27.3 C
Monrovia
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Home Tags Illegal logging

Tag: illegal logging

Company Abandons Contract, Leaving Debts and Logs In Bassa

0

Top: Decayed and burned logs African Wood and Lumber Company harvested from the Marblee and Karblee Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By Emmanuel Sherman


Editor’s Note: This story is part of The DayLight’s series on Failed Logging Concessions in Liberia.

COMPOUND NUMBER TWO, Grand Bassa – No one is present at the facility. There are old logging pieces of equipment. Grass has overtaken logs scattered across an open field, with nearly all already decayed. A few still brandish: “AWL,” which stands for African Wood and Lumber Company.  

Owned by an Italian businessman Cesare Colombo, African Wood signed a contract with    Marblee and Karblee Community Forest in July 2019. The deal gave the company the right to harvest trees in a 24,355-hectare forest in Grand Bassa’s Compound Number Two. In exchange, the company would sell the logs and give the community an array of benefits, including fees for harvesting, land rental, and scholarships.

But in the last three years, African Wood has abandoned the contract, leaving behind about a US$100,000 debt, unfulfilled projects and piles of logs, according to the leadership of the community.

“The general feeling is that the people feel bad. Nobody feels good about it,” says Abraham Cooper, the head of the community’s forestry leadership. We regret it deeply.”

“The company ran away overnight,” says Oretha Tay, a cook, who claims the company owes her for a year. A security guard, who asked not to be named over fear of reprisal, backed Tay’s comments.

In the three years of abandonment, African Wood and Lumber owes Marblee and Karblee US$66,289 in land rental, scholarship and harvesting fees. That figure could increase by US$19,740 by August later this year.

Besides, African Wood did not construct any roads as promised in the contract, according to the community leadership. Under the agreement, it should have constructed and maintained four roads in affected communities by now.

The community wrote Colombo in August last year and expressed concerns about the delayed payments. “[The community] is asking the company to please pay this money in this August of 2022. We don’t want any further confusion between the community and the company,” the letter read, citing an earlier row over the payments.

An old truck is parked at African Wood and Lumber Company’s log yard in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

That letter came five months after a previous one in March of that year. “The more you keep the forest without operation, the more royalties such as land rental fees and annual scholarship fees will accumulate,” that letter said. “Our community forest will be left in suspense. We are not prepared to [condone] such.”

A week later, Christopher Beh Bailey, African Wood and Lumber’s regional manager and former Superintendent of Grand Gedeh County replied. Bailey said African Wood “was about to undertake the settlement of the royalties and social obligations.” However, he said it would not pay any fees for 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He claimed that the government of Liberia had halted all logging activities that year. Bailey declined to comment for this story.

Bailey’s claims are not backed by facts. While the coronavirus pandemic disrupted logging activities nationally, the Liberian government did not halt logging activities. It only imposed partial lockdowns for Monrovia and other parts of the country between March and May.

Moreover, African Wood remained active in Marblee and Karblee while the pandemic raged on. Between 2019 and 2021, it harvested 2,682 logs amounting to 18,175.145 cubic meters in the forest, according to official records.

That volume of logs adds to African Wood’s debt to the community. The community’s leadership puts the cost to an estimated US$40,000, according to the March 2022 letter.

Unlike many in the sector, the contract between African Wood and Marblee and Karblee imbeds development dues into harvesting fees. Under their agreement, the company must pay US$4 for a cubic meter of log.  Of that amount, US$2.25 goes towards community projects.  However, the failure of the company to pay has left affected towns and villages without handpumps, toilets, a school and a clinic.

In another letter in March this year, Cooper called on the FDA to collect its benefits from African Wood and terminate their agreement.

“They breached the contract. So, based on this we want to cancel the contract with the company,” Cooper tells The DayLight in an interview. 

“We the community people don’t have money to go to court because we are looking at FDA to be in the interest of the community. We want a swift answer from FDA,” Cooper adds.  The FDA did not reply to questions The DayLight emailed to the agency.

Abandoned Logs

From 2019 when African Wood felled its first tree in Marblee and Karblee, to 2021, when it ceased operations there, it did not export any of the 2,682 logs it harvested. A good number of the logs in a log yard on the Buchanan highway have decomposed, with some burned. Cooper says there are many logs still in the forest and at another location, a few of which The DayLight photographed.

An abandoned African Wood and Lumber Company campsite in Karblee Clan, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

In Liberian forestry, logs are abandoned if they are unattended for between three weeks to six months, depending on their location according to the Regulation on Abandoned Logs, Timber and Timber Products. In this case, all of African Wood and Lumber’s logs were abandoned latest June last year, according to our analysis of the situation and the regulation.  

The FDA said on Tuesday that it would confiscate and auction abandoned logs across the country to curb the widespread nature of the violation. It would be the first time in more than a decade of forestry reform for the FDA to enforce the regulation. Like communities, the government loses revenue when a company does not export the logs it produces. It loses export royalties and may lose stumpage fees, a percentage of the cost of a volume of logs, depending on the species.

African Wood’s failure in Marblee and Karblee adds to Colombo’s notoriety in the logging industry. In 2020, African Wood and Lumber felled 550 trees in the Gbarsaw and Dorbor Community Forest without authorization. The FDA is yet to punish the company for that violation, one of the gravest in forestry. African Wood also owes affected communities their logging-related fees.

A log African Wood and Lumber Company abandoned in the Marblee and Karblee Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

And the International Capital Consultant (ICC), the company Colombo managed before he purchased Africa Wood and Lumber, owes affected communities in Nimba and River Cess huge debts. It also abandoned over 5,000 logs in that region.

Colombo did not reply to emailed questions. However, speaking about communities’ debts last year in an interview with The DayLight, he defended African Wood over debt criticisms. He said he had invested millions in Liberia’s forestry sector and was “committed to our obligation, and we never undermine the intent of the forestry reform in Liberia.” He has also in the past blamed small-scale loggers or chainsaw millers for not meeting his responsibilities to communities.


This story was produced by the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

FDA Axes Illegal Loggers and Wasteful Companies

0

Top: The headquarters of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) in Paynesville. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue


MONROVIA – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has banned a Turkish logging company and barred its shareholders for illegal logging activities in Liberia, the agency said in a press release on Tuesday.

The FDA said Askon Liberia General Trading Limited abused its sawmill license and extracted and exported timber. The agency said it would recommend prosecution for its owners: Hassan, Yetar and Faith Uzan.

“The permit issued required Askon to source logs from legal sources and not engage in the informal harvesting of logs,” the FDA said.  “The investigation into the whereabouts of these individuals will progress, and subsequent actions will be recommended or referred to the justice system of Liberia.”

Askon Illegal operation campsite between Ganta and Sanniquellie, Nimba County. The DayLight/Gerald C. Koinyeneh

Askon’s illegal operations were exposed by The DayLight in March.  The report said Askon ran an illegal operation in Nimba County in which it harvested and smuggled timber in containers. It named Assistant Minister of Trade Peter Somah as an accomplice.  The FDA said it took the report “seriously.”

Hasan Uzan, Askon’s majority shareholder, did not immediately respond to questions for comment on this story.

The FDA also said it took action against logging companies for stockpiling logs across the country.  Companies abandon logs when they do not attend to the woods between three weeks and six months, depending on their location, according to the Regulation on Abandoned Logs, Timber and Timber Products.  

The agency announced it has suspended the harvesting certificates of Mandra Forestry, Ruby Light Forestry and Atlantic Resources. A recent report by The DayLight found Mandra abandoned some 7,000 logs from its contract with the Sewacajua Community Forest. Ruby Light Forestry, which operates in a large concession that extends to Grand Gedeh, has perhaps the largest field of abandoned logs in the country. Holding a logging concession covering Maryland, River Gee and Grand Kru, Atlantic Resources has abandoned a host of logs, including decayed ones in an open field in Greenville, Sinoe County.

