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Undercover Investigation Reveals Illegal Logger’s Criminal Acts    

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Top: A poster showing the illegal logging activities by Michael Feika in Totoquelleh, Gbarpolu County. The DayLight/Rebazar Forte


By James Harding Giahyue


TOTOQUELLEH, Gbarpolu County – “If [it is a] container, I give you my price. You buy it from me in the bush,” Michael Feika, an illegal logger, told his new client.

Feika is a broker of kpokolo, squared, compact timber whose trade the government “banned” just over a year ago but has reemerged, with authorities yet to act.

Feika shared several of his past and present operations with Joemue Wortee when they met in Paynesville on March 8. The pictures were equally revealing as Feika’s verbal pitch to Wortee, the assumed client.

“I will bring [the kpokolo] to town. It is only left with you to pay me because I got the document,” Feika said as he tried to convince Wortee of a deal.

“This thing [is] my business from day one.”

In his late 30s and with a Sierra Leonean accent, Feika sent Wortee to his network in Totoquelleh in the Bopolu District of Gbarpolu County.  There, Wortee saw Feika’s setup—production sites, an earthmover, timber and a gang of chainsaw millers and haulers.

But Wortee was no businessman.  He was an undercover reporter whose mission was to uncover Feika’s illegal logging activities. The reporter’s mission set off as evidence of fresh kpokolo activities began in the western countryside.

The DayLight used undercover techniques because it appeared impossible that Feika would submit to an open probe, particularly after our previous report on the return of kpokolo. Also, such investigation in a forest best guaranteed the reporter’s safety.

‘Mikelo’

The DayLight’s undercover reporter under his assumed name traveled to Totoquelleh, some 62 miles north of Monrovia.

Michael Feika, aliased Mikelo, a prolific kpokolo logger, poses near a tree he just felled. Photo credit Michael Feika

When the reporter arrived at the destination, Feika had already informed a member of his network about the assumed businessman’s mission. The undercover reporter did not know this so, he went asking the townspeople for the teenage member named only as Morris.

Just as Feika had said, everyone the reporter asked in Totoquelleh said they knew Feika and his operations. The people call him Mikelo, a play on the words “Michael” and “Kpokolo.”

Feika and Morris live in a mud hut from where the former serves as the ringleader for their wood trafficking network of over 20 operators. At times he hosts Sierra Leonean illegal loggers for months in Totoquelleh. Feika claims that he hails from Margibi County but his Facebook account lists Freetown as his home city. Other Feikas listed as his friends on Facebook also come from Sierra Leone. This means Feika is not even qualified to conduct small-scale logging activities in Liberia, set aside for only Liberians.

The undercover reporter went to Feika’s house in search of Morris. That search took him to the home of Abadulai Fofana, another kpokolo producer in the forest-enveloped community. It was here the reporter met Morris.

Up: Fresh kpokolo Michael Feika harvested in few months ago. Here: Old kpokolo Feika harvested in 2022. The DayLight/Esau Farr

The short, black teenager, who is also a motorcycle taxi driver, then took the undercover reporter on a guided tour of Feika’s kpokolo world.

As they took a footpath leading to a farm, Morris told the undercover reporter that they produced a lot of kpokolo in 2022. Their production has slowed down in the last two years and they only produce when a customer approaches them.

As they walked deeper, the undercover reporter saw some abandoned kpokolo on the floor of the dried, dim wooded area. Morris disclosed that it was one of the many locations where Feika worked.

Morris’ comments corroborated Feika’s account and that of the picture he shared with the reporter in Paynesville. Feika had said that he harvested the wood in 2022 but backed off after the supposed ban.

Feika’s new worksites in the pictures were too far for the reporter to venture even for a client. The reporter and Morris decided to head back to the town.

Nevertheless, the pictures already took the undercover reporter to Feika’s new locations. They show piles of kpokolo in the forest, felled logs waiting to be milled, targeted trees for harvesting and timber at a portable sawmill.  One particular picture showed Feika posing for a picture next to another felled tree.  

