Investigation blunders in Liberia’s rainforest protection agency

An independent investigation into logging in Liberia’s rainforests has found illegal activity “on a massive scale” and that government agencies tasked with protecting those forests have repeatedly failed or broken the law, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Associated Press.

The report, completed in 2020, has never been made public, despite calls from activists for its findings to be released, including a recommendation that President George Weah order a special investigation into what went wrong.

Four sources familiar with the report said Weah, who appointed the head of the forestry agency, ignored repeated calls from EU, US and UK ambassadors to act on the report. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations without fear of reprisal.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Weah denied that he had been repeatedly told of problems with regulation of the Liberian rainforest. But in later interviews he appeared to acknowledge receiving a letter of concern from EU and UK ambassadors and said he had organized a meeting on the issue.

“I will organize a meeting no matter what letter I get,” he said.

Liberia is the most forested country in West Africa, with tropical rainforest covering about two-thirds of the small country. It is home to endangered forest elephants, pygmy hippos and western chimpanzees. About 22 percent of the country’s tree cover has been lost to deforestation since 2000, largely due to logging and pressure on small farms.

After discovering in 2018 that a company, Renaissance Group Inc., was illegally logging $3 million worth of tropical hardwood in Grand Bassa County, the Liberian Ministry of Justice commissioned international experts to conduct a forensic investigation. The investigation included the role played by Liberia’s forestry agency, the Forestry Development Authority.

Investigators highlighted five violations by the FDA, which is partially funded by the US, EU and UK. The “significant failure” was its management’s “continuous propensity” to make unlawful decisions “in assessing the seriousness of violations,” the report said.

The FDA’s managing director, Mike Doryen, was appointed by Weah, who was a top professional soccer player before entering politics. Under Doryen’s leadership, the agency authorized the export of illegal timber “in apparent circumvention of regulations,” investigators found. The extension of the concession – land use rights – was “arbitrary” and “illegal”. In a “highly irregular” transaction, the payment was made to an unusual FDA bank account, the report said.

When the warnings about environmental damage came to light, the FDA fined Renaissance only $5,000, a “fraction” of the company’s illegal activities. Although the fine was increased to $105,000 after criticism from the Swiss ombudsman, the correct penalty was a $1.85 million fine and possible prison terms under a 2006 law aimed at maintaining Liberia’s forests, investigators said. Even after Renaissance admitted to illegal logging, Doryen granted more export permits in a “gross breach of duty”.

Doryen did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. But the FDA’s written response to the EU last November blamed “past challenges” for the problem, insisting that no illegal logging rights had been granted. It said the FDA had taken corrective action in several incidents of illegal logging and that two FDA technical managers had been fired for complacency.

The report urges the creation of a special presidential committee so FDA management can “explain their actions.” There is no evidence that such a commission has been created, and as of July 2022, it was not on the list of presidential commissions active in the past five years. Both Weah and his press secretary, Smith Toby, declined to say whether one had been created since then.

Liberia has ignored diplomatic pressure for more than 18 months to resolve rainforest regulation, four official sources close to the case told The Associated Press. In July 2021, EU and UK ambassadors wrote to Liberia’s Minister of Presidential Affairs, asking for, among other things, prosecution of offenders working for companies or the government and a ban on Renaissance. A response was not received until March 2022, and no such actions were taken. The EU letter also calls for the restoration of the rule of law in Liberia’s forestry sector.

Official sources say the EU commissioner raised concerns with Weah himself during the African Union summit last February and again in September at a meeting in Monrovia attended by several diplomats. In each case, Weah said he had no knowledge of the investigation, official sources said.

Weah told The Associated Press that the claim that he was repeatedly told of donor countries’ concerns was “nonsense.”

Asked why Doryen was leading the FDA despite the report’s findings, he said, “If someone is offended, the law has to run its course.”

In an interview, the European Union’s ambassador to Liberia, Laurent Delahous, declined to criticize Weah directly. But he said the EU wanted assurances that illegal logging would end and that government agencies would operate according to the highest ethical and legal standards.

“It’s a condition of our being able to invest European taxpayers’ money in this area,” Delahousse said.

Gemma Tillack of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network said in an email that this type of illegal logging and lax regulation was “all too common” and “tragically tolerated” by the government.

She said more investment is needed to tackle this type of malfeasance that is destroying precious rainforest.

___

AP climate and environment reporting is supported by several private foundations. Find out more about the AP Climate Initiative here. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. all rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.