This drone photo shows some of Mandra’s abandoned logs outside Greenville, Sinoe County

“This decision is prompted by the failure of these companies to honor the mandate from the FDA to enroll all logs harvested in LiberTrace,” the FDA said. LiberTrace is the system to tracks logs from their sources to final destinations.

Companies that have abandoned logs but do not have harvesting certificates will not be allowed to fell any trees until they export the wood, the FDA said.

The agency said it had initiated actions to confiscate abandoned logs. According to it, the action will deter companies from further harvesting logs without exporting them, one of the most common forestry violations today. Under the law, the FDA must petition a court to confiscate and auction abandoned logs.

“Companies in both categories, suspended certificates and otherwise, may be subject to further [penalties]…,” the FDA said.

Representatives of the three companies did not return WhatsApp messages for their sides of the story. However, in April, Augustine Johnson, Mandra’s manager, falsely argued the logs were not abandoned because they were durable, and that he had already paid the royalties on them. “Before you talk about abandonment. I am expecting a ship to come to Greenville by the second week in next month to get the logs out,” Johnson told The DayLight in a phone interview at the time.

A screenshot of pictures showing decayed logs Atlantic Resources Limited harvested and kept in a log yard in Greenville, Sinoe County. The DayLight/Eric Opa Doue

In January, Massaquoi Robert, a transport supervisor of Ruby Light, too, wrongly argued that the company had abandoned no logs.

“We’re defacing the logs you see there. We have sales contracts right now,” Robert said at the time. “My logs are not rotten. You are not a logger, I say my logs are useful.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Runs An Illegal Logging Company

0
created by dji camera

Top: A drone shot of logs in a log yard just outside Greenville, Sinoe County. The DayLight/Derick Snyder  


By Eric Opa Doue and James Harding Giahyue  


  • Deputy Foreign Minister for Administration Thelma Comfort Duncan Sawyer controls Tetra Enterprise, a logging company operating in a community forest in River Cess County. That is according to documents The DayLight obtained, and her lawyer
  • That violates the Liberian laws, including the Constitution, the Code of Conduct for Public Officials and the National Forestry Reform Law
  • Sawyer could well be the owner of the Tetra. Her lawyer claims her family established Tetra as a “fallback position.” The company is legally owned by a woman named Annabel Morris. However,  Tetra has a bearer share that is held by an unregistered individual  
  • Liberia’s Business Association Law prohibits bearer shares, which means the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has illegally approved Tetra’s operations
  • The company in question owes communities affected by its operation, failed to live up to its agreement with villagers and has abandoned a huge volume of logs  

GOZOHN, River Cess – In October 2020, President George Weah appointed Thelma Comfort Duncan Sawyer, the manager/proprietor of Tetra Enterprise Inc., a logging company, as the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister for Administration. Eight months later in June 2021, the Liberian Senate confirmed her. 

But even after assuming office, Sawyer has continued to run Tetra Enterprise’s operations in the Garwin Community Forest of River Cess County’s Morweh District, communications between Sawyer and the community forest’s leadership show. The letters discussed managerial issues:  a new agreement, delayed payments, abandoned logs, and failed projects Tetra had promised in their March 2017 agreement for the 36,637-hectare forest.

“On behalf of the community and my family, we [wholeheartedly] welcome you back to Liberia,” read one letter Rev. Benison Sackor, the head of the Garwin Community Forest’s leadership, wrote to Sawyer on November 16 last year.

“Things have been so tied in your absence. We are pleased that you are here,” it added. Frank Nimmo, the chairman of Tetra’s board of directors, replied to Sackor’s letter on Sawyer’s behalf eight days after. 

In an interview with The DayLight, Sackor said he addressed every communication for Tetra directly to Sawyer, who “instructs” it what to do.  His comments were corroborated by other members of Garwin’s leadership, including Rev. Harry Gueh, the head of its executive committee, the highest decision-making body. William Yeasay, the public relation officer of Tetra, confirmed Sawyer took major decisions for the company.

Running a company while holding a government position contravenes a number of Liberian laws. The National Forest Reform Law debars members of the cabinet from conducting commercial forestry activities. Violators of the law face a fine between US$10,000 and US$25,000, up to three times the sum they received from their companies or a prison term of up to 12 months. Sawyer’s relationship with Tetra is a conflict of interest, a breach of the Liberian Constitution and the Code of Conduct for Public Officials. Penalties for this breach include a suspension or a dismissal.

“[A conflict of interest] hurts a country or any organization because the person having a such conflict of interest is likely not to be objective, but to put [their] personal connection or interest above the collective,” said one lawyer, who asked not to be named. 

Former  Interim President of Liberia Dr. Amos Sawyer and his wife Thelma Comfort Duncan Sawyer, Deputy Foreign Minister for Administration, created Tetra Enterprise Inc. to bring in extra income for the family, according to Stephen Kai, Thelma Sawyer’s lawyer.  Thelma Sawyer runs Tetra Enterprises, which operates in the  Garwin Community Forest in River Cess County, according to documents obtained by The DayLight. Picture credit: The Liberian Embassy in the United States.

Sawyer, who has a faculty lounge named after her at a college at the University of Liberia honoring  Dr. Amos Sawyer, her late husband, has a history of alleged dishonesty with Garwin. Sawyer had lost a bid to acquire the forest in 2016 Xylopia Incorporated, a company with her registered shares.  A 2016 media report and a 2018 Global Witness report alleged she bribed and coerced villagers to sign a deal at the time. The media report by Mongabay alleged Xylopia paid villagers US$150, alcohol and rice for the villagers’ signatures.

In forestry, villagers own adjacent forests and have a right to co-manage them with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA). Illegally, Sawyer’s Xylopia had signed a memorandum of understanding with Garwin even before it legalized that right. The parties agreed that “It is clearly understood that no third party will come between the people of Garwin and Xylopia… It is also understood that Xylopia is the only company that will work with the people of Garwin.” The FDA terminated the deal following a protest. Global Witness used the incident to highlight how businesspeople were undermining community forestry, which was created to benefit locals.

Eventually, Tetra, co-owned by a Liberian woman named Annabel Morris, won the bid for the forest, with harvestable trees covering 96 percent of it. The Global Witness report also alleged Tetra, backed by county authorities, bribed villagers to seal the deal.

‘Fallback Position’

It was unclear how Sawyer ended up at Tetra but there are indications the widow of the fallen Chairman of the Governance Commission co-owns it. The Global Witness report cited unnamed villagers who claimed Tetra was the same as Xylopia. The DayLight obtained two January letters from the Office of the Acting Paramount Chief of Garwin Chiefdom that provide some clues. One of the letters addressed Sawyer and the other Senator Wellington Geevon Smith.

“We write to formally complain to you about the behavior of Tetra, a Logging Company which you introduced to our community as your corporation…,” the letter that addressed Sawyer read. The other one to Smith also restates Thelma Sawyer had allegedly brought the company “to harvest Garwin Community Forest.” Smith did not pick up our call.  

Stephen Kai, Thelma Sawyer’s lawyer, claimed that the Sawyer family had created the company as a familial contingency project. “The old man (Dr. Amos Sawyer) decided to establish something as [a] fallback position whenever he [reached] the age of retirement,” Kai said. “[Thelma Sawyer] was doing nothing, so her husband decided, ‘Look you have to do something to see how we can generate extra incomes.’”

The Office of the Paramount Chief of Garwin Chiefdom recognizes Deputy Foreign Minister Thelma Duncan Sawyer as the owner of Tetra Enterprise Inc, co-owned by an unregistered person. Stephen Kai, her lawyer, backs villagers’ claim she co-owns the company, adding her family had established it as a “fallback position.” The company’s only known co-owner is a woman named Annabel Morris, who served as its general manager in 2018.
A page of a handwritten complaint chiefs and elders filed with Monweh Magisterial Court in River Cess County to halt Tetra’s logging operations in the Garwin Community Forest.