Logs cut by Michael Feika. Photo credit: Michael Feika

“The ones standing there, I [cut] one down before I could come to Monrovia,” Feika said back in Paynesville, referring to a gigantic tree. “This one is Iroko the white one,” he added, citing a first-class tree species scientifically known as Milicia excelsa, which kpokolo traffickers prefer.   

‘It is easy’

About a 10-minute into their journey back to Totoquelleh, the reporter and Morris saw a score of 12-inch kpokolo that Fofana, Feika’s competitor, harvested.

Not far, lay five others in the middle of a dirt road close to the K.J. Village.  The kpokolo appeared to have fallen off the vehicle transferring them from the forest. Tire impressions show clearly in the sunbaked mud.  

Fofana had disclosed he kept more kpokolo in their conversation before the undercover reporter met Morris.

“The sizes are 50X50, 40X40 and 30X30,” Fofana said at the time. He meant the timber’s dimensions range from 30 to 50 inches in thickness, up to 25 times the authorized size.

“It was produced last month,” Fofana added. 

“When somebody [has a] contract for me, I can do it. That business is a contract. It can come and we discuss it before we do it.” Fofana’s comments had confirmed Feika’s suspicion that other kpokolo operators in Totoquelleh would try to snatch the assumed businessman.

The leftover of a tree harvested by illegal loggers somewhere in Liberia. Photo credit: Michael Feika

Upon his return to Totoquelleh from his Morris-guided tour, the undercover reporter photographed an excavator parked near a truck in an open field.

“You see that car over there,” Fofana said, pointing to the excavator. “It is the one that can hook [the kpokolo and put them in the container].”

‘Not small money’

Thankfully, the pictures Feika shared with the undercover reporter show the entire container-packaging process. Several pictures show the wood being measured with a tape rule. One shows a crane shoving kpokolo into a container, while another reveals two men sealing it up.

“Some of the containers allow eight, 14, 16 and 20 pieces of wood to go in, depending on the sizes of the wood,” Feika said back in Paynesville. He revealed the kpokolo measuring three inches and four-and-a-half inches were the ones now in demand.

Feika said he had stopped producing larger kpokolo due to the ban but was open to cutting them once he got the right offer. “If you want [them]…, it is not small money you will spend,” he said.  

The prices for a container filled with kpokolo are based on the class of the wood. Prices range from US$7,000 to US$12,000, including transportation to Monrovia, according to Feika. Feika’s favorite first-class species apart from Iroko are Afzelia (Afzelia spp), Ekki (Lophira alata), Lovoa (Lovoa trichilioides) and Niangon ( Heritiera utilis). These species are expensive and produce hardwood used for shipbuilding, railroad ties and outdoor construction.

If a client wants just one container, they must pay Feika at least half of their negotiated amount. If the client wants multiple containers, they pay for at least one container upfront.  However, the client must pay the FDA US1,200 for an annual export permit, US$1,000 for the paper and the balance for paperwork, Feika said. Those figures are the same as the ones on the kpokolo permit the FDA issued before the so-called ban.  

Once the container is filled and sealed, Feika makes phone calls to FDA rangers posted on the Bopolu-Monrovia highway via Klay. Feika would not share the rangers’ contact or say their names.

“When I reach the checkpoint, I will say, ‘Yes, I am the one [who has] the wood. Everybody knows me because I have a document from the FDA with a license number assigned to me. I will give them my container serial number and they check it and we pass.”

But Feika warned against double-crossing him to deal with rangers directly. He recounted the story of two Korean illegal loggers, the police commander and other accomplices who were arrested in Klay, Bomi County.

“If the [authorities arrest] you, you are finished because some FDA [agents] will tell you, ‘Come, I will carry [them] for you.’ If you depend on them, you will lose,” Feika said.

Ironically, Feika did not know he was speaking to a reporter of the newspaper that exposed the syndicate. The DayLight would go on to assist a police investigation that led to the men’s arrest and the dismissal of the police commander and an FDA ranger.

Feika’s contacts and influence do not extend to the Freeport of Monrovia but he offered some valuable information. Smugglers must acquire an export permit and find a customs broker at the Freeport of Monrovia to help export the timber. It costs US$1,200 to obtain the export permit certificate from the FDA—US$1,000 for the permit and the balance to secure the document.

