The Full Bench of the Supreme Court will shortly release its opinion over the “constitutionality” of government’s moratorium on logging activities and export of logs from the country, despite a previous ruling by then Justice in Chambers, Associate Justice Philip A. Z. Banks.
Justice Banks’ ruling was rejected by government and an appeal was announced before the Supreme Court’s Full Bench.
Since then the Full Bench heard final arguments between government and the logging companies’ lawyers. The ruling is yet to be delivered.
Before, Justice Banks’ ruling, government filed a complaint before the Civil Law Court, seeking the court’s endorsement to uphold its ban.
However, the logging companies that were operating under the banned Private User Permit (PUP) appealed to the High Court to issue a directive in the nature of a “Writ of Prohibition”, requiring the government to hold back its ban and to order a return to “Status Quo Ante,” (the way things were before).
Prohibition is an order from a superior court to a lower court or tribunal, directing the judge and the parties to cease the litigation, because the lower court lacks proper jurisdiction to hear or determine the matter before it.
PUPs are logging licenses issued for use by individual’s landowners or communities.
In their appeal, the companies’ lawyers alleged government without according them an opportunity for a hearing as mandated by the Constitution, suspended their operations and activities under the PUP’s program.
They argued that the action seriously hampered and affected their interest and contract rights held with the communities that were granted the PUP.
They further argued that they have concluded with the communities (PUPs’ Holders) certain social contracts which under the new Forestry Reform Law, they have the right to do.
They alleged that the communities gave them the authority to undertake logging activities in the areas inherited by them, approved by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), under which they (community) benefited substantially in a variety of ways.
Government, however, argued that the High Court should dismiss the request, because the companies are not holders of a PUP, alleging they do not have standing or legal capacity to bring the suit.
The Companies’ writ of prohibition was granted, and the case was decided by then Justice in Chambers, Associate Justice Philip A.Z. Banks.
In granting the writ, Justice Banks declared, “Under the circumstance the companies were required to bring the actions on behalf of the PUP’s holders (communities), as they (companies) were affected directly by government’s decision.”
According to him, “government should have proceeded to have the parties cited to a hearing and have said hearing form the basis for determining upon the cancellation of the documents held by them.”
Narrating the New Forestry Reform Law of Liberia that was passed by the National Legislature in 2003 and duly approved in 2006, Justice Banks said, “It allows the PUP’s holders (communities) to contract their rights to third parties. Since government recognizes the legitimacy of the companies’ existence, any violation committed by said government that injures or damages them gives them rights to seek redress from the Court to bring actions.”
It may be recalled that the Global Witness report says that the Liberian government’s failure to enforce its forest laws is encouraging logging companies to find new ways to bypass rules to gain access to the country’s rainforests and exploit local communities.
According to the report, those involved include loggers who reportedly worked with the Oriental Timber Company (OTC).
Liberia’s civil war was fueled in part by the international trade in timber. OTC was one of the most notorious companies operating at the time.
The company controlled large swaths of Liberia’s forests, facilitated numerous arms shipments in violation of a UN Security Council embargo, and maintained security forces that fought alongside Charles Taylor’s soldiers.
The report further said in December 2012, that a government investigation reported that a quarter of Liberia and 40 percent of its forests were covered by illegal logging licenses called Private Use Permits (PUP) that is intended for use by individual landowners.
They said PUPs had been targeted by industrial logging companies to get around social and environmental safeguards, with fraud and exploitation of forest communities widespread.
According to them, in response to the findings, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf swiftly halted operations by PUP companies and committed to sanction those responsible.
“The government says that it is working to fulfill the President’s commitments, but six months later no PUPs have been cancelled and no criminal charges have been filed,” the Global Witness report noted.