Tetra’s Secret Shareholder

Tetra’s shadowy ownership apparently supports Kai’s claims.  Morris holds 51 percent of the company’s shares, 19 percent are reserved and 30 percent are bearer shares, according to the company’s article of incorporation.  Bearer shares are shares whose holders are not registered or named. Firms pay dividends to the holders of the bearer shares based on an arrangement between the company and the bearer shares holder.

Kai may have simplified Tetra’s complex, shady ownership but he contradicts other facts about the firm. Thelma Sawyer already had Xylopia when Tetra was established, suggesting the Sawyers may have created the latter firm to get Garwin, not generally for extra income as Kai puts it.

But Tetra’s bearer shares make it ineligible for forestry activities in the country, anyways. The Business Association Law as amended in 2020 prohibits bearer shares in Liberia. It compelled firms in the country to convert such shares into registered shares as of December 31, 2020. The change in the law was part of a global effort to abolish bearer shares, which can lead to terrorist financing and tax evasion. It reinforces the reform agenda of Liberian forestry, which debars certain individuals from commercial logging, including human rights violators, embezzlers and fraudsters. It also renders the FDA’s approval of the company’s operations in the last two years and today illegal.

Kai did not comment on the bearer share issue.  He, however, said Sawyer had stepped aside and the “day-to-day activities of the company are now being handled by her sister-in-law Esther Sawyer, sister to the late Dr. Amos Sawyer.” He added Nimmo, another relative, had been appointed as the chairman of the company’s board of directors to avoid a conflict of interest.

“We advised her as lawyers and she in fact said to us, ‘Look, any communication or any contact, you deal with… Esther.’ And so that we are aware of. But [did she communicate] that to all the stakeholders? No, I can’t say that,” Kai added. Efforts to get comments from Esther Sawyer and Morris—Tetra’s general manager in 2018, according to FDA records—were unsuccessful.    

The involvement of Esther Sawyer and Nimmo with Tetra still remains a violation of the forestry law.  Individuals who companies-linked officials have control over are barred from commercial logging activities, too. The law requires government officials to transfer their shares or roles in a company to a blind trust or someone outside their control, not relatives. A blind trust is a firm that manages’ people’s businesses to avoid conflicts of interest.

The FDA again broke the law and the Regulation on Bidders Qualification to authorize Tetra’s operations with the Sawyers’ relatives. The regulation requires to disapprove of logging contracts connected with government officials—or their relatives.

Thelma Sawyer or her relatives aside, the FDA would have broken the regulation if Thelma Sawyer is actually one of Tetra’s owners. Though bearer shares were legal in Liberia in 2017 when Tetra was created, the regulation mandates the FDA to get a full list of companies shareholders. Then the agency can tell whether or not the companies’ owners are on its debarment list.

In 2021, the FDA approved Tetra’s harvesting plan amid conflicts between a map of the plan and another plan for its entire five-year operations in Garwin, according to a report by SGS, a Swiss firm that co-manages Liberia’s log-tracking system. Interestingly, Tetra harvested 4,264 that year it would abandon based on FDA records. The FDA did not respond to emailed questions for comments on this story.

Unfulfilled Promises and Abandoned Logs

Tetra’s bearer shares and links to Thelma Sawyer do not conclude the company’s illegalities.

Tetra has abandoned a large volume of logs. Between 2018 and 2021, Tetra harvested 46,729 cubic meters of logs and only exported just 18,690 cubic meters,  according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI). Thus, it abandoned 28,039.6 cubic meters of logs, based on The DayLight’s analysis of the LEITI records. It owed US$70,574.93 as of March 31, last year relating to its operations, minutes of a high-profile meeting of forestry actors at the time show.

Tetra has begun work in Garwin in the absence of a new agreement. That is against the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands that created community forestry. The law calls for companies to review their agreements with communities every five years before felling any other trees.

Tetra has not lived up to its agreement with Garwin. As per the agreement, Tetra should have constructed 18 handpumps in Garwin’s 15 towns and villages within its five years of operations. It only constructed two, according to locals. It also failed to build a school in the area, supply drugs to community clinics and build bridges.

Chiefs and elders have lodged a complaint with the Moweh Magisterial Court. “Six years have gone and the company failed to implement the provisions of the contract,” the April 7 complaint read. “We write to seek your intervention to stop all logging activities by the company until the contract is reviewed.”

The Story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

New Contract for Rogue Company’s Owner

0

Top: A collage showing Iroko harvesting activities in October 2022. Picture credit: Iroko Timber and Logging Corporation


By Emmanuel Sherman


KARQUEKPO, Sinoe County – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has approved a contract for Iroko Timber and Logging Corporation, a new Nigerian-owned company, to operate the Central Dugbe River Community Forest. The company began logging in the fourth quarter of last year, according to its website and Facebook page.  

But there is a problem with Iroko’s Dugbe River deal and operations in the 13,193-hectare forest. Timothy Odebunmi, Iroko’s majority shareholder, is not eligible to conduct logging activities in Liberia over the dishonesty of another company he co-owns.

That firm, Akewa Group of Companies, falsified the tax clearance of a mining company called Tiger Quarry to bid for the Gola Konneh Community Forest in Grand Cape Mount County in 2019. At the time, Akewa paid US$1,000 as a fine for the forgery, a violation of the Revenue Code. Odebunmi holds 50 percent of Iroko’s shares and 20 percent of Akewa’s, according to the articles of incorporation of both firms at the Liberia Business Registry. Iroko’s other shareholders are Samson Odebunmi (45 percent) and Akinsiku Arinkan (5 percent).  Abigail Funke Odebunmi (60 percent) and Kenneth Amazeika (20 percent) complete the list of Akewa’s shareholders.

Odebunmi’s co-ownership of Akewa, Iroko, which he co-founded in 2021, should have disqualified the Iroko’s bid for Central Dugbe River. The Regulation on Bidders Qualifications bars individuals whose companies have been convicted or penalized for theft, embezzlement, bribery, tax evasion, false swearing, or forgery. With Akewa having paid a fine for forgery, Odebunmi should not have gotten another logging contract until 2024, according to the regulation.

Akewa with Odebunmi as a shareholder has violated a horde of provisions of forestry laws and regulations. One of the oldest active logging companies, Akewa long line of violations includes its involvement in forestry’s worst post-conflict scandal, in which the FDA criminally awarded 2.5 million hectares of forests to it and other companies. It has a track record of prolonged indebtedness to communities. Currently, it is in an out-of-court settlement with the Beyan Poye Community Forest regarding benefits.

Iroko’s Woes Amid FDA’s Failure

Iroko’s agreement with Central Dugbe River adds to the FDA’s records of failure to enforce forestry legal frameworks. Before then, the FDA had failed to disqualify Akewa over fake tax clearance, which also constitutes perjury under the regulation. It remains Akewa’s only active logging operation, with the Beyan Poye legal issues and the cancelation of a logging contract the company illegally held in Grand Bassa County.

“We prevented Akewa from doing further business until they could provide [their] tax clearance,” said Managing Director Mike Doryen in an interview with The DayLight in June last year. “They rectified it and they paid a fine and that’s how we resumed business with them.” The Bidders Qualification Regulation requires the FDA to disqualify companies that commit forgery and perjury. It did not respond to emailed inquiries for comments.  

A screenshot of Iroko’s website page showing logs the company harvested in October 2022 and only transported to another location in February

Assessing the qualification of companies is an important provision of forest management in Liberia. It mandates the FDA to investigate the character of companies and individuals, their financial capacities, and their record of legal compliance.

Iroko’s ineligibility has started to show in its operation. It has abandoned an unspecified number of logs it harvested in October last year. Photographs and a video posted to the company’s website and Facebook page show some of the logs in the forest. Akin George, a representative of the company, confirmed the harvesting in a mobile interview in March.

