Liberia’s community forestry becoming a front for deforestation: Report

By Ashoka Mukpo |

A village that manages community forest in Liberia. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo.

*    A report released by Global Witness late last year alleges that Liberia’s forestry laws are being “hijacked” by logging companies.

*    These logging companies can potentially put vast areas of Liberia’s remaining rainforests at risk of large-scale deforestation.

*    There’s historical precedent for the concerns under the current law: in 2012, Liberia was rocked by a scandal over permits meant to enable private landowners to enter into logging agreements with outside parties.

When Liberia emerged from its civil war in 2003, one of the first major acts of its national legislature was to reform the laws that governed logging and forestry in the small West African country. Illicit logging had played a critical role in prolonging the bloody conflict, providing militia groups with a hard-to-trace commodity that could be easily exchanged for cash and arms on opaque international markets.

Advocates hoped that the new laws, widely considered to be among the most ambitious in Africa, represented a clean break from the country’s history of exploiting the resources of forest communities without giving them much in return.

One of the most progressive components of the reform was a law that allowed those communities to take the lead on managing large tracts of remote forests. It established steps by which a community could apply for and obtain a permit that would allow it to make decisions about one of those forest areas, including entering into direct agreements with logging companies if they chose.

But a report released by the international watchdog Global Witness late last year states that in practice, the law is being “hijacked” by logging companies, potentially placing giant swaths of Liberia’s remaining rainforests at risk of large-scale deforestation.

“A forestry initiative that puts nearly half the country securely in the hands of local communities should be a good news story,” said David Young, the report’s author. “But if it actually leads to these forests being handed over to rapacious logging companies then that’s a disaster for Liberians and a disaster for the climate globally.”

Under the law, communities seeking a “Community Forestry Management Agreement” have to go through nine steps to acquire their permit, including agreeing on the boundaries of their forest with neighboring towns, and establishing formal decision-making bodies. Those bodies are intended to be democratic and widely representative, and the law stipulates that any agreement made with a company prior to the conclusion of the application process is illegal.

But according to the report, a moratorium on large-scale logging concessions — which require timber companies to undertake costly and laborious negotiations with the national government — has prompted those companies to target community forests as a backdoor to lucrative commercial exploitation.

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