Top: A man brushes grass from a pile of logs illegally harvested by Universal Forestry Corporation, a company started and still owned by Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Cooper Kruah. The DayLIght/James Harding Giahyue
By James Harding Giahyue
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Cooper Kruah’s conflict of interest as a shareholder in Universal Forestry Corporation. It focuses on Minister Kruah’s illegal logging dealings.
TAPPITA, Nimba County – At the end of a 20-minute motorcycle ride from a town called Korlay, lie dozens of logs on a rocky, bushy road into the forest.
“That’s just small you see here. There are more in the bush,” one man tells my colleague Gabriel Dixon, our two motorcycle-taxi riders and me, as he cleared grass from a pile of logs. We cannot name him and other villagers we will interview over their fear of retribution.
We are in the Sehzueplay Community Forest in the Tappita District of Nimba County, where Universal Forestry Corporation (UFC) operates. The company signed an agreement with villages here in 2020 to share logging resources for 12 years. Last month, an investigation by The DayLight found that the Minister of Posts and Telecommunication Cooper Kruah is one of the owners of the company, rendering the agreement illegal. Kruah has admitted to being in a conflict of interest over his continued role in the company for more than four years since he became a government official.
But we have come here to uncover more of UFC’s violations, beginning with these logs it harvested in this part of the Gio National Forest. The leadership of Sehzueplay says the woods were cut between October 2020 and November last year, and records from the harvesting corroborate this timeline.
The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) did not approve the harvesting, according to a January 21, 2022 memo from a ranger to Jin Kyung, UFC’s general manager, we have obtained.
“During our recent visit to your concession area, we discovered that you were doing illegal [felling]. You are felling [trees] without being awarded a [felling] certificate,” the memo reads, signed by Steve Kromah, the ranger responsible for forest contracts in the Tappita area.
“In view of the above, you are hereby ordered closed with immediate [effect], pending advice from the FDA management,” it says.
Kromah had said in an earlier interview with The DayLight in Buchanan that he had halted the company’s operations because “Their felling certificates are all expired.” Now, he accuses us of misunderstanding his initial comments on the matter.
“Maybe I don’t know English but that is what I mean. Maybe you don’t understand forestry language very well but what I wrote is what you’re seeing there,” Kromah says in a phone call.
“When management asks me, I will know how to answer. Management will understand it that way. You cannot understand it. I didn’t write it to you,” he adds and hung up the phone. He has been reassigned, according to sources familiar with a recent wave of reshuffles at the FDA over illegal logging.
Unauthorized harvesting is a violation of the Code of Harvesting Practices. (That is the same offense another company committed in River Cess) UFC is required to pay a fine of twice the total value of the volume of each species of logs illegally harvested as per their world market prices, according to the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products.
The FDA will, however, have to obtain a court order to confiscate and auction the logs but it must first find out the total volume of the illegally harvested logs. Partial data of the harvesting we obtained shows 150 logs, but the community leadership estimate there are 200 more woods. Some of them are in good shape but others have defects, indicating it would be difficult to auction them.
UFC also did not conduct an environmental and social impact assessment in 2020 for its operations in Sehzueplay, according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI). That again contravenes the Code of Harvesting Practices, which sets it as a prerequisite for felling trees. The Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA), the government institution that oversees the assessment, did not grant us an interview on the matter up to writing time.
That would not be UFC’s only violation, though. The company subcontracted another firm called Ihsaan Logs Company (ILC) with neither the approval of the FDA nor the consent of the community. ILC is managed and owned by Mohammed Paasewe, the former Superintendent of Grand Cape Mount County.
In fact, ILC-hired loggers harvested some of the logs we see in the forest, according to communications between the two companies seen by The DayLight. Logs with “UFC/ILC” markings shine through wet, towering grass, back that evidence.
UFC and ILC had signed the illegal agreement in November last year, the documents, seen by The DayLight, show. The deal was torn apart, less than two months later due to disagreements over payments and equipment, according to the documents.
“We have resolved to inform [you] that as of the date of this letter, the [proposed] agreement is off our table for negotiation, and that we are advising you to immediately recall all of your personnel/employees that were sent to our concession areas,” a January 31, 2022 letter from UFC to ILC reads. “We also reserve the right to demand payment for our yellow machine that you used… during your operation.”
Paasewe replies to an unnamed representative of UFC with a series of requests for repayment of fees his company had paid UFC in a WhatsApp chat seen by The DayLight.
“What happened to the US$1,200 that you received before… (US$700 for the visit of his computer man to attend a meeting [a] in Tappita, US$500 to stop the mechanics from taking parts from his machine)?
“What happened to the US$300 to bring electricity to his house, US$300 to finish his preparation for the new place, US$400 for the repair of the pickup and US$300 for documentation, and also who pays the US$500 for the advance payment for the repair of the D8 [bulldozer]?
Paasewe alleges in the exchange that Kyung had told him that Sehzueplay had 19,000 hectares of forestland, not the 6,890 hectares it covers in reality.
Kyung replies to Paasewe roughly two weeks after his previous letter, agreeing to repay ILC US$10,850 in March, which Paasewe says has not happened five months on. Efforts to speak to Kyung did not materialize. He did not reply to emailed questions on his deal with ILC and other issues as well. We called him twice but he said he was in the forest and had no access to a computer or internet.
As part of their deal, ILC was supposed to pay UFC US$200,000 as an advance payment on the sales of logs at the rate of US$30 per cubic meter, regardless of the species. (Logs are priced based on their species) In return, ILC agreed to harvest at least 1,500 cubic meters of logs each of the remaining 10 years of the contract.
Then the parties settled to delay the construction of the headquarters of the community’s leadership and a school building— both due last year—by two and three years, respectively, the unapproved agreement shows.