Logs do not remain where they were harvested for more than one month and two weeks upon harvest, according to the Regulation on Abandoned Logs, Timber and Timber Products. The logs in question have remained in the forest far beyond that statutory period.

George said the company was taking the logs from where they were harvested to another location in the forest. Bartee Togba, the head of the Central Dugbe River’s leadership, said the same. Togba said Iroko began to transfer the logs in late February, some four months after it felled the trees.  The forest is a portion of 39,000 hectares and includes a proposed protected area between Grand Kru and Sinoe.  

The Dugbe River Community Forest map. Credit: Forestry Development Authority (FDA)

Iroko’s logs add to thousands of abandoned logs across the country, with the FDA taking no known public actions. The abandoned logs regulation mandates the agency to investigate, seize the logs and petition a court to auction them. Penalties for the offense include fines and forfeiture of the contract.  

The total volume of the logs,  in question, is essential for Iroko to pay the community’s benefits. Last year April, the community signed a 15-year commercial use contract with Iroko Timber Logging Corporation. It promised to build two elementary schools, handpumps, guesthouses and a clinic.

Efforts to establish contact with Timothy Odebunmi did not materialize. There is no trace of his phone number, email address or WhatsApp. In January, George promised to get Timothy Odebunmi to speak to the issue but failed to do so.

George evaded several attempts for an interview on the situation on behalf of the company. The DayLight reached out to George through phone calls and Facebook messages and WhatsApp text messages but to no avail.


The story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

The Turkish Illegal Loggers And Their Government Partner

0

Top: A truck offloads Askon Liberian General Trading Inc.’s planks on Gompa Wood Field in Ganta on November 11, 2022. The DayLight/Gabriel M. Dixon


By Mark B. Newa


  • Askon Liberia General Trading Inc., a Turkish-owned forestry company, runs at least one illegal logging operation between Ganta and Sanniquellie in Nimba County. It smuggles timber out of Liberia in containers, making use of online business platforms and social media
  • Assistant Minister for Trade Peter Somah aided the company in smuggling expensive wood to India that cost over US$19,000, according to an illegal export permit The DayLight obtained.  The money did not go into the Liberian government coffers, according to official records
  • Askon also trades planks on the local market in Ganta, a business meant solely for Liberians
  • Local Authorities shut down Askon’s operation in November 2022 over community benefits
  • The rangers of the Forestry Development Authority not far from Askon’s worksite claimed they were not aware of its operations  

ZULUYEE, Nimba – Last November, local authorities ordered a Turkish company to halt its logging operations in a forest between Ganta and Sanniquellie.   

The Office of the Superintendent in Sanniquellie said Askon Liberia General Trading Incorporated did not have a logging contract and did not pay benefits to communities adjacent to the Garr-Mongbain Community Forest.  Askon had come to Zuluyee in 2020, harvesting valuable redwood. The decision of county authorities followed some two years of residents’ anger over the company’s operations and suspicion it was illegally harvesting.

“The company did not come to us here,” said Faliku Kromah, a liaison and political affairs officer in the Superintendent’s office. “They passed the other way and went to do their thing in the forest.”  

The local authorities were right. Askon does not have a legitimate contract to log in Liberia. It runs an illegal logging cabal that involves four Turkish nationals and several Liberians, including an official of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. That is according to Askon’s legal documents, official tax payment records, an illegal export permit and pictures from social media.   

In addition to breaking forestry laws and regulations, Askon violated immigration and labor statutes, depriving Liberia of much-needed revenue, the tax records show.

‘See you soon… Turkey’

Askon began with a series of visits by a Liberian named Sylvester Suah to Turkey between November 2015 and December 2016, based on Suah’s Facebook page. Suah, a native of Nimba, held several meetings with his hosts and returned to Liberia. “See you soon, Istanbul, Turkey. Monrovia Liberia here we come…,” a December 1, 2015 post reads. “This is our own way of saying goodbye to each other my friend and business partner.”

By November 2017, Askon was established. It is owned by three Turks of the same family—Hasan Uzan (80 percent), Yeter Uzan (10 percent), and Faith Uzan (five percent)— according to the company’s article of incorporation. The remaining five percent of its shares are outstanding. The document was amended on September 14, 2020, but has not been enrolled at the Liberian Business Registry, a breach of the Business Association Act.

In a WhatsApp message to The DayLight late last year, Suah appeared to justify Askon’s illegal dealings. “I brought those people to Liberia for us to do bigger business but our country people in authority have their own way of delaying people’s progress,” Suah said while in Ghana to get a visa for another visit to Turkey. “That’s [why] you see it is starting that local way… to see how we will be treated before we can… expand.”

Sylvester Suah takes a selfie with four Turkish men in Istanbul, Turkey on November 24, 2015. That was Suah’s first trip that was instrumental to the establishment of Askon Liberia General Trading Inc., a company conducting illegal logging activities in Nimba. Photo credit: Facebook/Sylvester Suah  

Askon’s operations in Nimba go back to 2019 when it signed an agreement with the Gba Community Forest in the Sanniquellie area. Askon agreed to pay US$35 per cubic meter of the logs it harvested on a 45-acre plot of land in that area, according to the agreement. It was unclear what happened thereafter, as there are no mandatory official records of it, except for a USAID report.

Today, Askon operates in Zuluyee, in the Yarpea and Garr-Mongbain forest region between Ganta and Sanniquellie. At its campsite, our reporter saw chainsaws, mobile sawmills, a 30-horsepower diesel tractor, several trucks and a bulldozer.  Its workforce is between 10 and 50 workers, according to Lesprom, a Russia-based wood-trading platform on which the company trades. The region and the rest of Nimba account for 315,000 hectares of tree cover loss between 2001 and 2021. Only Bong County lost more (363,000 hectares), according to Global Forest Watch, which monitors forests across the world.  

“The company is using a mobile saw that clears a large portion of bush and trees in seconds,” one chainsaw operator said, asking not to be named.

“The company is cutting trees all over here. All the trees will soon finish from here,” a community leader added under the same condition.  

Five other people buttressed the operator and community leader. Photographs our reporter took show planks and thick, sawn timbers, commonly called “Kpokolo” at Askon’s campsite. Also called block wood, the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) recently banned kpokolo, as it became synonymous with illegal exports.

Pictures Hasan Uzan posted to his WhatsApp profile suggest kpokolo activities. One picture showcases squared timbers made from expensive wood stacked in containers and on wooden platforms. Another picture shows men uploading timber into a container truck. And one shows a variety of tree species with different colors. The profile reads: “Tropical timber center Askon sawmill, Monrovia, Liberia.”

Askon has exported different species of processed timber that are shipped to Asia and Europe, according to Global Wood Trade Network, a leading marketplace for timber and wood products. Askon’s LinkedIn account also identifies it as an export and import company, and it trades on other online marketplaces.

Peter Somah, Assistant Minister for Trade at the Ministry of Commerce awarded an illegal permit to Askon leading the Turkish company to ship two containers of timber to India in 2020. Picture credit: Facebook/Peter D. Somah

Illegal Permit

A permit The DayLight obtained shows Askon exported two 20-foot containers of ekki wood in October 2020 at US$9,900 each. Ekki wood or Azobe is a durable redwood used in shipbuilding and outdoor construction. It sold for US$293 a cubic meter on the international market that year, according to the International Timber Trade Organization. Askon sold the consignment to Green Wood, a firm in India, according to the document. Efforts to get comments from the company were unsuccessful.

There are other legality woes. Hasan Uzan is a resident of the Police Academy in Paynesville, according to Askon’s legal documents. However, Askon’s tax payment records show that he and Umit Gungor, a fellow Turkish national, have never obtained a resident or work permit. (Gungor came to Liberia on January 25, last year) That is a violation of the Aliens and Nationality Law and the Decent Work Act. Work and resident permits are prerequisites to conducting commercial logging in Liberia.  