Two illegal loggers closing a container. Photo credit: Michael Feika

Once they obtain the permit, they will have to pay the container’s owner US$200 per container and  US$100 for each truck to transport them.

“Forget the shipment of the wood,” Feika reassured. “Once you get money, it is easy.”

His disclosure was not news to the undercover reporter. After all, The DayLight has published illegal permits, receipts and claims by kpokolo exporters in previous investigations. Those publications also revealed the mode of the illegal trade and its ringleaders.

Faika advised his presumed client to ship the wood to Turkey or Germany. “If it is Germany, I will be happy,” he said, “because I have some of my friends in Germany.”


This was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ). Funding for the story was provided by the Kyeema Foundation and Palladium.

Kpokolo: Illegal Logging Returns Despite ‘Ban’

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Top: New pieces of kpokolo in Gbaryama, Gbarpolu County. The DayLight/Gabriel Parker


By Esau J. Farr and Philip W. Quwebin


GBARYAMA – People in Gbarpolu are secretly harvesting Kpokolo, a boxlike timber the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) said it banned last year.

In late January, The DayLight photographed newly produced kpokolo in Gbaryama, a town in the Gbarma District about 79 miles from Monrovia. Hundreds of fresh kpokolo were placed on an open field just outside the town.

Townspeople revealed smugglers, who reside outside of the town, hired a gang of chainsaw operators to harvest kpokolo. Once harvested, the woods are transferred by a crane to a pickup, which then brings them to a location. Thereafter, they are loaded onto a container truck at night.

“They can hide it and take it away at night so, people can’t easily see them in the day,” Armah Dukuly, the Town Chief of Gbaryama Town. “We don’t get that power to stop them.”

More than three weeks later, The DayLight revisited Gbaryama and found that the kpokolo had been taken away. Journalists photographed tire impressions matching the description of a truck on the now-cleared field. About 14 pieces of the illegal wood remained there. The illegal loggers had transported the rest.

There were other kpokolo in the forest. DayLight journalists took a 15-minute ride from Gbaryama on a motorcycle taxi to a forest footpath leading into the woods.

In the forest, reporters saw short round logs that were meant to produce kpokolo. Timber remnants could be seen on the floor of the forest. Loud vroom noise from at least four chainsaws buzzed at different locations.  

Dukuly and other chiefs and elders told The DayLight the four men negotiate with farmers in Gbaryama, enter into a verbal agreement and start the harvesting. They said the operators pay the farmers up to L$550 for a piece of kpokolo, corroborating previous reports of locals’ involvement in the illegal trade.

People said the illegal loggers built tents made of tarpaulins in the forest to conduct their operations.

“Most of the time, they are in the forest.],” said Varsay Sirleaf, one of the oldest persons in Gbaryama Sirleaf.

A recent report by the US-based Forest Trends found that kpokolo threatens local communities, chainsaw millers and Liberia’s revenue. It uses the chainsaw milling subindustry to veil its activities, using the same workforce and timber sources, the report said.

But the difference between them is stark. Chainsaw-milled timber measures two inches and below, while Kpokolo can be up to five times thicker, or more. 

A few kpokolo remained in an open field more than three weeks after The DayLight photographed piles of kpokolo there. The DayLight/Esau J. Farr

The kpokolo in Gbaryama were between two and four times the industry-accepted size of chainsaw-milled timber. The ones on the opened field were about six inches thick, based remaining ones there.

‘I felled few’

Four men conduct the kpokolo activities in Gbaryama, three of which The DayLight had previously investigated. The men are Saah Joseph (not the Montserrado lawmaker), one only identified as Sahyo, James Kelley and Richard Flomo.

Joseph has harvested kpokolo in Gbaryama for over two years, according to elders and chainsaw millers. Dukuly said Joseph recently resumed his kpokolo operations in the town after negotiating with some farmers.

The DayLight gathered evidence of Joseph’s illegal activities in December 2022. Locals said a pile of kpokolo in the middle of the town and the forest belonged to him.

“I think he has some in the bush and he is supposed to come for it,” said Molubah Korlubah, a kpokolo logger, who said he worked for Joseph in 2022.  

“The FDA people don’t come here. They focus on the gate,” Korlubah added.

