as Conversion Timber/Logging, which the government is on the verge of introducing – and has the potential to destroy the country’s remaining rain forests.

This will see agricultural concessions, especially oil palm companies such as Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) and Sime Darby, carrying out logging activities within their concession areas. This will also see the illegal expansion of these companies beyond their controversial limits.

At a ceremony over the weekend where the SDI presented a petition to government, SDI disclosed that the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has developed regulations that would enable large-scale timber extraction in agricultural concession areas for export. SDI believes this will further exacerbate the threats from the oil palm sector.

But SDI Coordinator, Environmentalist James Otto, in a strongly worded statement said, “Permitting the sale and export of timber from oil palm concessions will mean the end of many forests.”

He also added that vast tracts of land are at stake, with two companies, GVL and Sime Darby, controlling more than 600,000 hectares.

In justification of its request, GVL has said that this move will help communities to make use of the timber that otherwise goes to waste when a plantation is established. “No trees are felled other than those cleared for the plantation,” the company claims, though SDI does not believe so.

In any event, GVL and the community would need to hire loggers, who are reportedly engaged in illegal logging activities in the country.

According to SDI, the country’s timber industry as a whole is notoriously criminal, as evidenced by the PUP scandal.

The SDI’s warning, according to Otto, is prompted by Liberia’s opaque legal situation.

At present, commercial logging and timber export are banned. Were government to permit the sale of timber from the legal clearing of forests for oil palm concessions, this would simplify the laundering of illegal timber and drastically increase the pressure on the country’s forests.

“Liberia is committed to protecting its forests in agreements with the UN and EU, and its international obligations would then become untenable,” he said.

However, SDI has been joined by 50 international holders of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize calling on the government to prevent the export of tropical timber from plantation concessions.

“People who said that the PUP was more damaging to the country might have been joking, because what the government is planning to do to the country’s forest is more damaging,” SDI Country Coordinator Jonathan Yiah said, adding, “This is why we are calling on the government to stop…because we know how damaging this is.”

He also said that GVL’s zero-deforestation policy in practice is not protecting the country’s forests. Unless the company improves implementation on the ground, its zero-deforestation pledge will become a tool for green washing its crude palm oil.

SDI, since July 14, said it began a petition exercise to stop the sell-out of what it termed as Liberia’s unique forest heritage. The petition has also gone viral on social media with close to 60,000 persons signing up.

The government has made several pledges, some through the signing of international instruments, to tackle deforestation, but actions on the ground contradict these pledges.

“Government’s plan to legalize forest destruction by introducing regulations to allow export of conversion timber should be abandoned,” SDI advised.

However, the sale of timber from plantation concessions is illegal, be they rubber, palm oil or any other agricultural related company, Yiah said.

GVL, one of three palm oil companies in Liberia, holds hundreds of thousands of hectares of land as an agricultural concession. Although clearly outside of its mandate, the company is pushing to permit logging for export in its concession, but SDI, along with several other international environmental organizations, is calling for a ban on such an action to prevent the further destruction of the rainforests.

The FDA, through its Public Affairs Division Manager Anthony Vanwen, denied that there is a plan by government to give out the country’s forests in such a manner.

“The FDA takes exception to the recent unprovoked attack against it by the SDI to the effect that the FDA is bent on destroying the very forests it is exerting every effort to protect,” Vanwen said.

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