Assistant Minister for Trade at the Ministry of Commerce Peter Somah, signed the illegal document. Somah awarded the permit outside of Liberia’s timber-tracking system called LiberTrace. National Forestry Reform Law and Regulation on the Establishment of a Chain of Custody System bars trading timber outside LiberTrace. A pillar of Liberia’s forestry reform, the system tracks timbers from their sources to their final destinations, verifying legal requirements. It is a foothold of the country’s international timber trade, following decades of civil wars and mismanagement.

“No person shall import, transport, process, or export unless the timber is accurately enrolled in the chain of custody,” the law provides.

“Holders of forest resource licenses comply with all legal requirements facilitating the accurate assessment and remittance of forest charges and keeping illegal logs of the domestic and illegal markets,” according to the regulation.

Furthermore, the US$19,800 Askon paid for the two containers did not go to the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) as required by law, according to Askon’s tax payment record.

The Somah-issued Askon permit is unlawful, as it lacks features legal permits contain. It has no tracking barcodes, not signed by the FDA’s legality verification department (LVD) and SGS, a Swiss firm that created the system. And it is not rubberstamped by the Managing Director of the FDA Mike Doryen.

In an interview with The DayLight, Somah sidestepped questions about the illegality of the permit, providing a lecture on trade instead. Then he displayed a file of papers he said were permits he had approved. Similarly, efforts to have him address a set of emailed follow-up questions four months later proved unsuccessful.   

A screenshot of a container of sawn timber or kpokolo from the WhatsApp profile of Hasan Uzan, an illegal Turkish logger.
Assistant Minister of Commerce Peter Somah awarded an illegal export permit to Askon Liberia General Trading

Illicit activities have rocked the forestry sector in the last three years or so. A recent Associated Press investigation found that Liberian officials appeared to collude with illegal loggers to export timber. Citing diplomatic documents, the report said Liberia may have a “parallel system” to the legal channel for timber exports. In January, a court indicted a former police chief, a customs officer, and three rangers over an illegal export deal. The policeman had been dismissed before the indictment.  

FDA rangers—George Gaye, a ranger assigned at the Ganta checkpoint, and Bah Kromah assigned at the Guinea border—said they were not aware of Askon’s operations.

“The lack of mobility is hindering my operation as I am not able to patrol or visit nearby forest communities,” Bah Kromah told The DayLight in September last year. However, Askon’s operation site is just a 15-minute drive from Ganta and is an open secret in that region.  

‘I need my money’

The villagers, too, said they were initially not aware of Askon’s harvesting their trees. “When we heard about this, we quickly called them to bring their equipment back to town,” recalled James Tokpah, an elder in Garr-Mongbain.

Thereafter, the villagers demanded Askon sign an agreement with them, according to several townspeople The DayLight interviewed. In the end, the illegal loggers promised to pay the community US$1,500 for every 1,000 pieces of timber, which Askon did not pay. That sparked anger, leaving local authorities to shut down its operations late last year.  

By November, Askon’s world was crumbling down. In addition to the villagers, it owed its workers and petroleum dealers, according to Hasan Uzan.  One of the workers said, “I need my money to pay my school fees and rent.”  

Suah declined to make further comments on the story, despite accepting an interview months earlier. He lunged into The DayLight for protecting the interest of the international community, and not companies. “When I am ready, I will write my own story,” he said at his home in Ganta.

A mobile sawmilling machine producing illegal block wood in the forest. The DayLight/Gerald Koiyenneh
Askon’s campsite and some of its sawn timber or kpokolo. The DayLight/ Gerald Koiyenneh

Hasan Uzan, Askon’s majority shareholder, denied exporting timbers with the permit when The DayLight tracked him down in Zuluyee. He refused to make further comments, referring our reporter to Suah, who he claimed was Askon’s owner.

On November 11, last year, The DayLight witnessed a truck Askon owns or hired offload planks for sale on the Gompa Wood Field in Ganta. One of the dealers, who preferred anonymity, said that the company frequently sold planks there. That breaks the Chainsaw Milling Regulation, which prohibits foreign nationals from selling planks in Liberia.

[Gerald C. Koinyeneh contributed to this story.]

The story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

Permit Shows FDA Boss Approved Illegal Timber Exports

0

Top: The Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) Mike Doryen blamed villagers for illegal logging. However, Doryen awarded an unlawful permit, according to a document The DayLight has obtained. The DayLight/Mark B. Newa


By James Harding Giahyue


MONROVIA – commenting at an international forest and climate conference in January, the Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) Mike Doryen blamed loggers and villagers for certain illegal forestry activities.

“These communities are undermining our efforts to deal with violations,” Doryen told delegates at the event.

“People go in the communities and take money from other people to harvest and transport timber to town, harvesting double board-foot outside what is required by law. It is illegal logging,” Doryen added. He meant compact, squared woods, smuggled in containers, which has rocked the logging industry to its core. The industry calls it “kpokolo.”

Ironically, an export permit the FDA awarded to a company years back, obtained by The DayLight, suggests Doryen himself is an architect of the illegal trade.     

Doryen and Edward Kamara, the FDA’s manager for forest product marketing and revenue forecast, issued the permit to Trans World Holdings Inc. outside the legal channel to export timber.   

“This is to confirm that Trans World Holding Inc. has met the Forestry Development Authority annual timber and timber products buying and exporting registration requirements as a non-contract holder in accordance with sustainable marketing strategy and the enterprise development,” read the document, signed only by the two men, in April 2021.

The permit shows a stark variance from the ones created by the FDA chain of custody system called LiberTrace. For instance, the document was valid for a year, unlike legal permits that are issued on a shipment-by-shipment basis. It contains at least one human error, something the legal permits are free of. It is the same as a permit Doryen awarded to an Ivorian-owned firm named Porgal, exposed in an investigation last year. The LiberTrace system is Liberia’s sole safeguard for the trading of legal timber on the international market.

The Trans World permit Doryen approved goes against the National Forestry Reform Law and Regulation on the Establishment of a Chain of Custody System. The law says, “No person shall import, transport, process, or export unless the timber is accurately enrolled in the chain of custody.” That ensures “Holders of forest resource licenses comply with all legal requirements facilitating the accurate assessment and remittance of forest charges and keeping illegal logs of the domestic and illegal markets,” according to the regulation.

Trans World paid US$1,000 for the permit, based on the receipt of the payment, obtained by The DayLight. There was no record the company paid the fee to the Liberia Revenue Authority, the government’s agency that collects taxes. Also, the Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (LEITI) did not capture the payment as the law requires. Instead, it made the payment in an FDA account at the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), controlled by Doryen. 

The permit authorized Trans World to purchase only legally sourced timbers. However, FDA checkpoints, under Doryen’s direct control have issued receipts for tolls businesses pay to transport kpokolo. There is no record rangers verified the sources of those woods before issuing receipts, Known as waybills in forestry.

The FDA Managing Director Mike Doryen awarded this permit to Trans World Holding Inc. to export timber outside the agency’s legal system. The money the company paid went to an account at a commercial bank controlled by Doryen.
Trans World Holdings Inc. obtained its permit to buy and export timber before paying for the document. The payment was not made to the Liberia Revenue Authority as mandated by law.

Waybills

Ziama Kpoto, one of Trans World’s owners, claimed he received several waybills to transport wood from different parts of the country. Kpoto presented two waybills, including one from a kpokolo trader in Nimba. The other shows rangers received L$90,820 for 100 pieces of kpokolo of a first-class species called Iroko, and 130 planks.  The kpokolo timbers measured six inches high, 10 inches wide and nine feet long. The transaction occurred on February 27, 2020, in Saclepea, Nimba County, according to that waybill.  However, Kpoto did not show any waybills related to the permit he received from Doryen.