Sahyo is a more conning operator than Korlubah, the evidence suggests. Originally from a town called Supermarket in Bopolu District, Sahyo harvests kpokolo even without the consent of farmers. Dukuly said he had had an encounter with him the night before The DayLight’s third of four visits to the town.  

“I asked him how he entered there to [harvest] kpokolo. And he only said, ‘I entered there, I saw kpokolo and myself [harvested] the logs…. I felled few.’

“Then I asked him, ‘Who [did] you ask?’”

“I stopped him,” Dukuly added.

Morris Kamara, a resident farmer, confirmed Dukuly’s account of Sahyo.

“This year, Sahyo [harvested] in my forest and produced kpokolo there and left,” Kamara revealed. “They have already transported it out of the forest to Monrovia.

“He is presently in another person’s forest producing but I don’t know where.”

Efforts to contact Sahyo and Joseph on their kpokolo operations were unsuccessful. Everyone The DayLight interviewed in Gbaryama said they did not have the duo’s contacts. Follow-up phone calls to other townspeople yielded no other results.

‘From one forest to another’

There were indications Kelley and Flomo were bigger operatives and more familiar with Gbaryama than Joseph and Sahyo.

Kpokolo townspeople said owned by Saah Joseph (not the Montserrado lawmaker) were seen in plain sight in Gbaryama in December 2022.  The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Kelley lodged in a house in the town, where The DayLight interviewed him in December 2022. A middle-aged, light-skinned man, Kelley has been in Gbaryama since September that year, he said at the time.

Dukuly said Kelley asked him recently to harvest kpokolo on his farmland but he disagreed. Kamara and Moses Thompson, another elder, corroborated Dukuly’s account.

“Kelley is here among the [kpokolo operators] but I don’t know whose forest he is working in. They move from one forest to another in search of more woods,” Thompson added.

Kelley’s phone number did not ring when The DayLight tried to contact him. However, in that 2022 interview, he revealed that he had been involved with kpokolo since 2014. He produced kpokolo in Buchanan before coming to Gbaryama.

“Here in Gbaryama, our dimensions were 4X12X9.5 and 4X10X9.5,” Kelley said back in 2022.  He meant four inches thick, 10 or 12 inches wide and nine and a half feet long.

But of all the kpokolo operators in Gbaryama, Flomo appeared to be the kingpin. Every farmer or resident The DayLight interviewed said they knew him. Even Kelley said in that 2022 interview Richard was his boss.

Dukuly said he called Flomo recently and informed him to halt the kpokolo operation but his order fell on deaf ears.

“He said, ‘Oh Chief, that one I just want y’all to give us a chance.’

“I said no. If I see it, you will lose it,’” Dukuly said. He added that Flomo tried to convince that it was the kpokolo operators that risked an arrest, not the townspeople.

Korlubah, the chainsaw miller, said he had harvested a container load of kpokolo for Richard in 2022. “There were 250 pieces of Kpokolo, 4X12 and 4X10,” Korlubah said then, confirming Kelley’s story.

“I worked for him in November. He paid me one piece for LD500.”

People said Flomo combed the region in this pickup in search of forest to produce kpokolo. They said it was he who introduced kpokolo to Gbaryama.

Efforts to contact Flomo did not materialize. No one in Gbaryama said they had his contact and Kelley had refused to share it back in 2022.

Molubah Korlubah, a kpokolo producer in Gbaryama, said he worked for Richard Flomo a kpokolo smuggler. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

‘There is no ban’

In February last year, said it had banned kpokolo. The unofficial pronouncement followed months of reports of widespread kpokolo activities involving the regulator.

Edward Kamara, the FDA manager for forest marketing and revenue forecast said kpokolo had become “prone to illegal exportation.”

The FDA has not published the ban or made awareness of it, except to discuss it in a meeting on Liberia’s timber trade agreement with the European Union last June. Forest Trends called on the Joseph Boakai administration to officiate, publicize and enforce the ban on kpokolo.   

In Gbaryama, people are aware of the so-called ban but chiefs and elders find it difficult to keep the ban.

“If you ban kpokolo in someone’s forest, the forest owner will get vexed [at] you. That person will feel that you want to stop their family’s income,” said Dukuly.

