After more than a decade of UN sanctions imposed since 2003, the ban on export of Liberian timber was finally lifted pursuant to a UN Security Council decision to not vote to renew sanctions despite the fact that the Government of Liberia had not made sufficient progress as set out in Security Council Resolution 1521 (2003). The imposition of UN sanctions on Liberian timber, on 7th July 2003 was based on the conviction, supported by facts that funds generated from the sale of timber were being used to finance the civil war.
In order for the sanctions to be lifted certain conditions had to be met as laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 1521 (2003). The 2006 New Forestry Law was an attempt to address such issues within a controlling legal framework. Key amongst its provisions was that under Forestry Development Authority Regulation No. 108-07 titled “Regulation on Establishing a Chain of Custody System”. The “Chain of Custody System” is intended to ensure that logs harvested from Liberia’s forests for export have met certain basic criteria.
It has long since been recognized that the forest sector has the potential to generate substantial environmental, social and economic benefits. In this regard, “efficient monitoring of logging operations is critical to safeguard Liberian forest assets and ensure that it effectively contributes to Liberia rebuilding process” according to Thomas Pichet Marie Laval and Antoine de La Rochefordière, authors of “The opportunities and challenges of implementing a timber chain-of-custody system in post-conflict Liberia”, published in a report of the XIII World Forestry Congress, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 18 –23 October 2009.
Pursuant to this an international bidding process was launched to contract out the design and implementation of the Chain-of-Custody System. This system, also called LiberFor, was contracted out by the Government of Liberia to the Swiss verification company SGS, in partnership with the UK-based software company Helveta. Supervision of the implementation of the Contract falls under the Forest Development Authority(FDA).
According to authors Thomas Pichet Marie Laval and Antoine de La Rochefordière, “LiberFor is the world’s most advanced nationwide verification system in place to monitor and verify wood products and associated revenues ensuring that the national forest resources contribute to the country’s sustainable development. Further, according to them, “Helveta’s CI World™ information system provides database technology, software applications, and hardware components to operate the end-to-end traceability system”.
“LiberFor will track 100% of the wood products from forest concessions to the nation’s export gates and local wholesale mark etc. SGS provides overall project management and capacity building to national administrations”. Moreover, “Forest sector stakeholders have now access to critical information enabling broad consultation and establishing a constructive dialogue with and among governmental agencies, logging companies and civil society members. Finally, according to the authors, “The project will empower Liberia to effectively manage its forest resources and ensure that the forest sector restarts with a timber legality assurance system that meets growing international requirements to prevent illegal logging”.
According to the 2006 New Forestry Law, the agreement should have become operational in 2007. Progress was begrudgingly slow and according to reports, logging concessions were and have since been generally unhappy about the introduction of the Chain-of-Custody arrangements, currently under the supervision of the Swiss company. Section 21. of the FDA Regulations entitled “Establishment, Scope, and Administration” provides the following:
(a) The Authority shall establish and operate a Chain of Custody System to track Logs, Timber, and Wood Products from forest to processing to domestic market or export.
(b) The Authority shall establish and maintain an electronic Chain of Custody database containing— (1) Information on all Logs, Timber, and Wood Products tracked under the Chain of Custody System; and (2) Information on forest-sector fees assessed and paid on all Logs, Timber,and Wood Products, and in connection with any associated Forest Lands.
(c) The Authority may delegate, in whole or in part, day-to-day operation of the Chain of Custody System and maintenance of the Chain of Custody database to a private contractor, subject to oversight and auditing by the Authority.
(d) The Chain of Custody System established by this Regulation shall begin operation on September 30, 2007.
Against the above, this newspaper is gravely concerned about reports suggesting that the management of the FDA wants the Swiss company, SGS, out since its contract with the Government of Liberia is to expire soon. Under the contractual arrangement, all logs leaving the country for export must bear the stamp of the SGS certifying that the logs were harvested legally and were done so in compliance with all regulations governing the sector.
Already, according to reliable reports, several export permits have reportedly been prepared outside the Chain-of-Custody arrangements. Although FDA officials deny that this is the case, there are reasons for concern, why? It is because the country’s forestry sector runs the risk of the re-imposition of sanctions which will only serve to hurt this government and hamper its chances of advancing its development agenda.
The fact that Liberia has been suspended from the LEITI process due to the extra-legal change of its leadership provides even more reasons for concerns. This is because the forestry sector is part and parcel of the country’s extractive industries and any moves by the current management of the FDA to disengage from the Chain-of-Custody arrangements could prove counterproductive and ultimately hurt the interests of this Government.
President Weah may have the best of intentions for his beloved Liberia but as we all do know, good intentions are not simply enough. They have to be followed by concrete practical action and steps taken in the right direction. This newspaper believes that emergent signs from ongoing developments at the FDA are worrying because they portend of danger to the country’s forestry sector and general interest posed by what appears to be blind avarice unhinged.
The question is can Liberia afford the re-imposition of sanctions on its forestry sector? This newspaper does ot believe so but, Troubling Signs, they are, at the FDA and President Weah Must Take Heed!