Like a dozen waybills The DayLight has obtained, the Saclepea document is unlawful. By the chain of custody regulation, companies make waybill payments within LiberTrace system, not by rangers. Legally, the FDA should issue them in books of ten waybills, with US$150 per book. They must have an identification number, show the route of the transport, and contain the final destination of the timbers. Also, they must have the total volume, not just the sum of individual timbers as it is with kpokolo waybills.

A kpokolo operation site in Gbaryama, Gbarpolu County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

‘We’re not illegal loggers’

Kpokolo operations have rocked the forestry sector, especially in the last three years, with Nimba, Gbarpolu and Grand Cape Mount County hubs. Kpokolo operators The DayLight interviewed put their number between 60,000 and 80,000 countrywide, including everything from tree finders to transporters.

Kpoto was adamant kpokolo loggers operate outside of the law, saying their permits and waybills legitimize the trade. He claimed Doryen and Kamara misled them.

“[Kamara] is not telling us the right thing. We have [met him]… to tell us what to do,” Kpoto said in an interview with The DayLight. “You gave us a document.  When we go to work and come you say the chain of custody. What should we do?

“Up to now, he has not given the idea. He only collects money from us. So, you can’t call us illegal loggers,” Kpoto added. His comments echoed ones he had made on posts on The DayLight’s Facebook. He presented some documents related to kpokolo productions in communities in Gbarpolu, one dating back to 2018. He said Trans World did not export any timber under the permit, a claim The DayLight could not independently verify.

A pile of Kpokolo in Kolahun, Lofa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Kamara dismissed Kpoto’s “misconceptions.”

“Mr. Kpoto was never registered and issued an annual permit/certificate to harvest logs or buy logs from chainsaw milling operations for export,” said Kamara, who announced a ban on kpokolo Wednesday, February 15.   

Kamara claimed the FDA had issued “tens of these documents” to businesses across the country. He did not state how the FDA intended to prevent illegal timber trade having issued the permits outside of  LiberTrace. And he also did not say why the FDA did not make payments for the permits and waybills to the LRA, or published them.  

“We appreciate you all and we understand the anxiousness as [you] endeavor to satisfy [your] funding sources by running away with any story without understanding the rationale,” Kamara said, though he was responding to interview questions.

Doryen did not respond to a set of emailed questions. But the FDA has repeatedly accused The DayLight of “paid journalism deployed by our detractors to paint the FDA ugly in the eyes of the public.” On World Forest Day last week, Doryen accused partners of “double-standard games” for supporting “black hands” in the media.

This story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

FDA Says It Issued ‘Tens’ Of Permits Outside Legal System

0

Top: Illegal timber production has increased in recent years amid the FDA’s issuance of permits outside the legal system. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue


MONROVIA – The Forestry Development Authority said it has issued “tens” of export permits outside Liberia’s log-tracking system.

“Tens of these documents have been issued to businesses that have expressed intent to get involved in trading timber and non-timber forest products in Liberia,” said Edward Kamara, the FDA’s manager for forest product marketing and revenue forecast. The DayLight has requested access to all of the permits, a right guaranteed forestry legal frameworks, the Liberian Constitution and the Freedom of Information Act.

Kamara was replying to emailed queries from The DayLight on one of the permits. The DayLight had addressed the email to Managing Director Mike Doryen, copying senior managers.

The FDA issued the permits Kamara referenced outside the chain of custody system or LiberTrace. By law, the FDA must issue all permits within LiberTrace.

“No person shall import, transport, process, or export unless the timber is accurately enrolled in the chain of custody,” according to the National Forestry Reform Law.

A pivotal part of Liberia’s international timber trade, LiberTrace traces the sources of the logs to their final destinations. The computerized system checks the legality of timber, including contracts, transports and payments. LiberTrace’s permits contain barcodes, and companies acquire them on a shipment-by-shipment basis.  

Edward Kamara, FDA’s manager for forest product marketing and revenue forecast, is an architect of export permits awarded outside Liberia’s log-tracking system, whose funds are not remitted into the coffers of the government. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

From the ones published so far, the permits warn their holders to trade only timber from legal sources. William Pewu, the technical manager for the FDA’s commercial department, argued that the caveat was sufficient to deter any wrongdoing.

“This means a permit holder of such a category is acquiring forest products from companies already captured within the chain of custody (CoC) system and by extension LiberTrace.”

But the strategy has not worked. Holders of the documents have engaged in illegal logging activities, particularly in the last three years. The most infamous is the production of squared timber called “kpokolo.” Last month, Kamara said the FDA had banned kpokolo. However, it is yet to officially publish the ban.

The rise of illegal activities has not gone unnoticed by the outside world. Recently, the Associated Press reported Liberia may possess a “parallel” system for the export of illegal timbers. Citing diplomatic sources, the report said officials, including from the FDA, were colluding with illegal loggers to ship stolen timbers. It referenced a letter signed by Doryen permitting a shipment outside the legal system. A previous report quoted an international investigation that blamed the FDA for Liberia’s forestry violations.

This receipt shows Emmanuel Gongor of Tropical Wood Group of Investment paid the FDA US$226 to transport 113 pieces of kpokolo, also called block wood, on May 11, 2022. No records show the fees were paid into the government’s official coffers as mandated by law. FDA awarded Tropical Wood its permit in October 2017 which expired in October of the following year.

Another issue about the permits is that holders do not make payments to the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA). Instead, they pay in accounts at commercial banks, controlled by Doryen. Last year, The DayLight reported payments made by Liberian and Ivorian-owned businesses went into unofficial accounts.

Also, there are no records of payments for the transport of timbers related to the permit. They pay at checkpoints across the country against the Regulation on the Establishment of a Chain of Custody System. The DayLight has published some of the receipts of these illicit transactions known in forestry as waybills.

Kamara, however, claimed it was legal to award the permits outside LiberTrace. “Look into the [National Forestry Reform Law] of 2006 and see where the FDA gets its authority besides the general objectives and the mandates for which the Forestry Development Authority was established,” Kamara said. “We appreciate you all and we understand the anxiousness as we endeavor to satisfy our funding sources by running away with any story without understanding the rationale.”

Karmara and Pewu did not say why the FDA awarded the documents outside the system in the first place. They also did not answer questions about payments made into unofficial accounts. Kamara promised to respond at a later date but backtracked at a recent event in Grand Bassa County.

This story was produced by the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

Visit Gives Ambassadors Clues To Community Forestry Challenges

0

Top: A signboard at a logging company’s camp in the Gheebarn #1 Community Forest in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue


COMPOUND NUMBER TWO, Grand Bassa County – Five ambassadors organized an exchange among locals, a logging company and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) to get the gist of the challenges of community forestry. 

It took one and a half hours for the envoys from the European Union, Sweden, France, Germany and Ireland to get what they were looking for. Leaders of the Gheegbarn Community Forest and West Africa Development Incorporated (WAFDI)—and the FDA—presented a perfect picture of one of forestry’s most problematic contracts. Each of the three actors took open aims at one another, as they entertained questions from the ambassadors.

The ambassadors on the visit were Laurent Delahousse of the European Union, Urban Sjöström of Sweden, Jacob Haselhuber of Germany, Michael Roux of France, and Gerard Considine of Ireland. The spouses of the five men also graced the occasion.

Larry Tuning, a member of Gheegbarn’s community forest leadership, started with WAFDI’s unfulfilled required projects in their December 2018 agreement. He criticized the company for not paving farm-to-market roads, erecting schools clinics and handpumps, and underwriting the costs of quarterly meetings.  He, however, praised the company for meeting scholarship, land rental and log-harvesting payments.

Asked whether he would recommend commercial logging in community forestry, Tuning’s response was obvious. “It is hard for me to tell my friends to say ‘Get into it,’ because I [am] facing too many problems,” Tuning added as staff of WAFDI, sitting opposite looked on. “Instead of going into logging if had the support I would go into conservation.” Community forestry is a crucial part of Liberian forestry, giving rural communities the right to comanage their forests.