“That is why we did not sign that document. “It was not in our interest,” Moses Wobuah, the head of the community leadership, tells us in an interview at his home in Korlay, one of seven towns and villages affected by UFC’s unlawful operations. Volay, Zeongehn, Zuolay, Graie, and Sehye Village complete the list.
“That document is null and void. It is not legal,” Wobuah adds.
The CEO of ILC is another layer of illegality. Paasewe was dismissed as superintendent in 2015 by then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for “misuse of public funds.” However, he criminally collected US$11,215.63 and L$293,980 as superintendent in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC). He restituted US$5,000 of the money in an out-of-court settlement, the LACC reported at the time.
Paasewe has not repaid the full amount he embezzled. “We are in the process,” he tells me in an interview at his office in Monrovia. “I don’t want to have those kinds of things hanging over my head. I want to get that out of the way.”
Having admitted to theft barely a year before his UFC subcontract, Paasewe’s company is ineligible for any logging operations, according to the National Forestry Reform Law. Businesspeople who concede to such a crime are barred by the law from any kind of forest resource license for five years.
ILC applied for prequalification to do logging in Liberia last year but has not been approved, according to Paasewe and sources at the FDA. The agency did not provide The DayLight copies of ILC’s application documents, though public access to such information is guaranteed under the National Forestry Reform Law and the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between Liberia and the European Union. The FDA had flouted its own Regulation on Bidder Qualifications by initially prequalifying UFC for Sehzueplay with the Postmaster General of the Republic of Liberia one of its shareholders.
Paasewe says he is willing to relinquish his shares in ILC or place them in a firm or a person he has no control over to be in line with the law.
“We’re going to have to do an overhauling. When we are reapplying, you can be assured of that,” he says.
“I am grateful for the work you do because this will keep everybody’s foot to the fire to do what is right. Whether we are victims or whatever, I think when you are called to order, you should always be ready to correct and do your best. What you are trying to save is not for me but for the generation coming after me,” he adds.
Paasewe’s criminal record worsens things for UFC. Like conflict of interest, its unauthorized transfer of the agreement to ILC is another ground for termination of its contract, according to the forestry reform law.
Kruah already faces a fine between US$10,000 and up to three times the money he has received from UFC if he is convicted in a mandatory lawsuit. Now, he faces a US$2,000 fine and a 24-month prison term over UFC’s mining deals in this same Tappita region. And he faces suspension or dismissal for breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials, the same offense the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) alleges the Minister of Agriculture Jeannie Cooper committed.
Kruah, a lawyer, claims that turning over his five-percent shares to Prince Kruah, his son, also a lawyer, prevents him from a conflict of interest. “His son is above the constitutional decision-making age and he even [owns] more shares than his father, which is his right under the Constitution of Liberia,” says Caesar Slapeh, a spokesman of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in a Facebook message to The DayLight.
But that is not what the law says. It mandates an official of the government to relinquish their shares in private companies doing business with the government to an “entity outside the person’s influence and control, such as an unrelated individual or a blind trust…” With Prince Kruah’s 15 percent equity in UFC, according to the company’s “amended” article of incorporation, Minister Kruah now has more stakes in the company and is in starker contrast with the law.
Most of the violations we find mirror UFC’s role in the infamous Private Use Permit (PUP) Scandal of 2012, in which some 2.5 million hectares of forests were illegally awarded to logging companies. An official inquest found the company committed several offenses while logging in Butaw District, Sinoe County between 2010 and 2012. That investigation found that UFC did not conduct an environmental and social impact assessment, skipped an environmental permit, did not present a harvesting certificate before commencing logging and that it paid community benefits into a personal account, among other things. UFC’s permit and 62 others were canceled in what remains the biggest scandal to engulf the forestry sector since the end of the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003).
Amid these violations, UFC has not lived up to the agreement it signed with Sehzueplay, another legal reason for the cancelation of its contract. The company owes the community land-rental fees and an unspecified amount from logs it has harvested in the 6,890-hectare woodland, according to Wobuah. In addition to the school building and leadership quarter in that illegal deal with ILC, UFC has failed to pave a 19-kilometer road, provide drinking water sources and an annual US$4,000 for scholarships.
Official records of the company’s payments corroborate the community’s account. UFC owes both the community and the Liberian government US$155,000, according to the joint implementation committee of the VPA. That is the second-highest debt owned by a company operating in a community forest. Only Liberia Tree and Timber Trading Company (LTTC) has more, US$269,007.
Nanleh Vaye, a member of Sehzueplay’s leadership says UFC has had struggles with equipment. He tells us that disgruntle workers of the company months earlier stole parts from its earthmovers in an apparent disagreement over wages. We see four of the machines parked in the area: two at its office in Korlay and two others on the route leading to the logs. They look like they have not moved for a long time.
“They have not sold one piece of logs from that forest,” Vaye says. “We agreed to give them chance until they can sell.”
But you can sense the general frustration over the UFC among villagers. They have known about Kruah’s ownership of UFC but had thought it would work in their interest as a lawyer and native of Sehzueplay.
“Cooper Kruah said he wanted jobs for Doe Administrative District,” one villager says. UFC has held several mining claims predominantly in this area, the focus of our next investigation on Kruah’s illegal businesses.
“He’s [a] shareholder of the community and legal advisor for the community,” says another, “but he takes the company over us.”
The Forestry Development Authority (FDA), did not grant The DayLight an interview on the company’s illegal operations. We made the first request in a letter on the 27th of last month and followed up with an email more than two weeks after. Managing Director Mike Doryen had said in a phone conversation, “Rest assured, we will take the appropriate action. I will not protect any official of government who breaks the law.”
This story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).