By Alva M. Wolokolie
The Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Justice has categorically condemned the Global Witness report on the use of Private Use Permit (PUP) and its forest operation. The government says the report is baseless and unfounded and downright mischievous and irresponsible.
At a press conference held yesterday for the first time since the Ministry of Justice relocated its offices from Ashmun Street to 9th Street, Deputy Minister for Economic Affairs, Ministry of Justice Cllr. Benedict F. Sannoh said Liberia is a sovereign nation governed by its own laws and has the power and authority to promulgate laws governing its forests and the operations of logging companies.
Cllr. Sannoh who is now the Acting Minister of Justice told reporters that the laws now in place are consistent with international standards, and were drafted with the support of international partners at the end of the civil conflict which government appreciates but the continuous pronouncement of some of these partners that Liberia is not enforcing its forestry laws is baseless and unfounded and downright mischievous and irresponsible.
He explained that in February 2012, the FDA Board of Directors placed a moratorium on the issuance of new PUPs, and halted activities under all existing PUPS, due to reports that the issuance of PUPs and the operations of logging companies there under are in violation of the National Forestry Reform Law. Notwithstanding, he added that this moratorium, timber felling under PUPs still continued unabated. In response thereto, the President on August 5, 2012, reaffirmed the FDA Moratorium, and proceeded in September, 2012, to establish a Special Independent Investigation Body to investigate allegations related to the issuance of Private Use Permits by FDA.
On December 21, 2012, Cllr. Sannoh disclosed that the Investigative Body submitted its report to the President, in which it enumerated a series of violations which constitute not only a gross breach of the trust and the fiduciary duty of the FDA Board and its Management team, but also a wanton and reckless disregard of the PUP Statute and of the Penal law by land owners, community leaders, logging companies and individuals.
Upon review of the report, the Acting Justice Minister said in an effort to comprehensively address the expansive legal, social, economic and administrative implications revealed by the report, the President dissolved the board of FDA, dismissed the management team, and appointed an interim management team headed by Hon. Harrison Karnwea.
In the same vein, he went to explain that the President gave several directives with the view to taking the appropriate administrative, legislative and legal action, among which was the establishment of a Special Prosecution Team at the Ministry of Justice for the exclusive purpose to prosecute violators of the law in relation to PUPs by government officials, PUP holders, community leaders and logging companies, and others.
“I have called this Press conference to give you an update of what actions the Ministry of Justice has taken thus far in furtherance of the implementation of the President’s directives, as well as to address the report issued by Global Witness, which has appeared in almost all of the Newspapers, without any consultations with the Government of Liberia to ascertain the veracity of the allegations made therein,” Cllr. Sannoh said.
He indicated that the notion that logging operations under Private Use Permits (PUPs) are illegal is misleading and is a deliberate misinterpretation of the Liberian forestry laws. The Deputy Minister told newsmen that Liberian law under the NFRL permits logging operations under PUPs, so as to provide an opportunity for forest owners with forests resources on their land to commercialize them. What is at issue is not that PUPs are illegal, but that some Private Use Permits were obtained in a manner that violates or is not in compliance with the requirements laid down under the PUP statute.
Cllr. Sannoh mentioned that when the FDA imposed a moratorium on logging operations under PUPs, the logging companies challenged the moratorium and filed a petition for a Writ of Prohibition in the Supreme Court of Liberia in August 2012. The Supreme Court issued an alternative Writ of Prohibition in which it ordered the parties to remain in status quo ante pending the determination of the prohibition by the Court. This stay order in essence, he added suspended the moratorium and allowed logging operations to continue.
On October 22 of that same year, he said the Supreme Court denied the petition, dismissed the alternative writ and overruled the stay order, which in essence reinstated the moratorium. Subsequently, he pointed out that the logging companies filed the second Writ of Prohibition which is now pending and a Bill of Information, both of which are now pending before the Supreme Court.
He also clarified that in January 2013, following the release of the SIIB report which confirmed the pervasiveness of violations in the acquisition and operations of PUP, President Sirleaf reaffirmed the moratorium imposed by FDA and imposed an Executive Order on all logging operations under PUP including a prohibition on the shipment of logs.
The Justice Ministry Acting Boss told Journalists that the implementation of this order resulted into significant loss of revenue to the Government, significant disruption of the income generating potential for citizens in the counties, whose livelihoods depended on these operations.
“In my mind, these actions demonstrate the commitment of the Government of Liberia to ensuring that its laws on PUP are respected and that the integrity of the process of acquiring these permits upheld. For an international partner to accuse the government of not enforcing its forestry laws, undermines the level of fairness and objectivity that the relationship with our international partners requires,” Cllr. Sannoh blasted.
He also said Global Witness claims that the Government has laws designed to ensure that those responsible for Liberia’s conflict timber trade are kept out of the timber sector, and that Liberia is not enforcing laws barring loggers who operated during Liberia’s resourced fueled civil war.
But the NFRL does not expressly bar individuals who were associated with logging companies that operated during the civil conflict, from engaging in the logging industry in Liberia. He said part two, Section 21 of the Ten Core Regulations issued by the FDA however, requires FDA to keep a list of debarred persons and a list of suspended Persons while Section 23 requires FDA to place on the list of debarred persons all persons involved in any way with the use, management, or harvesting of Forest Resources who have aided or abetted civil disturbance involving the use of weapons.
“This provision is subject to a due processes clause which requires an investigation with opportunity of the person accused to present evidence in the investigation. If a person is on the list of debarred persons or on the list of suspended persons, the person is ineligible to bid on a Forest Resource license offered through a concession process. If the person is a corporate entity, the corporation, or any corporation that is owned in part or in full by the corporation debarred, or any corporation that shares board members with the listed corporate entity,” he said.
The Minister said neither the Global witness nor any person or entity has prior to the publication brought to the attention of FDA the names of individuals claimed to have worked in the logging industry during the civil conflict. He said if indeed Global Witness has received such information, it was incumbent upon them to bring that information to the attention of the FDA so as to trigger a Section 24 investigation. “Going to the press without giving the Government an opportunity to investigate is unfair and it undermines the partnership that exists between us,” he asserted.