Liberia To Investigate Logging Of Rainforests

A report by the non-governmental organization Global Witness says more than 60 percent of the West African nation's rainforests have been granted to logging companies in the past six years. The group has found evidence of fraud and misconduct within Liberia's logging sector.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's go next to West Africa, where logging rights to more than 60 percent of Liberia's virgin rainforests have been granted to forestry companies since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power six years ago. A British advocacy group says the majority of those contracts are unregulated and warns of fraud and mismanagement. The government of Liberia says it is commissioning a full-scale investigation.

Tamasin Ford reports from Liberia.

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Liberia, the small coastal country in West Africa, is the most heavily forested area in the region. Hundreds of miles of sprawling rainforests are packed with rare and endangered species. This timber was used to finance arms sales during Liberia's long and bloody civil war that ended in 2003. Since then, America, Liberia's biggest donor, has been helping transform the country's forestry sector.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was praised for revoking the corrupt and badly managed logging contracts when she arrived in office. She drafted new, more transparent forestry laws. However, Global Witness, an organization that runs campaigns against natural resource-related conflict, has found evidence of fraud and misconduct within Liberia's logging sector.

Jonathan Gant is the policy advisor at Global Witness.

JONATHAN GANT: It seems to be logging companies in Liberia acting with a number of mid-level Liberian government officials to one way or another and in some cases through fraudulent documentation gain as much forest as possible.

FORD: Global Witness has been investigating a particular kind of logging license - called a PUP, a Private Use Permit. The permit was designed for small landowners to cut trees on their own property. But they now make up the majority of logging agreements in Liberia - granting access to nearly a quarter of the country's total land mass.

Unlike other logging licenses, there is very little regulation, few taxes to the government, and little benefit to the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

FORD: A mud road, turned into thick, gloopy soup from the heavy rains, sweeps through Henry Town in Gbarpolu County in the east of the country.

MORRIS KAMARA: This is my shop. As you can see, I sell provisions. I sell rubber dishes. I sell mattresses and other things.

FORD: Morris Kamara runs a small business in the center of town with his wife.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible)

FORD: When news came that a logging company would be coming to the region, the community was excited. Kamara anticipated much-needed development.

Community leaders signed the social agreement in 2009 which promised a road, a clinic, a school, land rent, and even monthly salaries for the elderly. However, to date Kamara says nothing has materialized.

KAMARA: I haven't seen anything like benefits from the logging company since they came here. Nothing. The situation now is becoming so difficult for the common man living here. I feel like if this company remains here, I mean we will not get any benefit from them.

FORD: In February, Liberia's government suspended work on all but four of the PUP logging contracts. However, six months later, the number of PUP's had increased to 66. Each contract contains the signatures of both the minister of agriculture and the managing director of the Forestry Development Authority, Mr. Moses Wogbeh. Wogbeh was suspended at the end of August and the government has ordered an investigation into PUP licenses.

Information Minister Lewis Brown.

LEWIS BROWN: What we're finding out, sadly, is that the community is not benefiting, the government is not getting the taxes that are required. But more that, the guys are spreading out into the countryside and engage in massive deforestation. This was never the intention. It is a good intention gone bad.

FORD: Local activists first raised concerns in June 2011. There are now questions as to how nearly a quarter of the country was signed away to logging companies without any intervention from the government.

For NPR News, I'm Tamasin Ford in Liberia.

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