Morris Kamara, the Gbaryama resident, blames the FDA for the illegal activities. “We are getting that information [about banning kpokolo] as rumors. I believe if the FDA banned kpokolo, they could not allow kpokolo to pass [through] their checkpoints.

The FDA has major checkpoints on Bopolu-Monrovia and Tubmanburg-Monrovia highways. There is one each at Sawmill, not far from Gbaryama, and Klay in Bomi—to name two.

“If the people [are] still passing with kpokolo, then it means that [there is no ban] on kpokolo,” Kamara said.

The FDA did not respond immediately to comments. The DayLight will update this story once it does.


[Additional reporting by Gabriel Parker]

This was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ). Funding for the story was provided by the Kyeema Foundation and Palladium.

Sierra Leoneans Conduct Illegal Logging in Nimba

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Top: A graphic depicting an illegal logging operation conducted by a group of six Sierra Leonean loggers for a Liberian company called Libfor Forest Corporation. The DayLight/Rebazar Forte


By Mark B. Newa


KARNPLAY –  A  group of Sierra Leoneans, hired by a Liberian businessman, are conducting an illegal logging operation in a forest in Nimba County, according to documents, interviews and photographs.

With the help of locals, the operations are producing thick timber near the Ivory Coast border in Karnplay, Gbelay-Geh District.   

The Sierra Leoneans’ operations violate the Chainsaw Milling Regulation, which bars non-Liberians from working in the subsector, evidence shows. Their products go against the standard measurement for planks, matching a form of logging recently banned by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA).

From Bo to Nimba

In early May, a representative of Libfor Forest Corporation, met  Aruna Kamara, Bobson Lusainy, Philip Sungu, Sorie Bangura and two other men in the Sierra Leonean eastern province of Bo. The representative asked them to travel to Liberia and serve as chainsaw operators of Libfor, a small-scale logging company established in 2021.

By May 30, the six men headed to the Liberian border at Bo Waterside. There, the company’s representative arranged for emergency travel certificates for the men, according to the documents seen by The DayLight. 

Not long after, the men found themselves in Ganta, some 303 miles away from home. They signed a contract. Tejan Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean who works for Libfor, signed for the company, while Sungu signed for the men.

They agreed to harvest timber, with a payment of L$600 per piece, according to their contract, obtained by The DayLight.   

Two of the Sierra Leonean pitsaw operators, Aruna Kamara, Borbor Lusainy caught on the reporter’s camera in Gbehnehylay, near the Ivory Coast border. TheDayLight/Mark B. Newa

The six men were then transported to Trorplay, a village in the Gbeh-Somah Clan, Gborplay Chiefdom.

They cut down trees on the farms of individual farmers between L$1,500 and L$3,000. They have already harvested 460 planks, according to Kamara, the oldest of the men.  

“We hauled some on the road and the rest are in the bush,” Kamara, the oldest of the six men, told The DayLight in an interview.

‘Kpokolo’

Our reporter photographed stacks of the illegal timber by roadsides and in several other locations. They match the profile of Iroko, a durable wood species used for shipbuilding, furniture and outdoor construction. Currently, it is selling up to US$390 on the international market.

Community leaders are unhappy with the loggers for three reasons. First, they think the Sierra Leoneans are buying the trees too cheaply. Second, they feared that cutting the trees would make their community vulnerable to rainstorms. Locals use the Iroko trees for herbs.  

“The tree can protect our towns and villages from strong wind. Iroko is a very strong wood and it also has a kind of value for traditional herbs,” said Anthony Wopleh, a farmer in Trorplay.

   

Over 100 pieces of Iroko timber risked shrinking in the sun in Trorplay where the Sierra Leonean loggers are stationed. The DayLight/Mark B. Newa
Some pieces of sewn Iroko packed near the road between Trorplay and Gbehnehylay in Twa River Administrative District in Gbehlay-Geh, near the Ivory Coast border. TheDayLight/Mark B. Newa

“This is a tree that our people use to heal sicknesses like rheumatism and it is very helpful in treating other diseases,” Wopleh added.