‘Let them go’

Tuning continued for several minutes, tearing into WAFDI on labor issues. He said the company had contravened a clause in their agreement, which mandates it to employ 60 percent of its workforce from the community. Dugbormar Kwekeh, another member of the community leadership buttressed his comments—and in a dramatic fashion, too.

(R-L) Urban Sjöström, Ambassador of Sweden; Jacob Haselhuber, Ambassador of Germany; Laurent Delahousse, Head of the European Union Delegation; Michael Roux, Ambassador of France; and Gerard Considine, Ambassador of Ireland. The five envoys listen to leaders of the Gheebarn #1 Community Forest in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa at an information and fact-finding tour of the west-central county on March 9, 2023. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

“They are just extracting our logs and there is nothing we are benefiting from,” Kwekeh said in Bassa through an interpreter. Gesturing as she went along, with an audible voice, she expressed frustration and fury. “The company came to subject us to poverty.  “Let them go from here. Another company can take us from poverty.”

Gualberto Ojo, a Filipino who represented WAFDI in the meeting, denied preventing locals from farming. In fact, he accused them of farming on a portion of the 26,363 hectares of forestland they contracted to the company in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County.  

“The company cannot stop the community people from farming; is not for us to say that it is the source of living,” said Ojo. “Most part of the forest is all farming activities, so because of this and other reasons the forest is not really productive.

Dugbormar Kwekeh, a member of Gheegbarn #1 Community Forest tells European envoys about challenges with commercial logging in that part of Liberia. On the far left is Larry Tuning, the secretary of the community forest. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Pit-sawing

Before responding to Kwekeh’s comments, Ojo took a well-timed swipe at Tuning, who is a chainsaw miller. Tuning’s mention of pit-sawing had led to indistinct muttering among FDA representatives at the meeting. Also called pit-sawing, chainsaw milling began after the Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003), and efforts to regulate the sub-sector have failed so far. It has wreaked havoc in forests across the country. Ojo, said, that included Gheegbarn #1.  

“Pit-sawing is one major challenge; it has taken over the forest,” Ojo said, who said he first spotted the illegal activities in 2020. He said WAFDI had told the FDA about it. “People are doing pit-sawing all in the forest now.” 

Human settlements and factors affecting the global logging industry were other issues, according to Ojo. A company representative said there were people from the neighboring Bong County living in the forest, and that the coronavirus and the ongoing U.S.-China trade war.  

“During that four years the market on round logs collapsed totally,” Ojo told the diplomats.

Workers of the West African Forest Development Investment (WAFDI) an information and fact-finding event organized by European ambassadors. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

‘We were like turtles’

Then entered the FDA, represented by Deputy Managing Director for Operations Joseph Tally and a host of top-level managers. There was an announcement from Weedor Gray, the technical manager of the community forestry department for periodic reports from communities. And more questions came.

“Have you ever come to the FDA to request for harvesting or export data?” Gertrude Nyaley, the technical manager for the legality verification department, asked Tuning. Nyaley’s rhetorical question was a response to Tuning’s earlier reply to an envoy about WAFDI’s production and export records. Tuning had said the community did not get the documents, and only accepted fees the company paid. Production records, in particular, are crucial in calculating harvesting payments, known in the industry as cubic meter fees.

Nyaley further pressed Tuning whether he and Gheegbarn’s leadership had informed the townspeople of a US$18,000 WAFDI paid. That question caused a stir among villagers at the event. Tuning encountered a rebuke from a local named Sylvester Williams, who had suggested community benefits were being misused. William disagreed with Tuning that the leadership supported villagers’ farming activities, bursting into a peal of frenzied laughter. Tuning said Williams was busy with his motorcycle taxi and was unaware of community matters. That pushed the community forestry drama to its highest peak. In a phone interview with The DayLight on Sunday, Tuning denied misapplying the fund, saying the leadership had already informed the community about the payment.

Tally, dressed in khaki uniform like all the managers of the FDA, thanked the European ambassadors for the event. “We were like turtles, and you put fire on our backs,” he said.

Joseph Tally, the deputy managing director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) speaks at the event. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue  

Tally’s comments were a reference to criticisms of the rise in forestry violations and the trade of illegal timber. Both the national and international media have published reports of logging wrongdoings, involving the FDA. It was a major issue at last month’s forest and climate forum, where Liberia reassured its commitment to combat illegal logging and climate change in its pursuit of climate financing.

But talking about the correction of past wrongdoings, Gheegbarn #1 was the right place for Tally and his team. Last year, a Ministry of Justice investigation found the FDA awarded WAFDI excess forest blocks. The report, seen by The DayLight, cut the deal between the company and the community from 15 to seven years. Several senior managers were replaced in the fallout of the scandal. The parties have signed a new agreement.

Conservation

Delahousse said the delegation had not come to condemn any of the actors. “This was not a trial of the company. This is a fact-finding information mission, and for us, it was very important to be here and to hear all the various stakeholders,” said Delahousse.

Delahousse said he learned that community forestry was “complicated,” a “bit of a bobble,” and lacked transparency. He urged communities to consider conservation programs instead. Of the dozens of community forests, only a few have a conservation management program. Others have scrapped it to accommodate mining.

“We need to work also on seeing how conservation can be an alternative for some communities,” Delahousse said.  “Maybe they can make more money from conservation.”

After the meeting, the ambassadors and their entourage toured a portion of Gheegbarn Community Forest with the FDA. The visit ended with a trip to the log yard of Kisvan in Buchanan, which operates in the Central Morweh Community Forest in River Cess.

Workers of WAFDI load logs into a container at the company’s log yard in Compound Number Two, Grand Bassa County in September 2022. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

 

Illegal Loggers Harvest ‘2,300’ Timbers in Gbarpolu Town

0

Top: A collage of pictures showing piles of squared timbers Sam Tomosiayah, an illegal logger, harvested in Darmo’s Town in Gbarpolu’s Bopolu District. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue


Editor’s Note: This story is a part of a series on an illegal logging activity commonly called “Kpokolo.”  

DARMO’S TOWN, Gbarpolu County – Nearly a dozen huge piles of heavy, squared timbers are covered with palm thatches on the side of a road that branches from the Suehn Mecca-Bopolu highway. More, smaller piles are scattered in the forest here.

The woods are actually the products of a logging agreement between a Liberian-Indian company named Raytech International and the people of Darmo’s Town in Gbarpolu’s Bopolu District.

But unlike in a legal logging deal, the company and community did not obtain any rights to sign the deal. The Forestry Development Authority (FDA)—at least—did not officially authorize it. It is part of an illicit logging operation called “kpokolo” that involves shaping the woods like boxes to fit neatly in containers and smuggled out of the country.

Called block wood by the FDA, kpokolo operation thrived in plain sight for years until an apparent ban on the illicit activity in the third quarter of last year. It had become one of the most common forestry violations, particularly in the last three or four years. It harnessed the tide of political neglect in rural communities, the legacies of failed logging contracts, and the ineffectiveness and involvement of the FDA.

In Darmo’s Town, it all started during the rainy season in 2021 when a man on a motorcycle visited the area. Sam Tumosiayah, an agent of Raytech, asked chiefs and elders to grant him access to the forest there. Tumosiayah had established the company in January of that year, according to its article of incorporation.

A pile of squared timbers Sam Tomosiayah, an illegal logger, harvested in Darmo’s Town in Gbarpolu’s Bopolu District. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

In exchange, Tumosiayah, a resident of Somalia Drive in Monrovia, promised the townspeople to repair a major bridge leading in the area among other things.

“Then they agreed to give the landowner their tolls directly. Even our town has received tolls,” said Mamadee Harris, a resident of Darmo’s Town, in an interview with The DayLight.

Peter Vah, the local manager of who Raytech, said the company paid villagers L$100 for each piece of kpokolo measuring six inches in height, 12 inches in width and seven feet in length (6X12X7).  He said the company had not discussed with locals about the 12X12X7 timbers it cut.

