The lush West African rainforests of Liberia are being cut down and illegally exported with the likely collusion of powerful government officials, according to a diplomatic document obtained by The Associated Press that described an apparent “parallel system” for trade in timber.
The document is a compilation of reports prepared by independent international monitors over the last three years, made public here for the first time. It includes a table of 39 cases where monitors said they found evidence of lawbreaking or governance failure and no action taken to address any of them. It says the country’s chief timber official, Mike Doryen, runs his own “special task force” to bypass the personnel stationed at checkpoints who are there to prevent logging virgin rainforest.
The U.K. Foreign Office document describes a network of illicit sawmills, off-the-books exports and payments made to the Liberian Forestry Agency (FDA) that were not deposited in official accounts, that could amount to a “parallel system” for the timber trade.
“Such a system suggests the collusion of individuals at the FDA, the National Port Authority, (NPA) and Customs,” U.K. diplomats wrote.
Their document was sent to Liberian ministers last September and was passed to the office of the country’s president, correspondence with his deputy press secretary shows.
Liberia is West Africa’s most forested country, still home to endangered species including chimpanzees and forest elephants. The U.K. document says up to 70% of Liberia’s timber exports may bypass the official tracking system put in place to protect the forest. If so, Liberia is also losing out on large sums in revenue, diplomats warned.
Jonathan Yiah, who directs the forest governance program at the Liberian nonprofit Sustainable Development Institute, called it “a breakdown of the rule of law in the forest sector.” He said a shadow system for forest exports does indeed exist in the country.
He said his group brought to light evidence in one case “and there has been no action by the FDA,” referring to the country’s Forestry Development Authority.
Responding to the criticisms, Forestry Development Authority Managing Director Doryen disputed the idea that no action has been taken. He said in an email he has ordered all sawmills to be registered. All revenue has gone to proper accounts. He said no parallel logging system exists, although one did before he was appointed.
“During the early part of my administration and as part of our learning curve, abandoned logs were allowed to use that system,” he said.
But logs like the ones Doryen describes as abandoned have raised eyebrows even within Liberia’s timber trade.
When a load of cut trees that had purportedly been lying abandoned for six years was offered to Magna Logging Corporation in Liberia, the logs turned out to be “fresh,” according to an email obtained by the AP sent by CEO Morley Kamara. Concerned, Kamara notified the Swiss certification agency that is supposed to verify the legality of Liberian exports, SGS. “I have never seen something like this …There’s no payment to LRA (Liberia Revenue Authority) Transit Account. Too many problems!” Kamara’s email said.
A letter signed by Doryen had given permission to export the logs outside Liberia’s official log-tracking system. Doryen did not respond to questions about the letter.
Doryen is widely seen as a close ally of President George Weah. Weah is a former soccer star who won FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995. He has refused to remove Doryen, despite mounting accusations of systemic wrongdoing and at least 18 months of diplomatic pressure from the U.K., U.S., E.U. and Norway to clean up the Liberian forest agency. All the countries donate money to Liberia for conservation. The U.K. has given millions of British pounds (millions of dollars).
Now pressure appears to be mounting. On Feb. 3, at a meeting in the capital Monrovia focused on the country’s forests and sponsored by the World Bank, E.U. Ambassador Laurent Delahousse called deforestation levels in Liberia “rather dramatic.” He decried an “attitude of casual satisfaction if not denial” by Liberia, “as if everything was fine, as if just having the forest should entitle Liberia to receive funds from the international community, because those funds would somehow be owed to Liberia.”
“Climate finance doesn’t work like that,” Delahousse warned.
In one case outlined in the document, a load of illegally-felled trees was headed by truck to Gambia in January 2022, when it was flagged at a checkpoint. The driver had receipts showing fees had been paid to the Liberia forest agency, but the money was not deposited in official accounts. “It is unclear where this money goes,” the document said.
Police confiscated the logs and took them to a police station. But they disappeared from the station a few days later, the diplomatic missive said, and authorities took no action.
Asked about the lawbreaking, Doryen said, “There may be persons or businesses trying to evade legal processes, and the FDA, under my watch, has remained active in uncovering these challenges.”
But Yiah, the forest advocate, called on President Weah to launch a full investigation. It’s not just the natural world suffering, he said. Uncontrolled cutting of the forest hurts local communities “in a very serious way … They depend on the forest for food.”