“Cutting down the trees and carrying them like that, [with] nothing remaining here for our community is not good. Look at our roads, from here to Karnplay is so bad,” said Samson Zreakpa, a chief in the Gbeh-Somah Clan.

Local chainsaw millers are also upset with the Sierra Leoneans for “undermining” their efforts. “The guys have infringed on our movement and they have entered into the bush, telling our people negative things,” said Emmanuel Gongor, who ran illegal operations in the region exposed earlier this year by The DayLight.

Amara Fofana, the sole owner of Libfor, based on its article of incorporation, denies the allegations. “My power saws are registered with the local chainsaw union, and they know me good,” Fofana told The DayLight via phone.

‘I cannot fight the government’  

The accusations against the Sierra Leoneans may be true or not but the illegality of their operations is obvious.  Under the Chainsaw Milling Regulation, non-Liberians are debarred from making planks. The subsector, started by ex-combatants following the end of Liberia’s bloody civil wars in 2003, is primarily meant to supply the domestic market and provide jobs for Liberians.   

Also, Libfor does not have a chainsaw milling permit and the farmers who are selling to Sierra Leoneans do not have the authorization to do so. However, that level of violation is commonplace in the subindustry. Apart from imposing fees on chainsaw millers, the FDA has failed to regulate the lucrative trade in its 20 years of existence.

Moreover, the size of the wood the Sierra Leoneans are producing is prohibited. Normally, the FDA allows only up to two-inch-thick planks in the subindustry, and not three-inch.

Sorie Bangura, spokesperson for the Sierra Leonean chainsaw operators stands before piles of Iroko sprawling on the sun in Trorplay, the village where they are stationed. TheDayLight/Mark B. Newa

Over the last decade or so, the FDA secretly sanctioned the production of oversized timber, commonly called “Kpokolo.” In February, the agency announced it had “banned” kpokolo, following a series of reports by The DayLight. The agency admitted it had permitted kpokolo producers to supply sawmills across the country but that permit was abused.

In the phone interview, Fofana said he was harvesting Iroko to make furniture at his own sawmill. He said he expected some machines soon.

“I want to make furniture in Caldwell to compete with the Lebanese businessmen in Monrovia,” Fofana, said via phone, revealing he had 20 chainsaws in the Nimba belt.

Fafona added that he had hired Sierra Leoneans because he could not find any Liberian to do the work. Later, he claimed that Liberians were lazy, dishonest and counterproductive to his company’s vision.

“There are no good operators in Liberia,” Fofana claimed. “This is why somebody brought me those guys to work for me.”

Over the debarment of non-Liberians, Fofana argued that the ECOWAS protocol empowered the Sierra Leoneans to work anywhere in Liberia.   

That claim is wrong. People from ECOWAS countries are entitled to a 90-day stay in Liberia. However, they are not allowed to work without a residence permit, according to the Aliens and Naturalization Law. If they work without residence permits—as in the case of the Sierra Leoneans—they violate the law. In fact, the Sierra Leoneans should have obtained work permits before felling their first tree, according to the Decent Work Act.

The Emergency Travel Certificate bearing the name, Philip Sungu, a farmer from Sembehun Selinda in Bo District, Sierra Leone. TheDayLight/Mark B. Newa
The signature page of the contract between six Sierra Leonean chainsaw operators and a Liberian-owned company called Libfor Forest Corporation. The DayLight/Mark B. Newa

Apparently conceding, Fofana said he would send the men to Gormahplay in the Bu-Yao District, toward the Ivory Coast border at Butuo.

Further in the interview, Fofana lied that he was not aware his Sierra Leonean workers were harvesting oversized planks. However, The contract his company signed with the Sierra Leoneans exposed him. It clearly obligates the men to harvest timber measuring three inches in thickness, 13 inches in width and 15 feet in length.

Told of the clause of the contract that speaks about the height of the wood, Fofana conceded.

“Actually, I do not know that one,” he told our reporter. “When the wood is above the size required by law, I will reduce it because I cannot fight the government.”  

It was easier for Fofana to have said those words than it is done in forestry. Illegal timber harvest is punishable by a fine of three times the industry’s price of the wood and the total cubic meter of the wood in question. Violators could also face a six-month prison term or both fine and imprisonment, according to the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products.


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

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