Courts Rubber-Stamp Export Shipment Of Illegal Logs

By Ashoka Mukpo

On Jan. 16, a timber company won a controversial lawsuit in Liberia, when a court ordered forestry officials there to allow a shipment of illegally harvested ekki logs to be exported overseas.

The ruling was the latest chapter in a years-long saga that environmentalists say points to a breakdown of regulation in Liberia’s forestry sector.

An unpublished report on the case prepared by Liberia’s Ministry of Justice and obtained by Mongabay implicates senior Liberian officials in serious violations of laws meant to protect the country’s forests.

Sources told Mongabay the seized logs have been the subject of a heated dispute behind closed doors between President George Weah’s administration and international donors.

Last week, a timber company won a controversial lawsuit against Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority when a court ordered the agency to allow a shipment of illegal logs to be exported overseas. Liberian environmental groups say the ruling is emblematic of a breakdown of the laws regulating the country’s logging sector under the current president, George Weah, and exposes its rainforests to serious threat.

“There’s no appetite for the government to really ensure that the rule of law is applied,” said Jonathan Yiah, a forest governance expert with the Monrovia-based Sustainable Development Institute.

The timber at the center of the case is at least 14,000 cubic meters (494,000 cubic feet) of highly valued ekki (Lophira alata), a durable tropical hardwood, worth more than $3 million. In 2018, communities in a remote part of central Liberia’s Grand Bassa county alerted the FDA, the Liberian agency responsible for supervising the country’s forests, to suspicious logging taking place in an area that wasn’t demarcated for commercial timber extraction.

According to an unpublished report from an investigation into the case that was carried out by Liberia’s Ministry of Justice in 2020 and obtained by Mongabay, the tip led the FDA to 1,640 illegally harvested ekki logs in a lot owned by Renaissance Group Incorporated. The report outlined a string of irregular and questionable decisions made by top FDA officials following that discovery, including the imposition of a fine against Renaissance amounting to just $5,000 — a tiny fraction of the timber’s market value.

The investigation said this token fine was part of a pattern of negligence by the FDA’s Weah-appointed director, Mike Doryen, and other senior personnel at the forestry agency, who were described as having committed “serious breaches of Liberian law” in their response to the case.

According to the justice ministry investigation, SGS, an independent auditing group that holds an EU-funded contract to monitor Liberia’s timber trade, expressed concern over the minimal fine in a letter to the FDA. The agency then imposed an additional $100,000 fine on Renaissance — still far more lenient than Liberian forestry laws mandated.

Based on the total value of the timber and the severity of the violation, the panel that carried out the investigation said the logs should have been seized and Renaissance should have paid a fine of around $1.75 million.

The investigating panel said there was “sufficient evidence to conclude that illegal logging on a significant scale” had been carried out by Renaissance. It recommended the logs be confiscated and that Weah convene a special presidential committee to further examine the government’s response to the case.

Neither recommendation was implemented, and until now the investigation has remained hidden from the public eye.

In a November 2019 letter addressed to the FDA and Liberia’s Ministry of Finance, another independent auditor, SOFRECO, also raised concerns about the government’s response to the case. “The mere fact that an operator took the risks of felling such an important volume of logs illegally provides a high probability that the operator was confident in the possibility to export the illegal logs, which raises questions for further consideration,” SOFRECO wrote in the letter, which was seen by Mongabay.

Despite the ongoing investigation by the Ministry of Justice, senior officials at the FDA issued multiple export permits for the logs between 2019 and 2020, which led to around 9,000 m3 (318,000 ft3) of the logs being sold and shipped to overseas buyers, according to the agency’s records. Precisely how much timber remains in Renaissance’s possession is unclear, highlighting weaknesses in Liberia’s chain of custody and export controls.

Liberian civil society investigator stands in front of ekki trees that were illegally cut by Renaissance Group Incorporated. Image courtesy of the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM).

However many logs are left, the illegalities associated with them means that technically they can’t be registered in the timber verification system set up by Liberia under its Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU. So far, mid-level officials with the FDA’s verification department have refused to enter those logs into the system, saying it would violate the agency’s protocol, which has prevented the logs from leaving the country.

In response to that refusal, the CEO of Renaissance, Aaron George, sued the agency, saying that while the logs had been cut illegally, the company’s payment of $105,000 in fines entitled it to export them anyway. Liberia’s courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of Renaissance, even issuing arrest warrants for the FDA personnel in charge of timber verification when they maintained that they couldn’t legally process the logs.

On Jan. 16, Liberia’s Second Circuit Court issued a final judgment in the case, ordering the FDA to facilitate the export of the illegal logs within 10 days or face jail time.

According to Mongabay’s sources, as the court-imposed deadline expired on Jan. 26, the FDA was still assessing how to comply with the court’s order without improperly entering the logs — which remain in Liberia for now — into the legality verification system.

It remains unknown whether there is a buyer lined up for the logs, some of which have likely degraded after years of exposure to the elements. Were they to be exported to the U.S. or Europe, the buyer would run afoul of multiple laws in those jurisdictions and be subject to criminal sanctions. If sold, advocates say they expect them instead to be shipped to East Asia.

FDA director Doryen did not respond to multiple email requests for comment by Mongabay.

In a statement, 14 international environmental groups from Europe, the U.S. and China expressed “alarm” over the case and said it appeared the courts were “intent on directing FDA staff to carry out illegal activities.”

“We are extremely disturbed that the Liberian courts, instigated by logging company Renaissance, seems intent to punish FDA staff for doing their duty,” they wrote.

The groups urged Norway, one of the biggest providers of environmental aid to Liberia, and other donors to suspend money from carbon financing until the Liberian government accounts for the legal and policy breakdowns leading to the case.

The case renews concerns over the state of rainforest management in Liberia, which has been the beneficiary of multiple high-profile foreign aid packages in recent years, including a $150 million agreement with Norway meant to curb illegal logging.

“If President Weah can’t act decisively and root out corruption, illegal logging of Liberia’s forests will continue,” said Saskia Ozinga, co-founder of Dutch environmental NGO FERN and a longtime advocate for forestry reform in Liberia. “The impact on the communities who own the forests and rely on them for their livelihood will be devastating.”

Mongabay is following this story closely. If you have any information about Renaissance Group Incorporated, its investors, or any matters related to illegal logging in Liberia, please contact the author at ashoka@mongabay.com.

Banner image: Some of the ekki logs harvested by Renaissance Group Incorporated. Image courtesy of the Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFMCM).

On Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed at least seven people, including a 70-year-old woman, in a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, an area captured by Israel in 1967 and later annexed in a move not internationally recognized.

The attacks pose pivotal test for Israel’s new far-right government. Its firebrand minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has presented himself as an enforcer of law and order and grabbed headlines for his promises to take even stronger action against the Palestinians.

The Israeli army said it had deployed another battalion to the West Bank on Saturday, adding hundreds more troops to a presence already on heightened alert in the occupied territory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would convene his Security Cabinet on Saturday night, after the end of the sabbath, to discuss a further response to the attack near the synagogue.

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