Vah said Raytech produced a total of 2,300 pieces of kpokolo in the one year and three months it has worked in Darmo’s Town. “The first batch of kpokolo we produced was 500 pieces and the next one 1,800,”  said Vah, who said his duties included finding trees and supervising the harvesting.  “Nothing has been sold. Some are in the bush, and others in Monrovia.” The DayLight could not independently verify Vah’s figures.

In a mobile interview with The DayLight, Tumosiayah lied that the company had only cut 150 kpokolo in Darmo’s Town. He then diverted from the issue after this reporter presented proof the newspaper had gathered on Raytech’s operation.

Sam Tumosiayah is a representative of Raytech, an illegal logging company that operates in Gbarpolu County.  Facebook/Sam Tumosiayah

Legal Documents

The FDA may have banned kpokolo operations in the third quarter of last year as pressure mounted on the agency to stamp out illegal logging, according to some of the illegal loggers and rangers at a number of FDA checkpoints. Kpokolo first appeared in the news in September last year.

Tumosiayah said he and other kpokolo loggers were appealing to the FDA to lift the ban to allow them to sell thousands of kpokolo left in various forests across the country. “Our business on the market is not going like before. We are catching some difficulties,” he said.  

Tumosiayah thinks his kpokolo operation is legal because his business is registered and pays taxes. “Some people are cheating and defrauding the Liberian government,” he said. “But if you have legal documents to do X,Y,Z, the government will say, ‘Yes, this is a Liberian person.’”

Tumosiayah’s thoughts are not backed by law, as a company needs more than an article of incorporation and a business registration certificate to do logging. It must show the capacity to do logging, sign a contract, conduct an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA), produce forest management plans, and obtain a harvesting certificate. There are also standards for harvest, export and communities’ benefits.

Kpokolo operators such as Raytech International, have harnessed the tide of neglect by successive Liberian governments of rural communities and the failed logging contracts across the country, coupled with the complicity of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) amid enormous forestry violations. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue  

That aside, there are other issues with Raytech’s papers that further expose its forestry violations.  Its article of incorporation only lists Savid Muhammed Kutty (40 percent) and Jilt Joseph (10 percent) as two of its three shareholders. The third shareholder, however, is omitted. Based on its tax-payment history, both men are foreign nationals but the company’s business registration certificate identifies it only as Liberian-owned. And Raytech amended its article of incorporation in Oct last year, according to the tax-payment record. Its new legal documents are not registered at the Liberia Business Registry as of last month and do not reflect the amendment. That is a violation of the Business Association Act, which requires firms to register changes to their legal papers.  

Between June 2, 2021 and January 25 this year, Raytech brought in nine foreign nationals into the country, three of them twice, according to the company’s tax payment records. It made no payments for work permits, despite showing Kutty, Joseph and three of their colleagues obtained non-ECOWAS resident permits at least once. The other three men are Sijomon Verghese, Manilal Sasi and Sinojin Augustine.

In Liberia, shareholding or beneficial ownership, work permit and resident status are crucial to things such as taxes, business rights and logging eligibility. Kutty did not return queries via WhatsApp for comments. Joseph said he was no longer a shareholder in the company, without providing any proof.

Piles of kpokolo Raytech harvested, like this one, are scattered in the forest in Darmo’s Town, Gbarpolu County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

In our phone interview, Tumusiayah claimed that he was Raytech’s majority shareholder and did not know of the omission. He further claimed that he had gone to the business registry to check the documents and would call The DayLight.  However, efforts to conduct an in-person interview with him did not succeed, and he did not return further calls.

The Managing Director of the FDA Mike Doryen did not reply to an emailed inquiry on the status of kpokolo operations countrywide. However, addressing delegates at a recent forest and climate change forum in Monrovia, Doryen blamed communities for widespread illegal activities. 

“These communities are undermining our efforts to deal with violations,” he said. “People go in the communities and take money from other people to harvest and transport timber to town, harvesting double-board foot outside what is required by law, it is illegal logging,” Doryen added.

While there is plenty of evidence that backs Doryen’s comments, the FDA itself has benefited from the unlawful activities. It collected fees from kpokolo operators for years but there are no records that they remitted them into the government’s coffers. An investigation by The DayLight last month revealed a number of receipts the FDA issued an illegal logger in Ganta, Nimba County. They matched other kpokolo receipts obtained so far. Doryen did not respond to a list of questions at the time.

Violations, Community Benefits Dominate Forest Forum

0

Top: A drone shot of a log yard in Greenville, Sinoe County. The DayLight/Derick Snyder


By Mark B. Newa


MONROVIA – Forestry violations and delayed payments of benefits to logging-affected communities were the major issues at the just-ended forest conference hosted by the Liberian government.  

The “Forest and Climate Resilience Forum” was expected to reassess the commitment of the Liberian government and the international community to the protection of the country’s rainforest, the largest in the west African region.

The event came on the backdrop of reports of widespread irregularities and impunity in Liberia’s forestry sector. Associated Press recently reported that President George Weah ignored calls from foreign partners to tackle illegalities in the forestry sector.

“Current situation in Liberia`s forest sector is worrying,” said Laurent Delahousse, the head of the European Union (EU) Delegation, at the close of the event over the weekend. “It is characterized by [……] too short rotations, by the lack of proper forest management plans, and by illegal logging, which are real threats to forest regeneration and which affect the commercial and the global value of the forest,” Delahousse added.

On Thursday, the first day of the conference, more than 20 international nongovernmental organizations said the Liberian government was failing to control the illegal logging and undermining the systems in place to control it. They come from China, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Belgium and Finland.

“We call on the government of Liberia to ensure all timber exports go through the LiberTrace, the traceability system, and to close down all existing routes for laundering illegally sourced timber,” the group said in a joint statement.

The Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) Mike Doryen brushed off criticisms, promising to grant access to public information. He blamed communities for the situation.  

“Illegal logging activities usually begin with forest communities. These communities are undermining our efforts to deal with violations,” Doryen said.

“People go in the communities and take money from other people to harvest and transport timber to town… outside what is required law, it is illegal logging,” Doryen added. He, however, promised to set up a task force to monitor and regulate unlawful activities in the forestry sector.

Communities’ Benefits

There were a lot of concerns about communities’ benefits during the two days of the event.

European Union Head of Delegation Laurent Delahousse flags illegalities in Liberia’s forest sector during the Forest and Climate Resilience Conference. Photo credit: Mark B. Newa/The DayLight

By law, communities hosting large-scale logging concessions and former small-scale ones set aside exclusively for Liberians, are entitled to 30 percent of the land rental fees companies pay. But this is not the case. The government, which receives the payments, owes communities US$6.6 million. 

Outside the hall at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Ministerial Complex, where the event took place, people from those affected communities protested. The protesters carried placards with inscriptions: “Pro-poor for the poor but not against the poor,” “Government of Liberia pays our land rental fees and the forestry law is clear on community benefits, among others.”

“This money is not forthcoming, with at least over US$6 million still outstanding. The little money that has come through was [either] late or meddled in corruption,” said Loretha Pope-Kai the chairperson of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, the largest conglomerate of pressure groups in the country.

“Our forest communities live on the forest for their cultural, social, economic, and all other needs. Forests are therefore key to all considerations of Liberia’s… future,” Pope-Kai added, receiving huge applause.  

National Benefit Sharing Trust (NBST), a watchdog that oversees communities benefits,  said the delayed payment made it difficult for the group to function. It is largely funded by payments communities get. It has spent US$1.8 million on 53 projects nationwide, it reported last year.

“Funding gap is undermining the long-term sustainability of the NBST,” Kollie said.

The theme of the two-day forum was “Catalyze renewed commitments and strengthen partnerships in sustainable forest management as key strategies supporting the Government of Liberia’s Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD).”

Podcasts